#37: What Drove BTS to Stardom?
They've broken records, sparked a successful partnership with Mcdonald's and have one of the largest fanbases in the world - but how did BTS even get here?
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#37: What Drove BTS to Stardom?
I have to start this piece with an embarrassing confession.
Before 2021, I had never heard a song by the boy band BTS.
Sure, I knew who they were. I had loosely followed the rising popularity of their work and of K-pop in the US. But it wasn’t until this past March that I first heard their song Dynamite in a short performance at the Grammy Awards.
I was floored.
Can confirm, it is not only a certified jam but a subconsciously addicting one. Without warning, it will creep into every crevice of your psyche for weeks. I saw myself slip into a state of BTS-music driven pre-meeting routines, even a solid week where Jung Kook’s first hook in Dynamite was my morning alarm.
Hearing and experiencing the stickiness of Dynamite gave me a small glimpse into the phenomenon that was BTS. I suddenly felt like I had landed some invitation into a secret cultural in-group.
On April 26, I got to see more of it in action: BTS held a 1-hour live stream countdown featuring a cartoon stick of butter melting with a gentle sizzle. The livestream marked the release of their new single called Butter.
Butter, also a Mind Meld certified jam™️, quickly became the most viewed Youtube video on its first day, amassing 108 million views within 24 hours and beating an old record by - you guessed it - BTS themselves.
When Mcdonalds announced a collaboration with BTS for a new BTS Meal, it unsurprisingly went viral. The countdown tweets regularly got up to 300k likes and the video of BTS announcing the meal has now close to 3.6 million views.
The meal itself is a bit basic: Chicken McNuggets, a soda, and two new sauces popular in their Korean stores. But it wasn’t the actual meal I was curious about.
I was more and more curious about BTS.
There are hundreds of K-pop groups. Thousands of artists in the world. But BTS is somehow on their own tier.
Eye-popping accomplishments litter their Wikipedia. 20 different records in the Guiness Book of World Records. BBC has called them The Beatles for the 21st century. They have become the first Asian act to pass 5 billion streams on Spotify, first all-South Korean act to earn a number one single in the United States, and with the recent Grammys, the first Korean nominee to have their own Grammy performance.
In marketing, BTS is the closest thing to a social King Midas. Anything they touch is gold. Their content goes viral at blistering rates. Their fanbase, known as the ARMY, boasts more than 40 million members and an incredible nexus of engagement.
It’s perhaps no surprise that the Mcdonalds partnership was popular, but getting to the core of how their golden touch came to be is complex.
As I’ve read more and more about BTS, it turns out there is more than meets the eye. It’s a fascinating case study on the power of K-pop, a new paradigm in promotion, and the psychology of an undeterred fandom.
Let’s dive into… the rise of BTS.
Why is BTS unique?
Simple facts out of the way first - who actually is BTS?
Perhaps if you’ve opened this article, you already have an idea that they’re a boy band. More specifically, they’re a septet of seven - composed of Jin, J-Hope, Suga, RM, Jimin, V, and Jungkook. BTS is short for BangTan Sonyeondan, which I learned roughly translates to “Bulletproof Boy Scouts”. Badass.
As a complete K-pop outsider who has done much of my reading recently, I’ll admit my understanding isn’t fully fleshed out. So the below is more or less a simple primer.
First, it’s important to know a couple things about K-pop in general.
K-pop stars are known as “Idols”. They are music artists at their core, but in many ways, they’re more than that. They’re almost characters. Idealized personas that are crafted to represent a consummate person next door. You’ve probably never seen a K-pop idol that isn’t a good singer, dancer, and insanely good-looking human. This is by design.
Idols typically enter the system as trainees, spend an average of a few years training with a production company and then debut to the public. (If you’re interested in a 30k word breakdown of the entire process, great read here.)
Boy bands composed of male idols in South Korea have a much different role in culture than in the United States. Of course, there are waves here of boy bands - we’ve had Nsync, Boyz II Men, the Backstreet Boys, Jonas Brothers, One Direction etc. But off the top of your head, it’s hard to name even five or ten durable ones.
In South Korea, boy bands and girl groups are basically the cream of the crop. For almost two decades running, they have been largely the dominant force in music.
Take 2020 alone. More than 30 groups debuted, with 6 already in 2021. When BTS debuted in 2013, they were one of 20 groups that launched that same year following a record year in 2012 that saw almost 60 groups debut.
All this to say, it is very hard to make it as a K-pop group.
Yes, you have reached the 1% of people that get chosen by a company after an audition, the 1% of people that even debut from that company - but now you’re basically competing against hundreds of pop groups for a small slice of the same audience.
Add in the fact that K-Pop tends to be homogenous in themes - the music is largely family friendly, bubbly songs. The chips are stacked against any new group. It’s hard at any rate to differentiate.
But that brings us to BTS.
