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In-depth: Are K-Pop collaborations really going to be the next big thing for brands?

As Korean culture has gained immense popularity over the past decade and artists like BTS, Blackpink, EXO, etc. have struck a chord with brands in terms of fashion, lifestyle and art, industry players view this as not just a trend, but as the rising of a new sub-culture of the pop genre in the country

Korean popular, aka K-pop, is a genre that has surged as the new black in the modern world and several brands have ended up having multiple collaborations with Korean artists. Industry players have highlighted that K-pop collaborations are not just a trend that brands are picking up but is here to stay for the long run.

Both Indian and international brands, including food and beverage, fashion and lifestyle, sportswear and even automobile players had felt hopped onto the K-pop bandwagon by collaborating with the artists to give their target audience an experiential involvement with the Korean culture.

K-pop artists and bands like BTS, Blackpink, EXO, Tri.be, etc. have in the recent past joined forces with players like Coca-Cola (for Memu Agamu with Tri.be and Armaan Malik), McDonald’s (for BTS meal), Samsung (for BTS edition phones and Dynamite), Hyundai (for IONIQ launch), Adidas Originals (for FW21 Forum collection), Fila (for Love Yourself collection) and Puma (for Court Star and RS collection), among other associations.

Adidas x Blackpink collaboration video-

Preeti Nayyar

According to Preeti Nayyar, VP- Brand Partnerships (India and South Asia), Universal Music Group for Brands, “Coca Cola as a brand globally looks at music and music-based experiences as a way of communicating with youth. Also, GenZs, in the age bracket of 14-25 years, are typically collaborators and early adopters which leads to them becoming a sweet spot for being influenced by brands, owing to the habit formation factor.”

“India is the biggest market for YouTube and K-pop as a genre sees the largest growing audience base coming from the country. In fact, if one approaches any urban house in India, one is most likely to see at least one teenager who is an avid K-pop fan and knows the nitty gritty of the K-pop industry,” she asserted.

Mitesh Kothari

Mitesh Kothari, Co-Founder and CCO, White Rivers Media, said, “If there is one genre that has gained considerable ground during the pandemic, it is K-pop! K-pop artists have a highly enthusiastic, loyal, and active fanbase. These fans portray a deeper level of engagement. Be it for buying concert tickets or learning the language; the fans go to lengths to immerse themselves in K-pop culture. Regarding spending power, these fans are more likely to possess things directly affiliated with or produced by their favourite stars.”

“If GenZ and younger millennials are your key audience, these fans possess the ability to spark a conversation,” he added.

McDonald’s BTS Meal Ad-film-

Manesh Swamy

Similarly, Manesh Swamy, SVP- Creative and Social, LogicServe Digital, also asserted, “K-pop as a genre is still niche in India. It is found a base with metro audiences, but to become mainstream, it still has some time. Even Hip-Hop and rap music, to become part of youth culture in India, took time. Although it’s a hit with Gen-Z and the alpha generation they can totally relate to it thanks to K-pop groups like BTS and Blackpink leading the way.”

He also went on to add that in the case of Indian brands, if their respective target group comprises Alpha and early Gen-Z, collabs with K-pop content will definitely be a win for them.

Hamsini Shivakuma

Hamsini Shivakumar, Founder, Leapfrog Strategy Consulting, also said, “K-pop initially looked like that it was a very niche genre in India as it was restricted to only a few people but over the past five years, K-Drama, K-Pop and K-Beauty and the entire Korean Culture grew in the country to be more mainstream here.”

“Marketers and brands were probably waiting to see if it was just a niche phenomenon, because if it was true then it would not make any sense for big brands to make any associations or connect with the Korean culture. But when it seemed like it was becoming more mainstream, it became a sweet spot and offered more opportunities for collaborations,” she said.

Puma Courtstar ad-film with BTS-

Nayyar also went on to point out that the pandemic played a critical role in helping push the agenda from Bollywood to exploring newer options. “Music remains to be one of the biggest passion points for youngsters, followed by lifestyle and travel amongst others,” she added.

“Easy access to the internet has aided in sampling new content, including K-pop, K-Culture, etc. It has eased the process for youth to sample new content in the past three-four years,” she stated.

Additionally, White River Media’s Kothari also emphasised that K-pop first gained popularity in the Northeastern states in the late 90s. People residing in the rest of India were exposed to K-pop through PSY's global hit ‘Gangnam Style’, however, the liking for K-pop rose considerably during the lockdown.

“The relatability of Korean drama, music, and movies has further added to the pop culture frenzy. Besides K-pop, online gaming and the Metaverse are other popular frontiers for India's GenZ,” he added.

Leapfrog’s Shivakumar also pointed out that since almost every major brand’s marketing goal is to connect with the youth audiences like GenZs and young millennials, K-pop and K-Drama are both immensely popular amongst people who are in the age group of 15-28 years.

However, she also pointed out that brands don’t land into such collaborations or culture phenomenon merely for differentiation as the positioning of big brands is already well-known to the consumers, but because they have to regularly carry out activities which help them maintain their connection with the target audience.

