For those outside the kpop world, it might feel like BTS popped up out of nowhere and started to dominate the global music charts overnight. That, of course, isn’t true and in the words of the great Kenau Reeves ‘I’m a 10-year overnight success’, BTS has been on the music scene as a group since 2012/2013, with individual members starting their music careers underground since the early 2010s and before. But what makes BTS so successful?
There are hundreds, if not thousands of kpop groups. Some more successful than others and at the start of the early 2010’s only those groups from ‘the big 3’ entertainment companies in Korea were deemed good quality. Groups such as SHINee, SNSD, 2NE1 and Big Bang all came from one of these 3 top entertainment companies. This lead to TV shows (think Top of The Tops type entertainment) giving these groups more screen time — there was a huge amount of bias within the entertainment world.
2013 begins; BTS debuts and instantly have to fight for screen time. Coming from a smaller company outside the big 3, many looked down on the group and disregarded them as ‘another low quality-won’t last long group’. BTS remained in the shadow of popular groups like EXO who had quickly collected a large fan base. This battle lasted for many years, as trolls and reporters questioned the group’s abilities and generally mistreated them across different platforms.
One thing to note here for future reference is that groups or singers from the big 3 companies are usually ‘constructed’. Like an academy, they go through testing to get into the company and are then trained to sing and dance for many years until eventually, the company chooses certain people to link together to form a group. these chosen few are often very attractive and adhere to the ‘perfect person’ type personality. BTS didn’t form exactly in this way. Instead, members were scouted due to their abilities, starting with RM and Suga and then the group expanded. They still went through the same training process but the rules were much laxer and the members are often quoted to have said they joined simply because of the other members, not due to the company’s demands.
Suga and RM were underground rappers, Jimin was a contemporary dancer, JHope was a hip hop dancer and so on. Many, if not all of the members showed some natural talent before BTS began, adding to their authenticity and garnering more fans.
BTS knew they needed to do something different to even get recognised and began a type of authentic marketing strategy. Of course, for them, they didn’t view it in that way but this is the best way for me to explain it. They began documenting their lives, providing fans with live talks, discussed their struggles and hosting as many meet up as possible. Fans could ‘touch’ the member’s lives and get to know them in a personal way. The group documented every success no matter how little, including reaching 2k comments on Twitter, creating this community type fan base that we now call the ARMY.
Soon enough BTS’s company caught on and hosted online shows called American Hustle, Run BTS and Bon voyage. All of which their company did for fun and streamed across many platforms. These shows showed BTS in their natural form, giving them games to play and putting them in difficult situations. In American Hustle they were kidnapped (BTS did not know this was going to happen), in Run BTS (which now has over 100 episodes) they could do water sports and mountain trails, and in Bon Voyage, they were flown to other countries and told to work it out on their own.
Fans fell in love with their candid personalities, tight friendship and authentic appearance, something which has only reached the marketing world in the last 5 years.
Going forward a few years, their unique distinction separated them from the Kpop genre as they broke ‘kpop idol rules’ like drinking/getting drunk on camera, cutting their own hair and having relationships. All of which would never happen in the big 3 music companies.
Eventually, BTS released two chart breaking songs called Run and I Need You. These songs dominated the East Asian Music charts and international fans started to get interested. Due to the songs successes, BTS won awards and were given more screen time. Things finally started to turn fully in their favour and with a massive burst of international fans, the company responded by including English captions on their videos.
BTS kept adapting, giving both Korean and global audiences exactly what they wanted, ensuring all their content could be found on as many global platforms as possible.
As of right now, BTS is the most successful Kpop group ever. They have spoken at the U.N, been on multiple American and UK shows, been in the top 10 music charts across the world, in line to win a grammy and created a new law in Korea where singers can delay compulsory army training until they are 30. All this success from one thing, authenticity.
Audiences love authenticity. We lap it up when companies show personality on Twitter, or when GymSharks billionaire influencers marketing strategy worked, or even when TV show hosts mess up. We love authenticity and personality. This is how BTS rose to fame (and their talent) and its how companies can also rise.