Benji Long from Crowd DNA’s Futures, Semiotics & Listening team kicks off the first post of our Listening In series - demonstrating how we get to cultural meaning through social data. First up, a look inside the fandom of K-pop superstars BTS...

K-pop (that’s Korean pop music) is taking the West by storm. With precision-perfect choreography, EDM riffs and bubblegum melodies overlaid on Korean rap lyrics about mental health, there’s something distinctly novel about this phenomenon. K-pop support is also huge on social media: in the last year there were 541m tweets relating to the genre in the US, and 11m in the UK. Disconcertingly, it’s a hotter topic online than climate change…

In the UK and US, K-pop is provoking more conversation than global warming - and the volume keeps growing
In the UK and US, K-pop is provoking more conversation than global warming - and the volume keeps growing

Amid the wider conversation, one band totally dominates. BTS, aka Beyond The Scene, are a seven-piece boy band that have been drumming up wild support, including seeing their supporters win Best Fan Army at the 2018 iHeartRadio Music Awards. But what is it, exactly, that has built up this fan-force, and why should we be paying attention? Faced with this extraordinary phenomenon, we decided to use social listening to dig a little deeper and understand more about what BTS represent.

First, The BTS hype

Fan love for BTS
Fan love for BTS

BTS have an intensely intimate relationship with their fans. While fan devotion of this kind is nothing new, their constant online conversation with the ‘army’ is staggering. There’s a real sense of religious fervour towards them. too: in the last six months, there have been 350,000 posts online containing BTS and ‘angel’.

Individual group members regularly come out with personal stories, connecting with their fans at every opportunity. From their rags to riches narrative – one that sets them apart from other groups in the K-pop industry – to their willingness to open up to their fans, BTS play strongly to themes of authenticity (whether engineered or not!). But it’s not just about keeping it real: they’re also provoking conversation and challenging norms in two areas:

1. Identity Fluidity

RM inspires young people to be themselves
RM inspires young people to be themselves

The band actively confront gender stereotypes by dressing in ‘feminine’ clothes and wearing make-up. They speak up for the need to be true to yourself. By normalising this, they are reaching out to a mainstream audience with a powerful message about being who you want to be; particularly resonant for those in their formative teen years or those feeling marginalised.

Their latest album, ‘Map Of The Soul: Persona’, is titled after a famous book about Jungian theories on identity by Dr Murray Stein. In the first song, member Kim Nam-joon (aka RM or Rap Monster) wonders: “‘Who am I?’ is the question I’ve had all my life / And I’ll probably never find the answer.” Joining BTS on this journey of self-discovery ranks highly in their appeal to fans.

Make way for feminist kings BTS who took lessons from Korean professors of feminism to write their lyrics and treat everyone equally regardless of their gender!” – Twitter user

2. Talking About Mental Health

The important stuff
The important stuff

Either through their music or sharing views in very public forums, BTS strongly encourage their fans to acknowledge mental health issues and to be more understanding of the emotional struggles we all face.  RM (that’s right – Rap Monster) spoke about mental health at the Unicef Love Myself fundraiser, encouraging young America to follow their dreams, and to ignore social and cultural obstacles.

More recently, in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, BTS member Suga discussed how important it was for those who have a platform to use it to talk about mental health: “If they talk about it openly – if they talk about depression, for example, like it’s the common cold, then it becomes more and more accepted.” Their fanbase are responding. In the last six months, there have been 3.2 million social posts containing BTS and ‘thank you’ – and with 85% positive sentiment.

BTS are Asian men that are open about talking about mental health and stressing the importance of emotional intelligence. Let that sink in.” – Twitter user

The K-Wave Keeps Rolling

Thanks to their cultural impact, the BTS septet are credited with fuelling the number of Hallyu (or Korean Wave) advocates across the globe to almost 90 million – playing a lead role in the increase in popularity of South Korean culture since the 1990s. You might also have been enjoying more Korean cuisine of late (kimchi), drama (Netflix’s Okja) and even footballers (Tottenham Hotspur’s Son Heung-min).

Hallyu is a deliberate initiative started by former Korea president Kim Dae-jung, mobilising cultural resources to build up positive associations with the country. But beyond this official promotion, BTS has shown how powerful people-to-people diplomacy can be. The band has over 18 million followers on Twitter, and in 2017 had the most liked tweet worldwide.

It’s estimated that around 7% of all tourists visiting South Korea were motivated to do so by their love of BTS.

Fan Purpose For Brands

BTS x Converse collab - as seen in 'Fake Love' video
BTS x Converse collab - as seen in 'Fake Love' video

Fan purpose is a powerful form of currency for young people, especially when they can connect through shared experiences across cultural divides to promote positive values and ideas. BTS make a case for not being afraid to stand up for what you believe in – and fans can join the cause by showing their allegiance. While brands might not have the dance routines or rap rhymes, BTS show the value in representing issues and themes that maintain relevance across borders.

Measuring and analysing social trends is part of how Crowd DNA provides culturally charged commercial advantage to brands all around the world. If you need to understand more about a category, theme or topic, and want to find out if social listening can get you to answers, contact us at hello@crowdDNA.com.