Why Luxury Brands Turn to K-Pop Stars to Win in China and Beyond

Key Takeaways:

  • Korea is famous for its obsession with beauty and youth culture, and K-Pop is the primary expression of this culture where perfection in all aspects is paramount.

  • The list of brands employing Korean superstars reads like the who’s who of luxury: Celine, Prada, Chaumet, MAC, Calvin Klein, and Bulgari.

  • With K-Pop superstars, these luxury brands are creating an aspirational lifestyle and inspirational figures by combining depth and artistry with easygoingness and casual elegance.

From the “Human Gucci” (superstar singer Kai from the K-Pop band EXO) and the “Human Chanel” (Blackpink’s Jennie) to the two “Human Diors” (Blackpink’s Jisoo and the Korean singer/actress Suzy) and Louis Vuitton’s partnership with pop band BTS, Korean superstars have quickly become the newest faces for the world’s most successful and influential luxury brands. Why? Because they are so crucial for the double purpose of winning over both Asian customers and Gen Zers.

Luxury brands have been represented by beautiful models for decades. But in the past, brand spokespersons were often Hollywood actors, actresses, singers, sports stars, or celebrities — often in their 40s, 50s, or older. Many will remember Louis Vuitton’s core values advertising campaign in the mid-2000s, which featured the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards, Michael Gorbatchev, Francis Ford Coppola, and Muhammad Ali. But the last two years — accelerated thanks to the pandemic — have shifted luxury’s focus to Asia and its most-hyped Gen-Z trend: K-Pop.

This fad is no coincidence. Korea is famous for its obsession with beauty and youth culture. “My body is my asset and my success” is a phrase I frequently heard on my visits to Korea when discussing luxury brands and local Gen-Z trends. Not surprisingly, Korea is one of the world leaders in plastic surgery, as self-image is one of the country’s most prized personal investments. And it is K-Pop that is the primary expression of this culture where perfection in all aspects is paramount. It is a culture with an incredible appeal, not just in Korea and China, but with young audiences worldwide.

Blackpink was the number one pop band globally in 2020, marking the first time this title wasn’t held by an American or European band — another indicator that the new generation has different preferences and a much more global view. Today, practically all K-Pop bands have Chinese versions of their most popular songs, making the music not only accessible but also highly-hyped in China — a critical need for luxury brands today.

Embracing Korean superstars opens the door to two of the world’s most important luxury markets: China (for its pure size) and Korea (for its crucial duty-free status). As a shopping destination, Korea is one of the most important places for luxury brands. That’s because it is easily accessible from Shanghai or Beijing, allowing the most top luxury consumers in the world (Chinese millennials and Gen Zers) to hop over, spend a weekend in Seoul, and shop duty-free. Additionally, the country also has its own strong domestic economy.

The list of brands embracing Korean superstars reads like the who’s who of luxury: Celine, Prada, Chaumet, MAC, Calvin Klein, and Bulgari, to name a few of the brands tapping into the allure of Korean music and acting superstars.

But some of these houses go above and beyond integrating K-Pop superstars into their brands. Gucci, in particular, has integrated the “Human Gucci” (Kai) closely. He was an ambassador for the Andy Warhol exhibition at the Hyundai Seoul (Seoul’s largest department store) and Gucci’s “No Space Just a Place” exhibition at Seoul’s Daelim Museum, a fluid integration of art and fashion. Meanwhile, Kai’s teddy bear capsule collection for Gucci sold out almost immediately this year, and he also starred in a Gucci video about self-discovery that inspired young audiences worldwide.

Gucci taps EXO member KAI for a teddy bear-inspired collection. Photo: Gucci

Meanwhile, Jennie from Blackpink, aka the “Human Chanel,” was instrumental in rejuvenating Chanel’s image across Asia, credibly connecting the brand with young, highly successful, and dynamic urban Asian women. In her social media appearances, she wears Chanel in every situation, signaling that the brand is not just for special moments but can be worn casually or formally while fitting perfectly into the jet-set lifestyle of one of the biggest names in showbusiness.

 

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The integration of K-Pop superstars into leading luxury houses is bringing the sexy back. However, they are doing it differently than in the 1990s and early 2000s, when sexiness was all about provocation. Now, these brands are creating an aspirational lifestyle and inspirational figures by combining depth and artistry with easygoingness and casual elegance.

As more brands are expected to jump on the K-Pop trend, they must make each collaboration meaningful and in line with their brand stories. Gucci and Chanel are excellent examples to follow. If a collaboration feels forced or ill-fitting, it can destroy more brand equity than it creates, as, in the end, these luxury brands must create extreme value for their customers.

Daniel Langer is CEO of the luxury, lifestyle and consumer brand strategy firm Équité, and the professor of luxury strategy and extreme value creation at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. He consults some of the leading luxury brands in the world, is the author of several luxury management books, a global keynote speaker, and holds luxury masterclasses in Europe, the USA, and Asia. Follow @drlanger

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The Future of Luxury