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Deep Dive

How Western Pop Acts Can Use K-Pop’s Marketing Playbook

K-pop marketing is wildly efficient, and western artists, even if they don’t admit it, have borrowed from the most popular bands’ techniques, particularly when they are looking to win fans in Asian ma…

Why Don’t We, a Los Angeles boy band composed of five white kids, had never had a Billboard Hot 100 hit when it began touring seven Asian cities in August 2018.

The band had a new album to promote, 8 Letters, so its label, Warner Music, decided to break out the K-pop playbook. Warner set up chatrooms, flooded Instagram and Twitter, and put fan bases in different countries in touch with one another. “You’ll have a kid in Taiwan communicating with a kid in Singapore: ‘Did you see what Jonah [Marais] was wearing?’” says Randy Phillips, the group’s manager and a veteran U.S. concert promoter.

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“We just looked at the BTS ARMY [global fan club] and how that was created, and we just took a page out of their book.”

The nearly seven-year-old ARMY fan base has helped propel BTS to megastardom since it formed a a month after the band released its debut EP, 2 Cool 4 Skool. All pop stars have massive fanbases, including Why Don’t We’s Limelights, but what the ARMY was doing set new standards for loyalty and effectiveness with regards to social media, ticket sales, streaming and even CD sales.

Warner and Phillips’ strategy worked. The resulting Asian social media buzz, stoked by digital marketing firm Crowd Surf and David Loeffler, Phillips’ partner and a marketing specialist, led to moments like throngs of Singapore fans cheering behind metal barricades. “We contacted all those guys and wanted to bring them together: ‘They just released a new song — let’s make sure it gets streamed!’” says Shin Cho, Warner’s head of K-pop. “We worked with them to create this big noise and hype.”

After the tour, 8 Letters hit No. 8 on the Billboard 200. The title track has since racked up 168 million streams on Spotify.

Why Don't We
Why Don't We are seen at 'Jimmy Kimmel Live' on Feb. 7, 2019 in Los Angeles. RB/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images

K-pop marketing is wildly efficient, and western artists, even if they don’t admit it, have borrowed from the most popular bands’ techniques, particularly when they are looking to win fans in Asian markets. The genre generated 6.1 billion tweets last year, up 15% from 2018, according to Twitter, and top K-pop acts can generate close to 1 billion streams for a single. “It’s very hard for us to compete financially to gain an audience like that,” says Phillips, “but that doesn’t mean we can’t take a page out of their book and tie our fan bases together.”

In some cases, it’s not clear who is copying whom. BTS is known for putting out multiple physical versions of a CD, each with unique artwork. Taylor Swift did the same for last year’s smash Lover — her Target exclusives contained unique journal entries, photos and handwritten lyrics. But she had done a similar thing for an earlier release, 1989, when she included different packs of Polaroid-like photos in each release. And while one of Warner’s K-pop groups, AB6IX, is planning to release an album with three different physical versions, a 30-page photo book and a set of 15 stickers, it’s actually a classic box-set strategy. For example, The Beatles’ 2017 reissue of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band came with a 144-page photo book and a DVD, and KISS has done similar packaging for multiple releases.

“You’d find plenty of examples from the *NSYNC-Backstreet Boys-Britney Spears era, where you have a young audience and a pop star catering to it,” says John Fleckenstein, co-president of RCA Records. “The second someone does something that looks like it’s working, with regards to reaching their audience, it becomes a path for others.”

Still, K-pop marketing has been so successful that the music industry can’t help but pay attention. Tom Corson, co-chairman/COO for Warner Records, who has traveled to South Korea to “scout opportunities and learn about the business,” says the top K-pop acts have borrowed ideas from marketing masters like KISS and Justin Bieber and supercharged them. The potential for cross-pollination is also more likely. For instance, Bieber’s manager, Scooter Braun, also manages PSY, one of K-pop’s first crossover stars.

K-pop creates “a defined mythology and narrative around these artists, and they’re able to trade and exploit that and build a very powerful fan base,” says Corson. “The depth and the engagement is crazy. They put their fans first, and that’s something we all have to remember.”