Can South Korea’s Pop Superstars Sell Everything?

Blackpink, in an ad for Samsung | Photo: Samsung

Fast food and a soft drink. It’s a standard takeaway order worldwide. This summer in South East Asia, this prosaic combo was sprinkled with pop stardust. Korean style.

The world’s biggest boy and girl bands, BTS and Blackpink, contracted their immense selling power to two of the planet’s largest brands, McDonald’s and Pepsi. Two campaigns for fried chicken meals and a low-sugar soda supercharged sales and social media engagement from Kuala Lumpur to Manila to Hanoi.

The response to the BTS-McDonald’s tie-up was dramatic. “When two giants collide, chaos ensues,” noted Campaign Asia. In Indonesia, surging demand saw some outlets temporarily postpone orders. “Don’t overcrowd. There’s enough BTS meals for everyone,” McDonald’s in Malaysia pleaded on social media. 

Meanwhile, TV stations region-wide replayed Blackpink’s Pepsi Black ads for weeks, with the tagline “No sugar, no regrets” adapted in different markets. In Malaysia, for example, it became, “Rasa Hebat, Tanpa Kalori” – great taste, no calories.

Blackpink's Pepsi cans | Photo: Pepsi

The promotional results confirmed two trends. Firstly, the power in brand communications resides with visual content leaders. Secondly, star power often trumps innovation. Neither McDonald’s nor Pepsi launched dazzling new products. Instead, they repackaged standard offerings and bathed in the marketing glitz that is K-Pop.

Confirming why McDonald’s chose BTS, the Chief Marketing Officer for Malaysia, said simply: “This band is truly a global phenomenon with a fanbase that knows no borders.”

Pepsi, which hired Blackpink as its Asia Pacific brand ambassadors, was equally concise. "Blackpink perpetuates a uniquely youthful attitude and zest for life [that] inspires fans to emulate their idols”.

The Making of Megastars

It's hard to overstate how popular each band is in South East Asia. For aspirational young consumers, BTS and Blackpink embody the intrinsic sense of desire fortifying the Korean Wave of TV, beauty and pop culture. A beguiling mix of glamour, celebrity and sex appeal ensures idolatry. The illusory world of social media assumes they are personally accessible. This powerful mix makes them coveted influencers for blue-chip brands.

None of this occurred by chance. The formulas for global pop domination were created by two ambitious Seoul talent agencies.

BTS was formed and fast-tracked by Big Hit Entertainment, whose website boasts of “unmatched structured training” for new artists. Although promoted by YG Entertainment as Korean stars, Blackpink’s members share diverse backgrounds, including New Zealand. The agency candidly says it “trains artists to lead the global market.”

Blackpink, above, even have some Kiwi connections | Photo: Zoom TV Entertainment

The commercial minds behind both bands produce and sell regularly refreshed lines of merchandise, special edition videos and playlists, which keep them top-of-mind while global tours are impossible. BTS has taken this further by opening pop-up concept stores selling themed lifestyle products in prime city locations in Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines and Thailand. 

And of course, band members adroitly switch into brand ambassadorial mode. Much of their appeal to brands resides in their media ubiquity, and the multiple roles the fulfil for their fans.

As Vogue Business recently stated: “K-pop singers won’t just wear brands on the red carpet but in a plethora of other ways, from making music, doing TV shows and filming movies to dancing and modelling.” 

Taking K-Pop Onto a Grander Stage

Although their early successes were gleaned in Asia, both management teams targeted the US. Being able to sing and rap in English therefore proved a vital, and lucrative, skillset.

Blackpink has enjoyed musical collaborations with A-List female performers, such as Lady Gaga, Selena Gomez, Cardi B and Dua Lipa. These guaranteed regular radio play and video streaming, and showcased their Korean brand of sassy rap-pop to new fan bases. Concert performances burnished Blackpink’s reputation. In 2019, the band’s debut at the Coachella festival was live-streamed by YouTube on a giant screen in New York’s Times Square.

Blackpink’s contract with smartphone maker Samsung spawned media stories that they refused selfies with fans carrying an Apple phone. This resulted in images of concert fans customising their iPhones to resemble a Samsung model. As their international acclaim broadened, the Korean cosmetics they endorse flew off the shelves, and their personal profiles band skyrocketed. Band members now model for, among others, Dior, Chanel and Celine.

Eight years into their career, Grammy-nominated BTS view the US as a secure domain. It achieved five Billboard chart-toppers faster than any band since the Beatles. Almost one million people in 191 countries paid to view two virtual concerts from Seoul last year. In May 2021, their star power was polished by a cameo in the Friends: The Reunion TV show.

Having built their brand stature, frequent stylistic reinvention is needed to sustain it. Both bands are famed for their bold fashions, haircuts and postures which identify them as individual idols, as well as fashion collectives.

In the case of BTS, gender-fluid eye and lip colorings and a CGI-like androgyny attain a rare unisex appeal. This has earned lucrative contracts with skincare and fashion brands. The boys recently starred in Louis Vuitton’s sumptuous Fall/Winter collection video show filmed at Art Bunker B39 near Seoul.

BTS is one of the biggest boy bands in the world right now | Photo: Wikimedia

As a priceless national asset, BTS is also the face of tourism for the Korean capital Seoul, and features in promotions by the Korea Tourism Organisation. Provinces nation-wide create self-guided tours inspired by the beaches and beauty spots captured in BTS videos.

Band Unity vs Individual Temptations

The BTS ‘Army’ and Blackpink ‘Blinks’ fans in South East Asia are undeniably youthful. So is their commercial success the outcome of Gen Z social media obsessions, TikTok dance challenges and a desire to “shine on stage” like their idols?

Largely, but not wholly.

While the brand universe is segmenting between those who can recite the member names of BTS (RM, Jin, Suga, J-Hope, Jimin, V, and Jung Kook) and Blackpink (Jennie, Lisa, Rosé and Jisoo) and those who can’t, their appeal is more cross-cutting than it may appear.

Beyond social media, BTS and Blackpink are content generation machines. In recent weeks, BTS featured in publications ranging from National Geographic, Reuters and CNN to The Jakarta Post, Hindustan Times, and Travel Weekly Asia. None of those titles explicitly targets a Gen Z readership. Pepsi and McDonald’s also enjoy diverse customer bases.

That said, their burgeoning associations with luxury fashion houses is resonating with Gen Z’s across Asian – especially China, the region’s largest and toughest consumer market.

The international brand success scored by BTS and Blackpink is unprecedented for Asian stars. And while the relentless marketing drives will continue, future pathways are less clear.

Longevity concerns exist, particularly given the challenges that superstardom creates. K-Pop’s production line is littered with burned out stars who once shone brightly. Band members are subject to constant social media scrutiny and press intrusion. They must diet strictly, train constantly and eschew personal relationships. The emotional strain is intense.

This theme was analysed by Korean American documentary maker Joi Lee, in her new series Deciphering South Korea. “K-Pop has given Koreans so much pride in their nation’s creativity and musical talent. But I am concerned about how much this industry requires from the people who keep it running,” she says.

Plus, the oft-touted band unity concept is entering a notoriously tricky phase: solo projects. Individual enticements have proved thorny for popular bands ranging from the Jackson Five and The Supremes to NSYNC, Destiny’s Child, the Spice Girls and One Direction.

Those groups were, of course, forged in the western hemisphere. The pressures and rewards are different in today’s hyper-networked, brand-centric world.

With the ascension from pop band to global brand crystallising, time will tell whether any, or all, of these 11 young Koreans is able to redraft the rules of superstardom.

- Asia Media Centre