K-Pop has been growing in popularity in the U.S. for the past few years. In 2019, BTS—the bestselling K-Pop act globally and the biggest K-Pop brand in the U.S. and most other markets—tied the Beatles as the only other group to have three albums hit number one on the Billboard charts in a single calendar year. As of mid-2020, BTS and the Beatles were the only two groups to have sold more than 1 million album equivalents for the year to date. American K-Pop fans have even been in the news this year for their political activism, using social media to redirect messaging, waylay plans, and/or take over hashtags of politicians and their followers with whom they disagree.
The merchandising activities of K-Pop groups, with the exception of BTS, have been relatively limited in the U.S. That seems surprising given their fans’ high level of loyalty and engagement, not to mention their robust sales of music. But many acts remain off the mainstream radar and the core age range of the ethnically diverse, female-skewing fan base (in their 20s and 30s) is higher than might be expected; both could be contributing factors to the lack of broad-based licensing to date. K-Pop’s presence in consumer products seems to be taking off this year, however, with merchandise being created for teens, tweens, and kids (aged 6 and up), as well as young adults:
- BTS, which has been involved in a variety of licensing deals over the past few years, both for the band and its BT21 characters developed with telecommunications company LINE, signed Epoch Everlasting last month for an array of seven collectible puzzles (one for each member of the group) tied to their latest album, Map of the Soul: 7. BTS also worked with Mattel163 on a BTS version of UNO! Mobile. In its home country, the group was featured in a promotion with Starbucks Korea that involved merchandise as well as menu items.
- Blackpink, represented by Bravado, saw its range of dolls and other playthings from Jazwares, first introduced at New York Toy Fair in February, debut in Target stores this summer. The products are inspired by three of the group’s music videos. Blackpink also appeared in PUBG Mobile, one of the most popular mobile games in the world, for two weeks this fall, backed by a number of promotional elements, and publicized its new album Ice Cream through a tie-in with the Postmates delivery service.
- SuperM launched a lifestyle collection with Marvel Entertainment to promote its new album, Super One. A limited-edition assortment of apparel, totes, hats, stickers, and accessories is being sold on SuperM’s website, representing the first component of a broader partnership that is expected to include co-branded content, more products, and fan experiences. SuperM is a supergroup (described as Avengers-like in press materials) formed from members of other top K-Pop acts, include SHINee, EXO, and NCT 127, as well as Chinese group WayV. SuperM’s management company SM Entertainment previously partnered with Marvel on merchandise tied to EXO-CBX, another of its acts and a spin-off of EXO.
- Two K-Pop groups, Itzy and Treasure, paired with LINE for collections of character stickers, similar to the range LINE developed with BTS under the BT21 name. The two groups’ fans are assisting in the product development by submitting designs and feedback. BTS and LINE offer the BT21 characters for outbound licensing—partners include the likes of Gund and Funko—a strategy that most likely can be expected for these new Itzy and Treasure characters as well.
While K-Pop acts have taken sporadic steps into U.S. licensing over the years, most of their activities, with the exception of BTS, have been targeted, short-term, one-off, and more promotional than product-oriented. But both the quantity of initiatives and their depth and breadth are on the rise this year, and more mainstream licensees are jumping on the bandwagon. This suggests that we may be at an inflection point that results in a longer list of licensing and collaboration initiatives, involving more K-Pop groups, as time goes on.
Watch for Raugust Communications’ October e-newsletter, which will arrive in in-boxes next Tuesday, October 20, 2020. The Licensing Topic of the Month will take a look at prospects for holiday sales of licensed products in this crazy year, while the Datapoint research spotlight will examine what strategies companies are using to address the issue of diversity. If you are not yet a subscriber of this monthly publication, you can sign up here.