Neon signs and lights on a street in Korea

K-culture: the hot brand opportunity

The paradigm has shifted, says HS Chung of WPP’s Hill+Knowlton in APAC. K-culture is delivering huge opportunities for brands

K-culture, k-pop, k-drama – Korean culture is everywhere and that’s good news for Korean brands. Meanwhile, the world – and the press – is taking notice. In synch with the rise of Korean culture is the international growth of huge Korean tech, entertainment and automotive brands. The whole world is taking notice.

It’s fair to say that Korea is undergoing a rebrand – at least on the global stage – and its culture is increasingly differentiated from its neighbours in the APAC region. For the international community, it has been convenient to package around 50 jurisdictions and cultures as one, but the APAC region is only relevant as an expression of geography; it is fragmented in terms of culture, history, politics, economics and language.

For decades there has been an assumption that language is a dis-enabler to distinct cultures breaking free of their regional label and claiming their own identity internationally. But, in recent years, Korea has proved that this need not be the case.

Korean pop is in the Korean language. Drama is in Korean. And the insights within the lyrics and scripts are very specific to the Korean culture. It has been a surprise to the Korean people how well Korean entertainment has pervaded global consciousness and reached heights of popularity that could never have been foreseen.

The global success of ‘Squid Game’ is perhaps the ultimate indicator that language is no longer an issue to achieving worldwide attention. This Netflix series – that revolves around contestants competing for money in a dangerous version of a children’s game – soon became one of Netflix’s most-watched programmes. The shock element captured imaginations.

And this is something the Korean entertainment industry does very well. It takes a small idea and interprets it as high drama. This makes it both relatable and extraordinary. Often stories have a moral to them and encourage behaviour change. And, of course, Korea is very good at the visual element.

K-culture and brand building

This is all fabulous news for Korean brands. Whether they are refreshing a brand, in a growth phase or launching it from scratch, a brand needs purpose, must resonate with its audience and must include authentic storytelling.

The story is always front and centre, and how you express that story succeeds if it is highly visual – not textual. That expression could be video, lyrics, animation, games or any other visual format that captures the audience’s imagination.

So, taking K-pop as an example, what attracts the audience is not just the song but also the video, the dancing, the styling and the fashion. The uniqueness of each band member is showcased and, of course, the individuals also come together as a clearly identifiable whole. There is so much for brands to latch onto.

And none of this has happened by accident. It is not just happenstance that the world is now noticing Korean culture and the brands associated with it; it is more that the Korean entertainment industry is pushing hard – and doing so internationally.

Gen Z is driving this phenomenon

Korea is a very digital-savvy country. And Gen Z is clearly driving new heights of digital innovation. It stands to reason that K-culture has been propelled to global markets following huge buy-in at home. And there is plenty of that. The take up of new applications, the willingness to try out new technologies, and the prevalence of digitisation and social media across the country are testament to this. It all helps Korea to become increasingly borderless.

What we have seen is that these phenomena start with Korea, then spread across APAC and may well find a global audience. There is certainly a global appetite, especially when K-pop stars are so willing to engage with fans, thereby creating huge momentum for their brands and commercial brands associated with them. K-culture triggers consumers – in a good way – and from that follows engagement.

And of course, whether this is Gen Z oriented content or not, it is all digital and that means it is easy to translate automatically, thereby removing the language barrier. But the Korean language has suddenly become popular in its own right – enabled by the English, or perhaps Spanish, hooks in Korean pop songs.

Perception is everything

The upshot is that consumers globally are excited by Korean products in a whole new way. It is more than just sticking a ‘K’ on products and brands; consumers increasingly understand what ‘being Korean’ means and are buying into the culture.

We are seeing a higher preference for Korean brands, associated with one specific culture and not a region. And Korean brands are responding to this new-found brand love and are communicating as global brands, thereby busting out of their region.

There’s a lot to be learned from the K-culture phenomenon – by marketers, brands, content creators and even countries themselves.

HS Chung

Hill+Knowlton APAC

published on

29 January 2024



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