Analysis: With K-pop stars styled head to toe by brands, will your partnership even be noticed?

It’s easy to forget that the Korean pop (K-pop) industry only made its entry onto the Billboard album chart in 2018. Considered a breakout year for the industry, according to The Straits Times, the K-pop industry was then estimated to be worth US$5 billion. In 2020, The Straits Times reported that BTS single-handedly brought in US$1.5 billion with its song "Dynamite" for the South Korean economy. Additionally, each of BLACKPINK's member is said to be worth over US$8 million. Fan fervour over the K-pop industry, has also attracted the attention of international brands, many of which are now clamoring to nab a piece of the pie. Just last month, we saw Coca-Cola, Prudential, and Pepsi tapping onto the prowess of the K-pop stars by signing on collaboration deals with the hottest names in the industry - BTS, BLANKPINK, and the newest entrant formed in 2019 SuperM, respectively.

Just like any other collaboration, the manner in which brands work with can range from one-off product partnerships to long-term tie-ups. But with so many brands dipping into a small pool of stars, overlaps in product promotions are bound to happen. With the same mega-influencers and stars styled head to toe in contrasting brand products, is dishing out the stacks of dollars really worth the investment of brands?

Wan Hou Yin, country director at Gushcloud Malaysia who specialises in working with Korean talents, shared with MARKETING-INTERACTIVE that a typical engagement with Korean influencers can range from US$10,000 to US$50,000 and above. Social media postings will be at the lower end of the price spectrum, whereas 360 endorsements and live performances would probably cost the most, he added. 

Aside from the actual cost of engaging the influencers, brands may also incur additional costs from other administrative matters, such as the hiring of a legal team to draw up the contract. According to Wan, since K-pop groups are typically represented by Korean management agencies that are not as proficient in English, this sometimes presents a language barrier that may cause negotiating deals to be more difficult. Furthermore, most Korean management agencies are by-the-book, and would prefer to have every clause needed from the Korean influencer to be stated in black-and-white. Thus, brands might want to consider having a legal team or a lawyer to help with the contract. Although this smoothens the process of collaboration, it also pushes up the cost that brands need to fork out to work with K-pop influencers.

Wan also pointed out that brands that work with influencer agencies that has experience in K-pop influencer/celebrity bookings before, or has a Korean team that understands the culture, would greatly alleviate much pain during execution and negotiation. However, should brands choose to do so, that will chalk up additional cost as well.

Although collaborating with K-pop influencers might force brands to loosen up their purse strings, one of the biggest ways brands can benefit from a K-pop collaboration is to create a wider reach of awareness and a heightened sense of branding, according to Wan. Since K-pop is now widely-accepted globally, even in America and China (which are markets that many would deem as culture and trend setters) having collaborations with a K-pop influencer or group would mostly allow brands to reach global audiences.

Besides that, brands should also consider the huge fanbase it is tapping into. TIME reported that in 2020 that BTS itself has 40 million members of its fans subscribed to its YouTube channel, and more than 30 million follow its Twitter and Instagram account. Adding to the conversation, Kyian Keith, head of brand and communications at Lemonade, said K-pop fans do not just consume content from the groups they support, they also rally and personify what it stands for. "Its fandom truly transmutes into something greater than what a non Kpop fan can even comprehend," Keith added. 

To determine if this investment is worth making, brands would have to ensure their ROI justifies the cost. To this point, Wan emphasised on the importance of being clear of the objectives brands set out to achieve before jumping into the collaboration. “I would recommend for the brand to make it very clear from the beginning if this is primarily an awareness campaign or a sales performance campaign,” he said, adding:

Should it be awareness, the measurement metrics should be on PR value, views, engagements. If it is on sales performance, then the conversion of sales is key.

While brands that MARKETING-INTERACTIVE that spoke to declined to reveal how they are measuring their campaign success, they all agree that the collaboration has undeniably helped boost the brand awareness. Tokopedia, which recently collaborated with both BTS and BLACKPINK for its Waktu Indonesia Belanja (WIB) TV show, accumulated more than 15 million views across its video streaming channel Tokopedia Play and its official YouTube page. BTS' and BLACKPINK's performances also triggered many discussions across social media and ranked first in the trend, both in Indonesia and worldwide, Kevin Mintaraga, VP of Tokopedia, said.

Meanwhile, even before embarking on the planned series of events together, a spokesperson from Prudential said its collaboration with SuperM has generated much buzz for the brand, with it receiving "overwhelming positive response" from all of its 11 Asia markets.

Standing out of the crowd

In order for brands to make the most out of their investment when it comes to working with K-pop group, it is also imperative to stand out from the crowd, especially since the K-pop influencers they worked with might most likely be promoting multiple brands simultaneously.

BTS, for example, has collaborated with brand such as Coca-Cola, Tokopedia, Mattel, Samsung, Hyundai, and Fila. K-pop girl group BLACKPINK has also struck deals with Pepsi, Kia, Shopee, and Kasikornban (KBank). Additionally, each member of BLACKPINK has been engaged to be ambassadors for multiple brands. Most recently, Lisa was named global brand ambassador of cosmetics brand MAC. The other members were also engaged to be the faces of Chanel, Saint Laurent, and Dior.   

To cut through the brand clutter, Gushcloud’s Wan said it boils down to the idea of the campaign that would enable the partnership to stand out. Rather than simply collaborating with a K-pop influencer, brands need to align with their creative or influencer agencies to create a campaign and amplification strategy that is different from the rest. Beyond that, brands can also couple its campaign with a localised strategy of using local influencers to ensure maximum impact, he added.

Additionally, Tokopedia's Mintaraga pointed out that "collaborations with strategic partners" who share the same brand value and vision should be one of the key considerations when brands choose a K-pop influencer or group to work with. He added this factor was what guided Tokopedia to have multiple collaborations with BTS and BLACKPINK, which it said supported its brand value and vision to make life easier for Indonesians. 

Besides collaborating with the two groups for its recent TV show, Tokopedia also produced a series of exclusive content and performances from the groups, which can only be accessed through the Tokopedia Play. The online platform also recently made the two groups its brand ambassador earlier in January. "Tokopedia’s collaboration with BTS and BLACKPINK emphasises our commitment to stay relevant with Indonesian market," Kevin Mintaraga, vice president of Tokopedia, added. 

On the same front, Prudential said it chose to work with SuperM as both entities share a common goal: to promote the importance of staying fit and healthy. Furthermore, there is a similar target group for both Prudential and SuperM. Prudential tapped onto SuperM to rejuvenate its brand and be more engaging and relatable to a whole new generation, while SuperM’s caters to the younger generation that makes up a significant part of its fanbase as well. “Together, we want to motivate people to attain wellness in a positive, proactive and fun way," the insurance company said. 

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