Multinational corporations face the paradox of globalisation and localisation in expanding foreign markets. As the BTS’s success shows, the most effective globalisation strategy can be ‘being yourself’ if customers are willing to appreciate a company’s identity.
At the 2017 American Music Awards, Bulletproof Boy Scouts (BTS), an all-boy Korean pop (K-Pop) group, made its successful American TV debut.1 Its albums ranked no. 1 on the iTunes charts in 73 countries.2 Two of its albums reached no. 1 on the Billboard 200,3 the first foreign-language albums to do so in more than 12 years.4 In August 2018, tickets for its first U.S. stadium concert at New York’s Citi Field, which holds almost 42,000 people, sold out in less than 20 minutes.5 It was therefore not surprising that BBC called BTS “the Beatles for the 21st Century.”6
As a result of its success, it is estimated that this boy band contributes more than $3.6 billion per year to South Korea’s economy.7 That’s Netflix’s quarterly revenue. One of the most interesting aspects of BTS’s history-making success is that the group’s songs were mostly performed in Korean. How could BTS, a group produced by a relatively low-budget company, succeed in the U.S. market singing in a language with which most Americans are not familiar?
The U.S. entertainment market is notoriously challenging for non-English-speaking foreign artists. Non-English-language movies have grossed only about 1.1% of total U.S. box office sales in recent years.8 Celine Dion pursued her singing career in Quebec, Canada for nearly a decade, but did not really become a star until she crossed the linguistic border by learning English. ‘Adapt or perish’ seems to be the rule of thumb in the U.S. entertainment market.
Until recently, the K-Pop industry adapted its product offerings to better serve its target audiences.9 K-Pop entertainment companies provide intensive foreign language training to their artists, and many groups have a member whose first language is not Korean (e.g., Korean Americans). Recording songs in multiple foreign languages to appeal to global customers is a common practice in the K-Pop industry. S.M. Entertainment’s boy group, EXO, even had two versions of itself to strategically serve the Chinese market: EXO-K (‘K’ for Korean) and EXO-M (‘M’ for Mandarin), which performed the same songs with the same choreography, but in different languages.
Be aware the risks of over-localisation. K-Pop companies’ adaptive approach cannot explain the success of BTS, which performs mostly in Korean. There may be some clues, however, from the case of another K-Pop star, Psy. Psy’s song “Gangnam style” in 2012 was a huge viral sensation. However, his subsequent release, “Hangover,” mostly performed in English with American rapper Snoop Dogg, was a disappointment for fans.10 Audiences might have felt that “Hangover” sounded like just another American pop song performed by an Asian artist. This over-localised approach of using the local language (English) and featuring a familiar character (Snoop Dogg) ended up with the loss of its most important brand identity – ‘K-Pop.’
Develop your own identity. BTS clearly establishes and communicates its identity. This contrasts with other K-Pop groups whose images are manufactured by their agencies.11 In order to develop its own identity, BTS has done the following:
• BTS members are involved in writing the songs and lyrics. All members are individual artists who express themselves, rather than being idols merely fabricated by agencies.
• Its members directly communicate with fans through social media to show who they are, such as broadcasting the time waiting at backstage before concerts and sharing information about their own challenges and mistakes.
• In their songs, BTS often talks about self-confidence and resisting social pressure (i.e., being yourself), which are themes that cause the target audiences, mostly the young generation, to feel empathy for the group.
Once the band’s identity is well established, language is not an issue. Unlike many other K-Pop groups that strategically include non-Korean members, none of the BTS members is a native English speaker. RM (known as Rap Monster), the leader and main rapper, does English-language-interviews, but said he said he learned English by watching the sitcom Friends on the Ellen DeGeneres Show.12
Communicate and maintain the identity. BTS emphasises the importance of being yourself, as shown in its Love Yourself thematic album series.13 It is the key message that the group’s fans, referred to as A.R.M.Y (Adorable Representative M.C for Youth), are enthusiastic about.14
Because of the influence this message had on the youth, BTS became the first K-Pop group invited to speak at the United Nations General Assembly. The key message was “No matter who you are, where you’re from, your skin color, gender identity: Speak yourself.”15
The idea of ‘being yourself’ works well for BTS itself. Between 2013 and 2016, U.S. college enrolments in Korean-language classes increased by 65%, even while total enrolments in foreign language courses was declining.16 More audiences are willing to learn a foreign language, so they can sing along as BTS performs17, rather than wait for the group to release its first English-language album.
Consumers in foreign markets are different. Their purchase of behaviours, preferences, tastes, media, and retail are all different. Therefore, a customised and tailored approach seems appropriate.18 But not always. Localisation is about adding local flavour to the global brand identity. In the smartphone market, for example, Apple users are far more loyal than Samsung users, not because of products or technology, but because of Apple’s strong identity.19 Likewise, BTS fans are enthusiastic about the band because of its unique identity, something other American pop artists have not provided. The lesson is that the most effective globalisation strategy can be ‘being yourself’ if customers are willing to appreciate a company’s identity.
