How did a country that had a GDP per capita less than that of Sub-Saharan Africa in 1953 (ironically even less than that of North Korea, which had more natural resources and industry at the time) become one of the richest, most technologically advanced nations in the world just a single generation later? This story of success largely stems from the phenomenon known as the Korean Wave, or Hallyu Wave, an excellent example of the cultural economy.
Besides strategic policies by the government that shaped Brand Korea, a set of unique political and historical circumstances, and international aid, it is soft power that made the country the coolest, trendiest nation in Asia.
What drove Koreans to work so hard to rebuild their torn, postwar country was "Han" - a sense of helplessness and hatred towards the world and themselves for having been so weak that they had been historically a Chinese tributary state, then colonized by the Japanese and finally torn in half by the Cold War. The Korean desire for revenge was what drove them to work hard to the point of insanity and seek out sectors in which no other country had a competitive advantage. That is where soft power came in, utilizing influencer branding to their advantage.
The Hallyu Wave or Korean Wave was born out of a deliberate government effort to sell cultural exports and piggyback businesses and marketing for those businesses off them, creating a unique Korean pop culture. Korea became perhaps the only country in the world where the government actually created institutions for cultural exports and aggressively promoted them abroad. (A major driver of Hallyu was also the desire to beat the Japanese - Korea and Japan were both American allies and could not fight each other in war, and Japan has a much larger population and economy. Korea wanted revenge on their former colonial overlords by beating them in some other way, any other way. Soft power seemed like the most viable option)
Some of the strategies/channels they used were:
Dramas served as the staple driving force of Hallyu, at least in early days. They focused on having subtitles for every country they were exported to, with milder, non-sexual and family-centric themes that are all but missing in in-the-face, one dimensional American soaps. They were therefore enjoyed by all cultures and religions throughout the world, including the Middle East (the Korean government ensured that shows were broadcast at times where they did not clash with prayer time to avoid losing viewership in countries like Iran). Seeing success and hardship being overcome by characters in the shows and a newfound affluence being enjoyed by Asians was deeply resonating to viewers in developing Asian nations. They now saw evidence of someone who looked and thought like them had made it big in life; success and affluence was not just a luxury for Westerners.
Dramas also included several product placements, specially beauty products and electronics like the latest Samsung and LG phones that heavily and subconsciously advertised the brands.
BTS and Blackpink are just the tip of the iceberg, but the foundations for international Kpop stardom was already laid by previous hit groups like SNSD, Super Junior, TVXQ and perhaps most famously, PSY (artist behind Gangnam Style, although he not considered under the Kpop genre). Music was made to transcend the barriers of language, captivating fans with perfectly synchronised choreography, high-tech and flashy music videos, edgy fashion and an extremely unique aesthetic. Today BTS has become a standard topper of US charts, a country that does not speak anything close to Korean. Gangnam style remains the most watched video on YouTube
Parasite in 2020, and Minari in 2021 are just two recent examples of internationally award winning films that have not been impeded by the laziness of subtitle-averse viewers. Others, including the Handmaiden’s tale and Oldboy have gone above and beyond the commonly western themes and focused on uniquely dark, Han-based vengeance storylines that have greatly appealed to international film aficionados.
Korean Beauty Trends:
Korean beauty and skincare brands like Sulhwasoo have blossomed with Hallyu, being widely used and associated with actors and musicians alike. What has made them so incredibly successful in Asia in particular is that they use Asian celebrities as their brand faces, not White western ones used by brands like L’Oreal. This has made them much more relatable to buyers in lesser developed Asian countries, who aspire to the same level of affluence recently gained by the Koreans, people who look like them and share similar values
Korean Food Culture:
Shin Ramyeon and Nongshim, Lotte’s choco pie are just among the many food exports that have become commonplace in other countries, including India after being heavily advertised in K-dramas and movies. This strategic promotion of Korean Food Culture has become rapidly sought after, with even ordinary Indians being well aware of highly traditional Korean dishes like jjajangmyeon, Kimchi jjigae and Tteok-bokki.
A by-product of all the above media, tourism saw a massive boost and put Korea on the map. Tourists from all over Asia flocked to the country to see where their favourite dramas had been shot, taste the food that they had seen on screen and get as close as possible to their idols.
Tourism has made foreigners much more open to Korea and vice versa, to the point that many foreigners are even considering coming to Korea to study, learn the language and work, adding much needed diversity and talent to a highly homogeneous and rapidly ageing society.
The Korean story is a textbook example of how soft power exports can boost exports of other sectors of the country and create an irreplicable competitive advantage.
Brand Korea has mastered the art of influencer branding through its Korean pop culture stars, and a focus on the cultural economy has played a pivotal role in the Hallyu Wave. Brand Korea uses influencer branding in a unique way that takes it to another level by associating brands with an entire country and culture rather than any one individual or set of individuals.
A country like India has massive amounts of soft power than remain largely undercapitalised - yoga is an Indian export but has been harnessed far better outside India than within the country. Bollywood remains confined to the linguistic (Hindi-speaking population) and intellectual tastes of mainly Indians and Indian diaspora, with a few foreign exceptions. Our food cuisine remains globally popular, but has yet to gain the same chic appeal as Japanese or French cuisine has. Ayurvedic medicine remains undersold abroad. Our tourism and education industries have much scope for further growth.
Soft power becomes a geopolitical tool that can shape the image of an entire country, and therefore the companies and brands it encompasses
In an era where geopolitics is rapidly becoming the unstated mother of business, there is much to be gained from becoming the next Asian nation of cool, as demonstrated by Brand Korea’s success with the Hallyu Wave.
Just as Korea has become the most desirable kid on the bloc throughout East and South East Asia, the Middle East and CIS, India too could use its ancient, massive cultural behemoths to become the next cultural superpower.
Indian businesses must learn to work in tandem with the government and cultural organisations to have a collated offering and sell not just their own products but brand India as a whole to the world.