“It is more to retain relevance and emotional connect with their consumers and the larger audience who may or may not be their consumers, but are still an audience for the brands,” she added.

As per LS Digital’s Swamy, it is K-drama which led the pop culture initially but a very small set of audiences used to consume them, but today with the availability of a plethora of dubbed K-dramas, it has started reaching more audiences in India, and have seen people accepting this new form of content and storytelling. So, the word ‘K’ is no longer too foreign for some of us, he said.

EXO collaboration with Star Wars-

When asked about what led Coca-Cola and Universal Music Group for  Brands to take the K-pop route for the ‘Memu Aagamu’ campaign, Nayyar said that the beverage brand wanted to reach out to its young consumers through a refreshing and unique music collab of K-pop and Indie pop. Universal Music got the girl band TRI.BE to collaborate with Allu Arjun and Armaan Malik.

She also elaborated that Coca-Cola picked up Tri.Be for their new content piece, in continuation with its already launched global “The Conductor campaign” which also featured the girl band. “Universal Music India also distributed the content across all audio streaming platforms and radio networks,” she added.

In fact, the number of Reels on Instagram, especially created on the hook steps of Coca-Cola’s Memu Aagamu in itself is a testimony to the success of this experiment, she said.

Coca-Cola x Tri.Be collab for Memu Agamu-

Shivakumar also emphasised that since if any brand depends on the new seasonality, new fashion or new themes for products, then exploring a new cultural phenomenon and tapping and driving it for some time by manifesting in some physical product or range or collection can be extremely useful as it helps the brand to gain a direction for their new and trending offerings.

“When one looks outside Indian entertainment or international content, we have binged on Hollywood for several decades and today people want an alternative as they’ve got a bit tired of just sticking to Hollywood, as a result, K-pop and K-Drama ticks all the boxes. Moreover, K-pop stars also score very high in terms of visual delight along with being more similar and relatable on the cultural front. K-Dramas resonate with the Indian emotions which further cushions the connection by being slightly similar, yet offering something new to the table,” she added.

Furthermore, Nayyar also asserted that by collaborating with Tri.be, Coca-Cola was able to reach out to a very captive audience and provided them with an experiential content in terms of not only getting the K-pop experience to India via collaboration with Allu Arjun, who is at one end of the spectrum of pop culture and entertainment in the country and young Tri.be at the other.

Speaking on the future of K-pop culture in India, Nayyar also said that it is not only growing but has become a part and parcel of an urban teenager’s life today. However, it is not only K-pop which is on the rise but also Indi-pop, she stated.

LS Digital’s Swamy further went on to state that K-pop definitely has great potential in India and internationally as well, since it is widely a part of pop culture, and almost everything that’s a hit internationally, soon finds its way into India.

“Coca-cola, Samsung, and McDonald’s are early movers in the trend and soon one might see it more often, even though we might have to wait for K-pop’s Bollywood debut for some time, post that it will be more acceptable to our audiences. Plus, K-pop artists are iconic when it comes to style and fashion so it’s a no-brainer that big brands will start experimenting with them,” he said.

Blackpink x PUBG Mobile Collaboration-

Striking a similar note, Kothari also stated, “K-pop has given birth to a lifestyle and culture of its own. This has provided massive opportunities for brands to stylize them! Be it a new hairstyle or outfit, everything these artists wear becomes a trend. A flourishing interest in K-pop cultures like music, movies, and TV shows among Indian audiences has added to the growth of Korean cuisine, makeup, fashion and more.”

Commenting on the challenges faced by brands for collaborating with K-pop artists, Swamy said that brands currently have to shell out a bomb for these collabs or features. However, what the brands gain from these collaborations is that they get access to a completely new set of uber cool audiences for their brand messaging.

“The vision behind such campaigns is simple to get the maximum rub-off from these K-pop stars to their brands and be relevant and stand out,” he said.

Furthermore, Swamy also highlighted that what makes these collabs stand apart is that the brands don’t just stop at creating branded music content. “There is more for the audience like the long-form content where the BTS group is unboxing a latest Samsung phone and taking over the social pages,” he said.

Samsung Galaxy x BTS collaboration ad film-

Furthermore, Kothari also asserted that for these partnerships to succeed, brands must first understand the nuances of K-pop fans and see if their objectives fit seamlessly.

“You must realise that K-pop fans are not your average consumers; they offer love and support, unlike any other fans. Cleverly executed campaigns will earn excellent traction and support from millions of new and old consumers. Soon, Indian firms will take advantage of K-pop's enormous marketing potential,” he added.

Similarly, Shivakumar also stated that what majorly led to the rise of Korean culture in India was its aggressive and consistent marketing in the country and across the globe, thus it is quite challenging for any other culture to rise in the country, unless the K-pop loses its sheen in India, but even in that case, the new entrant would have to outgo the marketing initiatives of the K-Culture.

On a concluding note, Nayyar also said, “I feel that rather than building a different narrative, it works better for brands to authentically build a connect with its audiences through interactive and unique experiences.”

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