Building brands in a changing society

Why Trends in Korea Matter to the Rest of Asia

While researching my move to Asia, I discovered a popular blog about life and culture in Korea called Eat Your Kimchi. Produced by fellow Canadians Simon and Martina Stawski, Eat Your Kimchi is a YouTube variety show that covers topics as diverse as the K-pop music scene, what Korean singles look for in a mate and how to eat ramen noodles like a pro. Little did I know but, between the videos about girl bands and beauty trends, I was actually doing a crash course in one of the most powerful cultural influences in Asia.

In a region as complex as Asia, where countries vary wildly by culture, religion, political systems, economic development and more, effective marketing depends on understanding the local culture. But local culture isn’t necessarily all that local. It may be heavily influenced by external forces, particularly the aspirational lifestyles of other countries as depicted in movies, music and television. While Japan and the West have been strong influencers of culture, Asian markets are more frequently looking to Korea for the latest trends.

Before the rest of the world took notice of Korea’s cultural exports with explosion of Gangnam Style, Korea was already setting the pace for the region in terms of style. It’s all part of the Korean wave, known as hallyu, which refers to the growing popularity of Korean culture since the late 1990s. Even in my adopted home of Singapore, the one Asian market that most closely follows Western trends, the influence of Korea is easy to spot. Korean cosmetic brands Etude House and Laneige are readily available; supermarkets stock up on Korean foods; and Sumsung edged out Apple to become the top-ranked smartphone brand. And, on the public transit, screen after screen of those smartphones are filled with Korean television dramas, or K-dramas, often with Chinese subtitles.

According to a report by Hakuhodo, a Japanese advertising agency, K-dramas do much more than entertain commuters. They serve as an introduction for consumers in Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines and other Asian markets to the fashions, home electronics and cars that make up the Korean lifestyle – at least the one pictured on television – and pave the way for the adoption of Korean brands. In particular, consumers in China’s major cities– Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou – are an eager audience for K-dramas and, by implication, a ready market for Korean products.

Of course, Korea isn’t the only regional tastemaker. Japan has historically led the way and, according to Hakuhodo, still scores high as an influencer for home electronics, makeup, fashion, food and cars, and is the undisputed leader for manga/anime. Of course, the influence of the West shouldn’t be discounted, particularly when it comes to the best-travelled cultural exports from the United States: music and movies. While most markets favour their local films and tunes, American entertainers and Hollywood movies have an enthusiastic fan base throughout the region.

Being from Canada, I’m used to living in a country where many of the cultural cues come from elsewhere. What’s on television and in stores always reflects the latest from the US. Here in Asia, it’s interesting to observe not just one but three forces at work: Korea, Japan and the US. Still, marketers trying to decode each Asian market shouldn’t forget that local tastes still dominate. Young consumers in Vietnam and the Philippines put their local fashions and music first; families in Indonesia and Thailand still want to buy homegrown brands. It’s just that, more and more often, Korean choices are running close second.

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