There’s a few unique things to know off the bat about BTS.
They are managed by a company called Big Hit Entertainment. This is partly a big deal because K-Pop had traditionally been run by a “Big Three” of entertainment companies: SM Entertainment, YG Entertainment, and JYP Entertainment. The three are responsible for some of the biggest K-pop groups of all time (including Blackpink and EXO) and it was almost a given that if you wanted to debut in K-pop and get a decent share of profits, you had to go to one of those three. But Big Hit benefited from timing, namely a number of scandals against the big companies. They are now not only well-positioned to exceed 1,000 billion Won on the market (yes, they’re public!) but it’s no exaggeration that 90% of Big Hit’s survival is probably contingent on BTS.
I mentioned above that a lot of content in K-pop tends to be artificial, songs about love and relationships. BTS is generally acclaimed for breaking the mold, exploring topics such as bullying, elitism, societal expectations on youth, mental health and social justice in their music. In a song called Sea, Suga raps lyrics that roughly translate to: "The desert became the ocean with our blood, sweat, and tears. But why is there this fear in between the happiness? Because we know too well that this place is really a desert”. Like, shit man. Good reflection wrapped in an even better metaphor. While a lot of K-Pop music tends to favor the general population, BTS knows that their audience cares deeply about their role in the world. They’ll call out class systems with ease, criticize consumerism and broach the taboo despite the discomfort it brings to older conservatives in South Korea.
The versatility of BTS has also been acclaimed. They are dancers and singers in their own right but the group also has rappers and the tendency to create nice, buoyant harmonies throughout their music. Take a look at Boy With Luv (yes, another Mind Meld certified jam™️) and you’ll see a perfect blend of the harmony, the integration of rap, and even a gentle mix of english lyrics with the Korean. BTS also co-writes and co-produces a lot of their own music. I want to stress, this isn’t normal. Most groups will have end-to-end production houses basically craft beats and music handed down to them and perform them with no real questions. BTS is unnaturally involved in their own creation. Throw in the fact that they’ve had two bangers (Dynamite and Butter) that are both entirely in their second language. It’s a marvel.
The final point is the BTS promotional strategy. Traditionally, most boy band groups in Korea relied on TV for popularity, which made it hard to travel and tour. To remain relevant, stars basically had to stay in the country to maximize their chance of staying on TV. BTS basically flipped the table on this and began to embrace social almost immediately. While it’s true that the timing was beneficial to them (they debuted at a time when Twitter and Instagram already existed), BTS has been known for having a particularly intimate interaction strategy with their fans, called the ARMY. They often live-stream practices, post their dance choreography on TikTok, and regularly keep a stream of content running on socials.
All this to say, there isn’t a single thing that makes BTS universally loved. It’s a combination of all of the above and a fair amount of luck and timing. But to understand the explosion of the Mcdonald's partnership, we have to dive a bit deeper into the environment around BTS - namely, its fans.
What makes BTS fans special?
Let’s start with a mind-blowing fact: From January 2013 to December 2020, there have been close to 2.4 billion social mentions of BTS.
If you’re doing the mental math there, that’s close to 958k mentions daily.
By comparison, the Mind Meld averages 1 mention on a good day. Crazy stuff.
While it might sound intense, it’s a microcosm in some ways of overall K-pop fandom.
In a deep dive on K-pop for the site Dormin, the author has a section focusing on K-pop fandom, namely how much more intense it is than Western pop.
The author cites University of Chicago Professor Jenna Gibson with a rationale for this:
“The K-Pop industry has very smartly built itself around creating incredibly dedicated fanbases. Fans with enough time on their hands could see their favorite idol on a music show on Monday, a fan sign event on Tuesday, a radio show recording on Wednesday, and on and on… Fan communities also take more personal responsibility for promoting their favorite group and keeping the group’s public image clean.”
But it wasn’t the commercial aspect of fan obsession that intrigued me. It was the psychological aspect.
The author cites some quotes from a Quora forum about K-pop idol Kwon Ji-Yong:
It almost goes beyond being a traditional fan of an artist. It’s a different kind of adulation.
Fans go beyond seeking entertainment from their idols: they seek fulfillment.
The author frames this as a byproduct of the concept of idols.
For the dedicated fan, idols are known less by their ordinary selves and more by the concept of their idealized selves. While people may not necessarily know J-Hope from BTS personally, his stage name alone comes from his desire to represent hope for fans. Fans can watch an idol and fill a void - and in this, the fandom of K-pop is more personal and intimate than traditional Western fandom.
Now, this isn’t to say Western fandom doesn’t have these types of fans but Western pop isn’t specifically manufactured for this type of fandom. There’s a reason K-pop protects and pumps money into its idols - they can have more influence than just making people bop their head.
There’s a term called parasocial relationship the author uses to describe this: how repeated exposure to a media persona causes people to develop illusions of intimacy, friendship and identification.
