Building an “Army” of Fans: Marketing Lessons from K-Pop Sensation BTS

What would it take to attract customers so loyal that they would not only buy your products, but also lavish flowers on your distributors and buy advertising to elevate your brand? Ask the minds behind K-pop sensation BTS.

Created by a Korean management company, BTS found themselves breaking the unlikely records held by Justin Bieber and The Jackson 5, and amassing 100 million fans. In 2019, BTS joined the Beatles and the Monkees as the third group in 50 years with three albums topping the Billboard 200 charts in the same year.

“They were communicating directly with the fan base. Effective use of social media was how they created an ecosystem.”

In a recent case study, “BTS and ARMY,” Harvard Business School associate professor Doug Chung and research associate Kay Koo show how BTS has garnered its legions of devoted fans – known as ARMY ( Adorable Representative MC for Youth) – to champion the group on social media and send it to mega-stardom. The large, loyal following was a big part of what investors were buying when BTS’ management company raised $50 billion in its 2020 IPO, leading Chung and Koo to take a closer look at what business leaders can learn from the group’s efforts to attract large audiences. crowd of diehards.

“They’re authentic and genuine,” Chung says. “They would communicate directly with the fan base. Effective use of social media was how they created an ecosystem.

The band’s humble beginnings

K-pop, or Korean popular music, emerged in the 1990s as a result of significant government investment to create a unique cultural export. Music agencies built numbers using an idol system that managed all aspects of the stars’ lives and trained them in singing, dancing and even foreign languages.

However, when BTS debuted in 2013, the group’s music didn’t immediately take off. His first two albums were unsuccessful; her third album was a moderate success. Lead singer RM recalled BTS’ rocky early days in an interview with the Herald of Korea“When we started, I still remember how people laughed at us and hated us. Once I thought, ‘Can I play here at Gocheok Sky Dome? [a large domed baseball stadium in Seoul] In my life? And my answer at the time was “No”.

“BTS was like a startup,” says Koo, who was one of the group’s earliest fans. “They had no resources. They needed to differentiate themselves.”

Their fortunes changed during a trip to Los Angeles in 2014 to attend the KCON Korean cultural festival. RM remarked, “It was the first time we had such a crowd. … Apparently KCON 2014 LA was the starting point for our US fanbase. A few days after KCON ended, BTS came out dark and wild, which sold over 100,000 copies that year. A world concert tour began this fall, attracting 80,000 people in 13 countries.

The group’s ARMY grew in tandem, launching in 2014 and eventually reaching 100 million members. Like typical fan clubs, members bought merchandise and purchased concert tickets, but ARMY was also extremely active online, producing user-generated videos, dance covers and remixes.

Video: BTS teamed up with American singer Halsey for their 2019 single “Boy with Luv.” The video for the song had 75 million views on YouTube within 24 hours of its release.

ARMY showered radio stations with flowers thanking them for playing BTS music. In March 2021, when BTS appeared on a South Korean TV show, ARMY bought all the publicity so there would be no interruptions. An ARMY member was pushed to stream as much of a new song as possible to propel the group to the top of the charts, recalling, “I turned on all my old phones and my family’s to stream songs. …I felt like BTS and I were inseparable, so it made me try harder for their success.

BTS’s connection to their fans became evident when they first won the Billboard Music Award for Top Social Artist in 2017, ousting Justin Bieber and retaining the title ever since. Some analysts predicted the group would do more to boost South Korea’s gross domestic product over 10 years than the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics.

Underdogs with a strategy

The explosion of the group is the result of a carefully designed and well executed strategy. Si-hyuk Bang, the group’s founder and CEO of his management company, Hybe, explained, “Fans used to be passive receivers, but now they have become active supporters who contribute to the growth of the artist.

To grow a loyal following, Bang said BTS followed a five-step strategy, a roadmap that many business owners might also consider adopting to grow their following:

  1. Express a social conscience. From the start, BTS produced songs that commented on social issues and had a consistent message of self-love. The first three albums looked at the trials and tribulations of teenagers. Later songs addressed mental well-being, economic inequality, and the need for social justice. Additionally, the group has partnered with UNICEF, donated $1 million to Black Lives Matter, and aided COVID-19 relief efforts.
  2. Create a content ecosystem. In addition to his music, Hybe created the BTS universe in the style of Marvel Comics, with a plot featuring band member Jin as a time-traveling hero trying to save his comrades, each with their own Quirk. -ego. The story has allowed BTS to create interconnected music and videos as well as a weekly webcomic, novel, and related websites.
  3. Stay united as a team. While many Korean groups split into solo groups and split into subunits, BTS has stuck together. The band members were known to get along and they continued to release their music together until a recent hiatus in 2022.
  4. Avoid micromanagement. Some Korean idol group agencies banned stars from using their phones, and some contracts contained no-dating clauses. Bang decided to take a more passive approach, with the belief that pop stars are human and could channel their personalities into their work and use that to connect with fans. BTS’s contract was less restrictive than those of other K-pop groups, and the members were allowed to interact with fans on social media and discuss the pressures of fame.
  5. Communicate directly with fans. Hybe created a platform called Weverse, where fans could buy merchandise, watch performances, and connect with other fans. More importantly, the platform also allowed BTS to communicate directly with fans. Members of the group often visited Weverse to respond to posts from ARMY members and sometimes posted their own posts.

From a business perspective, BTS’s strength lies in its ability to identify and nurture its target market and use the right channel to reach fans, Chung said.

“They targeted a niche market, the underdog, and were able to focus on that niche market, despite their popularity. It’s fascinating,” Chung says.

try something new

BTS recently announced that they are on hiatus while the group members focus on their individual careers. Chung and Koo say this is just the next leg of their journey, and there’s a lesson for businesses here too.

“They keep evolving,” Koo says. “It’s the second wave.”

“BTS differentiates itself… Successful companies constantly change and transform over time.”

After all, says Chung, part of a successful business strategy is not to be complacent, but to always challenge yourself and innovate to keep up with market trends. He cites the example of the then market-leading photo company Eastman Kodak, which clung to film even though it had the technology used in digital cameras. The IT giant Microsoft, also a market leader, on the other hand, has reinvented itself by proactively seeking change and investing in the cloud.

“BTS is different. They try something else. They are not satisfied. They want more, they want more,” Chung says. “Companies constantly change their outcomes of interest. Successful businesses are constantly changing and transforming over time. »

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(Photo by Lee Young-ho/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)

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