Korean popular music, also known as K-pop, is a music genre that originated from Seoul, South Korea and incorporates Hip-Hop, Pop, Rock, R&B and Rap. Because K-pop incorporates Western musical influences and English lyrics, the popularity of K-pop groups and their music catches not only the attention of fans in Korea and Asia, but also more recently, fans from the States as well.
There’s no bigger example of a K-pop group breaking into mainstream U.S. culture than what we’re seeing with the world’s biggest group: BTS.
Who is BTS?
BTS debuted as a group in 2013 with their 7 members—RM, Jin, Suga, J-Hope, Jimin, V, and Jungkook. The group name is an acronym for the Korean words “Bangtan Sonyeondan” which translates to “Bulletproof Boy Scouts”. The members chose this name to represent their resistance to bullets—with bullets being the unhealthy stereotypes, criticisms, and expectations that are often aimed at young people.
Even in the streaming age, BTS has continued to sell over 20 million physical albums worldwide since their debut in 2013. This has made BTS the best-selling group of all time in South Korea.
BTS has also had recent success in the States. Below are a few examples of their accomplishments over the past few years:
- In 2017, their performance at the VMAs was first K-pop performance at an American awards show.
- In 2019, they became the first group since The Beatles to earn three #1 albums on the Billboard Top 200 chart.
- In 2020, the group was nominated for their first Grammy (Best Pop Duo/Group Performance) alongside other pop giants like Lady Gaga, Ariana Grande, and Taylor Swift.
From a marketing perspective, BTS is a great case study in RED. Specifically, the band’s ability to remain relevant, easy, and distinctive has helped them grow into the global superstars they are today.
How BTS Uses Relevance:
Relevance: the real, deeper, more emotional reason people are engaging with a brand, or in this case, band. Relevance is all about being deeply linked to what is happening in culture.
(1) Like other Gen-Z artists, they’re redefining the pop star stereotype.
Universally, Gen-Z is one of the most raw and real generations, largely due to their push to break down stigmas related to mental health.
While K-pop groups have traditionally made music about relationships and love, BTS taps into more relevant conversations by breaking down mental health stigmas and speaking directly to today’s youth, encouraging them to fight against traditional societal expectations.
- One song titled “The Last” had lyrics about one member’s sufferings through periods of depression and OCD. He said he wrote the song to encourage his fans to seek help when they needed it… acknowledging that the stigma around mental health often prevents victims from doing so.
- In November of 2017, BTS partnered with UNICEF to begin their “Love Yourself” campaign. The goal of the campaign is to raise awareness for violence against children and teenagers and promote well-being for those affected.
(2) To keep buzz around the group, BTS always keep their fans on their toes.
Most musical groups would be happy if they released only one album a year, but in November 2020, BTS announced the release of their second album in same year, sparking lots of conversation within the fandom and in the music industry.
On top of releasing 2 albums in 2020 with BTS, several BTS members also released solo singles. In December 2020, Jimin and V ‘broke the internet’ after unexpectedly releasing their singles on back-to-back days.
(3) They tap into Gen Z’s desire for care and empathy and leverage the power of the herd with their fans to do good.
BTS taps into the Gen Z ideal of supporting the people and brands who care about their communities, paving the way for their following to use their herd mentality for good.
The members in BTS are known for their humility, so instead of showing off their fortunes, they often make donations to various charities they support. This has inspired their fanbase, ARMY, to do so in the same way. During the birthday month of each BTS member, the global fanbase comes together to raise large sums of money to donate to the charities and organizations that the members support.
How BTS Uses Ease:
Ease: Becoming a brand (or musical group) that is the most physically and mentally available in the category.
(1) They create a lot of content outside of music.
Compared to other K-pop groups, BTS puts out tons of content on top of their musical releases. BTS have released their shows, ‘Run BTS,’ ‘Bon Voyage,’ and ‘In the Soop’, making it easier for fans to remember BTS and keep them top of mind.
(2) They released a fully English single.
Although BTS didn’t think it was necessary for their songs to be in English, the release of their first fully English single, “Dynamite” made it easier for English-speaking listeners to become fans. The song was well received around the world with 10 million streams in the first 20 minutes of the release. With this English single, the group was able to start speaking to a larger audience outside of K-pop fans.
(3) They make guest appearances everywhere.
BTS consistently make guest appearances on popular TV shows, making it easy for people outside of the fandom to see, hear, and experience BTS.
When BTS was featured on James Corden’s famous show “Carpool Karaoke,” it gave many people a glimpse into who BTS is, the music they make, and what they look like, making it easier to recall and access the group, even for those in the U.S. who were not fully familiar with them yet.
How BTS Uses Distinctiveness:
Distinctiveness: the consistent use of Distinctive Brand Assets, including colors, sounds, characters, and lines to stand out and easily be recognized.
(1) With BT21, they created their own characters.
In collaboration with messaging app, Line Friends, BTS members created their own characters that are seen in this video here. BTS continues to consistently leverage their BT21 characters by featuring them in social media posts, stage performances, and physical merchandise. After using the characters for years, fans can easily identify each BT21 character with its associated BTS member.
(2) They consistently use their iconic logo.
BTS consistently uses the BTS and ARMY logos in various communications, making the K-pop group (and its fandom) easily identifiable with just the logo.
Fans also flock to social platforms when they identify the BTS logo randomly in pop culture. Recently, the BTS logo popped up in the 2020 K-drama, “True Beauty”.
(3) They made their concert Light Stick unique and ownable to them.
Light sticks are a big part of the K-pop concert experience because of their ability to synchronize with the stage lighting, which is seen in this video. While all K-pop groups have these light sticks, BTS’s light stick has a distinctive round shape and a distinctive name (“the Army Bomb”).
(4) Each member consistently uses a uniquely colored microphone.
BTS members also have their own distinct colored microphones, making each microphone an ownable asset to each specific member. Recently after BTS’s performance on MTV Unplugged, Jin became trending as “The Guy with the Pink Mic.”
(5) They created unique and ownable BTS hand signs.
BTS members consistently make hand signs that are ownable to BTS as a group and individual members. This video here shows how the group consistently has been using the “7” hand sign as a group introduction for years.
(6) They created a distinct catchphrase.
“Borahae” is a word that was created by one of the BTS members. “Borahae” is a mix of the Korean words “bora,” which means purple, and “saranghae, which means “love.” In English, fans translate “borahae” to “I purple you” … a distinct phrase BTS fans often use to show their admiration to each other. The purple heart emoji () is also synonymous with “Borahae” and BTS.
BTS’s recent performance and nomination at the Grammy’s is a sign that there’s still more to come for the group. If BTS continues to leverage Relevance (to join in on conversations with their fans), Ease (to keep the band top-of-mind), and Distinctiveness (to remain unique in the industry), then there’s no reason why the group won’t continue to transcend language and grow into one of the biggest groups of our lifetime.