In some ways, it is similar to rooting for a sports team or company stock, as the author illustrates. There’s an inherent joy in the psychology of ownership. If you have an emotional investment in something, you want it to succeed.
Singapore Professor Sun Jung describes K-Pop fandom as almost an assertive bottom-up process where fans can keenly manage and systematically guide the groups they support. Nowhere is it more prevalent than the BTS Army.
This psychological intensity manifests into an almost unparalleled influence in boosting BTS content. Fans have made BTS music videos go viral on youtube, made BTS trend, and last year, even matched a $1 million dollar donation BTS made to Black Lives Matter in 24 hours!
Most of us enjoy new music, but few of us might take offense if our favorite artist didn’t chart high. The ARMY is certainly built different.
They take pride in their mission. A drive, a challenge of sorts. It’s definitely an interesting paradigm. Recalling the quotes about Kwon Ji-Yong, it seems to be turning a flywheel of sorts: you make the idol popular, they get happy, they make more music, and in some ways their recognition of your role in their happiness gives you the fulfillment you desire.
What’s also interesting in the case of BTS is the sub-following. Almost every single individual member will his own following.
One of K-pop’s famous inventions is the Fancam, basically a video that follows a single member across the stage.
As a social experiment, I decided to pick a favorite BTS member and spend a few hours in the mind of a J-Hope fan.
I watched a lot of J-Hope fancams over the past couple days and found myself not only fascinated by the concept of a Fancam (yes, they follow the person across the stage even when they’re not doing anything) but the comments themselves.
There is a singular focus on things you may not notice such as the dancing, especially prevalent for J-Hope being one of the better dancers. But it’s also a chance for people to talk about J-Hope himself, what he means to their life.
Similar to the comments above, it’s a step beyond celebration.
It’s the filling of a void.
Knowing what we know about BTS and now what we know about their fans, we start to get a pulse on why the Mcdonald’s partnership was almost destined to succeed.
What Does Mcdonald’s Have to Lose?
I considered titling this section “What is the strategy behind the McDonalds partnership?” and it’s a fair question that many marketing strategists are probably wondering. My friend Brianne Fleming even asked roughly this same question at her weekly #PopChat. (Great Twitter chat, personal plug!)
What is the magical insight McDonald’s has around this? Is it to reconnect with a younger audience? Promote a more feasible rollout of their sauce to a new market? Get more brand engagement and higher appeal? Increase earnings? All of the above?
We do know that this isn’t Mcdonalds’ first rodeo.
McDonald’s U.S. chief marketing officer Morgan Flatley says the following about famous orders:
No matter who you are, everyone has a favorite McDonald’s order — even the biggest celebrities. We always want to make sure that we stay relevant and current with our younger fans, and this program has helped us connect with a new generation and insert the McDonald’s brand in culture.
They recently did a partnership with Travis Scott promoting a meal he used to get in his childhood that was largely successful, followed by a partnership with J Balvin also promoting a meal of his choice. Successful in its own right but less so than Scott’s.
This became a battle in marketing circles on the importance of authenticity. Scott’s partnership won, strategists argued, because it was a meal he ate as a kid. There was no hesitation that he loved Mcdonald’s compared to J Balvin, who seemed to only go there on tours.
When the BTS meal was first announced, strategists pounced on the same question. Yes, the meal itself is simple. But did BTS members actually eat this? Yes, they chose the sauces but were the sauces personal favorites?
In my mind, I have a different question: Does it matter?
Honestly though, you have one of the biggest pop groups in the world with an extremely determined fanbase. Can you even rely on traditional influencer partnership strategy?
With Mcdonald’s, BTS is getting a brand that is already relatively well-known and popular in the eyes of consumers. But, if I think of the worst place I’ve ever eaten and BTS decided tomorrow that they were going to partner with them and introduce a new pizza at that place, I think it would somehow succeed. I genuinely think they could put it on the map.
For fans of BTS, the Mcdonald’s partnership maybe had about the same relevance as a new Youtube video for BTS. I have no idea how much of the ARMY likes Mcdonald’s but I’m wondering again if it even matters - they care about BTS being happy and Mcdonald’s is yet another pawn in the long game.
So yes, this section isn’t about Mcdonalds and their global marketing strategy, which I assume is very well done. It isn’t about their remarkable ability to activate a partnership in fifty countries, which I also find impressive. It’s about a more rhetorical question: What does Mcdonalds have to lose? What does anyone have to lose by partnering with BTS?
It’s hard to use traditional marketing frameworks when considering popularity in the size and scope of BTS. It frustrates us.
But ultimately, while Mcdonald’s is locked in its own battle for market share, they’ve basically inherited an army that is locked into their own.
If there’s one thing we can assume with the ARMY, it’s that they hate to lose.
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