About the Authors
Won-Yong Oh is Lee Professor of Strategy at the Lee Business School, University of Nevada, Las Vegas in the USA. His research areas include board of directors, top management team, and corporate social responsibility. Twelve of his published articles are in the Financial Times, 50 journals for research rank and he is also an active case writer. He also worked as Korean pop music composer before pursuing his career in business.
Mooweon Rhee is Underwood Distinguished Professor, Hyundai Motors/YSB Research Chair Professor, and Professor of Management at the School of Business, Yonsei University in South Korea. He received his Ph.D. in business administration from Stanford University. His scholarly works appear in many premier journals including the Academy of Management Journal, Academy of Management Review, Management Science, and Organization Science.
1. J. Benjamin, Billboard, “BTS at the 2017 AMAs: The Overwhelming Fan Response You Didn’t See on Camera”, November 20, 2017. https://www.billboard.com/articles/columns/k-town/8039706/bts-fan-chants-dna-2017-amas-fan -reaction-not-on-camera.
2. The Straits Times, “K-pop boyband BTS hit No. 1 in 73 countries”, September 21, 2017. https://www.straitstimes.com/lifestyle /entertainment/k-pop-boyband-bts-hit-no-1-in -73-countries.
3. C. Kelley, Forbes, “As Torchbearers Of Hallyu’s Legacy, BTS Received The Order Of Cultural Merit”, October 27, 2018. https://www.forbes.com/sites/caitlinkelley/2018/10/27/bts-order-of-cultural-merit/#6789766ce2d9.
4.C. Quackenbush, Time “Korean Boyband BTS Makes History as First K-Pop Group to Top U.S. Album Charts”, May 28, 2018. http://time.com/5292964/korean-boyband-bts -k-pop-billboard-200/.
5. T. Herman, “BTS’ Citi Field Show Sells Out Within Minutes”, August 17, 2018. https://www.billboard.com/articles/column s/k-town/8470824/bts-citi-field-concert-sold-out.
6. M. Jackson & K. Browne, BBC News, “BTS and K-pop: How to be the perfect fan”, October 9, 2018. https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-45800924.
7. South China Morning Post, “The BTS billions: K-pop superstars ‘worth more than US$3.6 billion a year’ to South Korea’s economy”, December 18, 2018. https://www.scmp.com/news/asia/east-asia/article/2178540/bts-billions-k-pop-superstars-worth-more-us36-billion-year-south.
8. Stephen Follows Film Data and Education, “How many non-English language films get a US theatrical release?”, April 9, 2018. https://stephenfollows.com/how-many-non-english-language-films-get-us-theatrical-release/.
9. W. Oh & M. Rhee, Harvard Business Review, “K-Pop’s Global Success Didn’t Happen by Accident”, November 10, 2016. https://hbr.org/2016/11/k-pops-global-success-didnt-happen -by-accident.
10. D. Wyatt, Independent, “Psy and Snoop Dogg’s new ‘Hangover’ video angers fans”, June 9, 2014. https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/news/psy-and-snoop-doggs-new-video-hangover-angers-fans-9513713.html.
11. L. Williamson, BBC News, “The dark side of South Korean pop music”, June 15, 2011. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-pacific-13760064.
12. A. Corinthios, “K-Pop Boy Band Phenomenon BTS Learned English by Watching Friends “, November 27, 2017. https://people.com/tv/k-pop-boy-band-bts-learned-english-watching -friends/.
13. T. Herman, Billboard, “What To Know About BTS’ ‘Love Yourself’ Series”, August 17, 2017. https://www.billboard.com/articles/columns/k-town/7933862/bts-love-yourself-series-details.
15. L. P. Lim, “K-Pop group BTS delivers moving speech, inspires fans to ‘speak yourself'”, September 26, 2018. https://push.abs-cbn.com/2018/9/26/fresh-scoops/k-pop-group-bts-delivers-moving-speech-inspires-f-192632.
16. S. Wolfson, The Guardian, “English is no longer the default language of American pop'”, May 31, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/music/2018/may/31/bts-love-yourself-kpop -us-charts-changing-american-culture-reggaetron.
17. C. Kelley, Forbes, “As Torchbearers Of Hallyu’s Legacy, BTS Received The Order Of Cultural Merit”, October 27, 2018.https://www.forbes.com/sites/caitlinkelley/2018/10/27/bts-order-of-cultural-merit/#10ea174ee2d9.
18. N. Dawar, Harvard Business Review, “As Torchbearers Of Hallyu’s Legacy, BTS Received The Order Of Cultural Merit”, September 01, 2016. https://hbr.org/2016/09/why-localizing -marketing-doesnt-always-work.