There is a lot to be excited about and learn from the triumphs of the South Korean supergroup—even in the way they have built a hit international brand.
Kim Namjoon! Kim Seokjin! Min Yoongi! Jung Hoseok! Park Jimin! Kim Taehyung! Jeon Jung Kook! BTS!
Unless you’ve been living off the grid the last two years, you’ve at least heard of “BTS.” Whether you like them or not, the musical act from South Korea has become an international sensation.
I moved from casual listener to full-on ARMY (the official name of the fandom) quite quickly, especially over the last year and half. Have I listened to their songs so often that I can identify them before the first bar even plays through? Yes. Did I successfully “recruit” friends by sending them links curated to their specific interests in the hopes that I would gain more ARMY peeps? Yes. Did I start learning Korean because I wanted to understand their songs better? Yes. But this isn’t about that.
Today, I set aside my ARMY bomb to pinpoint three key lessons I’ve picked up about how to create a successful brand, sustain it, and maybe even make some money. All gleaned from closely watching The Rise of Bangtan, which, incidentally, is also one of their earlier songs.
See, the more I found out about them, the more I became fascinated not only by the seven members, but in the machinery behind them as well. There is a reason for all their success that includes, but isn’t limited to, their music and good looks.
While BTS and their label Big Hit Entertainment are now synonymous with success, that wasn’t always this way. When they first started, the company was small, with decreasing revenue, and minimal success.
Through savvy decisions, the courage to take chances and, according to man-at-the-driver-seat Bang Si-Hyuk, “a little bit of luck,” Big Hit is now the corporate juggernaut known as HYBE, and BTS is a worldwide phenomenon that continues to grow in popularity.
Before we continue, a disclaimer: I do not mean to say that these are things that only BTS/HYBE has done. The group or person you stan might also be employing these methods. And honestly, that’s not a bad thing. We should find inspiration wherever we can these days.
What these are, simply, are three lessons I’ve picked up through my personal experiences of being ARMY.
It’s always best to have more than one source of income. It’s even better when a few of those sources come from passive income streams. Isn’t it the dream to earn money without actively working?
HYBE understands this and have become experts at the marketing game. For example, aside from sales of regular merchandise (albums, ticket sales, clothing), they are astute at partnering with other companies whose strengths (and markets) complement theirs.
An example is BT21, a line of cute characters created in partnership with Line Friends. Working closely with BTS, seven of the BT21 line are meant to represent each member —they often call these characters their “kids”—with one extra persona that is said to represent ARMY.
Last year, the company also launched Tiny Tan, chibi versions of BTS. Of course, BT21 and Tiny Tan have their own social media channels, merchandise, and even partnership deals.
The diversification also creates more endorsement opportunities. BTS recently signed on as brand ambassadors for Smart Communications, while Tiny Tan is collaborating with Globe Telecom’s KmmunityPH. It’s a win-win.
(For the record: I am typing this wearing an official BTS t-shirt, listening to their new single “Butter” using BT21 Cooky wireless earbuds, while a Tiny Tan figurine is watching me from my side table. I might also be browsing through their McDonald’s collaboration merchandise and thinking about buying the socks.)
It is hard to deny that the BTS-ARMY relationship is one of the strongest bonds in the music industry. There is very little that ARMY won’t do for BTS, or in the name of BTS, whether it’s hosting streaming parties online to break records, fund buying parties to chart new albums and songs, or donating to charities.
Last year, after the group quietly donated $1 million to the Black Lives Matter movement, the fan-led organization One in an ARMY organized a #MatchTheMillion campaign and reached their goal within 24 hours.
The money raised from donations worldwide was split between 16 different organizations including the Black Lives Matter Global Network, NAACP, and the Marshall Project.
And in an age where album sales are in decline, BTS’ albums continue to enjoy astounding success with physical and digital copies. Their last full album BE, rang in at over three million copies sold in six months.
What’s the secret? BTS has cemented their place in ARMY’s hearts through legitimate connections with their fanbase. When your target market feels that you are genuine—as well as genuinely interested in them—they will support you because they want you to succeed. And the group has achieved this through several ways.
One of them is through Weverse, an online platform owned by HYBE, that features curated multi-media content from artists. Fans can post messages, which sometimes the members will reply to. The members post their own content, mostly photos, that are different from those they post on their official Twitter and Instagram accounts.
Across all platforms, BTS is also not afraid to speak honestly to their fans. They are not afraid to be seen as less than perfect. They have been open about their struggles with insecurities, mental health battles, and their fears. They are, despite their rising status, seen as relatable.
They are also vocal about what ARMY means to them, never hesitate to attribute ARMY as a big reason behind their success during interviews, and find avenues to express this love for the fandom in numerous ways.
This includes writing down “ARMY” in the snow while they were filming their travel show Bon Voyage in New Zealand, sneaking in the phrase “got ARMY right behind when we say so” in their latest single (the members even form the word ARMY in the music video), and in JK’s case, getting ARMY tattooed across the knuckles of his right hand.
“There are so many blessings we could’ve gotten for these eight years, but I guess for the whole journey, the best luck we ever had is that we all have you guys all over the world,” says the group’s leader RM in a March 2021 interview with USA Today.
The pandemic hit the pause button on BTS’ plans, including a sold-out world tour. Instead of sitting back, their label pivoted and set their eyes on the digital space, streaming past concerts for free, making previously paid content available to their growing worldwide audience.
This amounted to about 30 hours of free content over the course of three days, two in 2020 and one this year. They held two livestreamed concerts, selling tickets online, with HD/4K options and six different camera views to choose from.
Then they took it a step further and used a real-time interactive wall made of pre-selected ARMY as part of the remote concert experience. Another live concert is scheduled for the middle of June. (Yes, I have my ticket. Why would you even need to ask?)
I will be the first to acknowledge that these acts aren’t purely altruistic. These are well thought out strategies to stay relevant during a time when the group can not promote to physical audiences. But this does not diminish the fact that Big Hit and BTS go above and beyond in terms of the sheer volume of content, the quality of content, and the creativity they employ in creating the content.
They don’t have to sing in front of a royal palace or create entire sets for a TV guesting or find almost 40 different ways to perform the same song. But they did. And respect must be given for that. They do not know how to phone it in. They do not live by “pwede na yan.” And that’s just one side of the BTS brand.
They lay claim to a discography with songs ranging from pop to trap to lo-fi jazz. As SUGA likes to say, “BTS is the genre.” Their sound, their look, and even their literal hair colors have changed throughout the years, keeping things fresh for fans who look forward to seeing something new from familiar faces.
What remains consistent is their intention of making music that brings comfort, with a conscious desire to continue inspiring fans to be true to themselves, to live in hope, and continue dreaming. And they never do it in half-measure.
The world isn’t always bright, and happy. Neither are we. But when we embrace our shadows, we realize that there is light. And for millions of ARMY across the globe, myself included, BTS has been a source of that light through their music, their video content, and their personalities.
This combination of constant growth while remaining true to their core has been a factor in their global success. The authenticity, sincerity, and humility are hard to explain if you’ve not burrowed into this rabbit hole but I can honestly say that I can see, feel, and appreciate it. The “it” that can’t be measured by metrics yet still translates to million-dollar sales.