At a trade fair exhibiting Korean goods in Bangkok last month, whenever a customer came to the small booth where he was promoting beauty products, Jake Choi would use his smartphone to show them a video clip as part of his sales pitch.
The three-minute video includes a scene of popular South Korean actress Song Ji-hyo wearing Maychic eyebrow tint. Showing the product on a real celebrity would allow the South Korean cosmetics company, MCBrains Co., to quickly win the attention of buyers, a task that would otherwise take weeks or months.
Thai and other Southeast Asian buyers had never heard about MCBrains and its products, but Choi said they would quickly open their minds, and wallets, after seeing the video.
Song — well known in Asia for starring in the popular South Korean TV variety show “Running Man” — appeared in the video for free to promote MCBrains’ cosmetics and the consumer goods of 15 other smaller South Korean companies.
With Song’s endorsement, buyers were assured that South Korean consumer goods were safe to use. Her presence created a favorable impression that removed many hurdles in negotiations with buyers, Choi said. “We enjoyed enormous marketing effects,” Choi said.
His company was able to harness the power of “hallyu” — the Korean wave of popular culture — while promoting his products to foreign consumers during the two-day expo. MCBrains exported goods worth US$5,000 to a Thai firm last week, the first outbound shipment since it started operations in 2016.
The case illustrated how the rising popularity of hallyu products can boost South Korean exports.
Indeed, K-pop — which mostly features choreographed singing and dancing by boy or girl groups — has gained ground in not only Asia, but Latin America, Europe and the United States in recent years, and its impact is going beyond the cultural realm.
K-pop and the broader Korean Wave have resonated with young people around the world, burnishing South Korea’s image as a cool country home to K-pop phenomenon BTS and “Gangnam Style,” South Korean rapper Psy’s 2012 mega-hit song.
Hallyu has been the core of a major cultural transformation for a country that was long associated with the 1950-53 Korean War and tensions with North Korea over its nuclear and missile tests.
To boost exports of consumer goods, since 2010, South Korea has been holding a series of hallyu expos in China, Indonesia, Vietnam and other countries.
More recently, South Korea unveiled an ambitious plan to boost exports in five major consumer goods, including cosmetics and clothes, to $35 billion by 2022 from $27.7 billion in 2018.
In June, a total of 175 South Korean companies held business meetings with about 300 Thai and other Southeast Asian buyers in Bangkok on the sidelines of a hallyu expo that featured a performance of four-piece K-pop boy band WINNER.
The combined value of contracts that seven South Korean companies signed with Thai and other Southeast Asian buyers at the Bangkok expo reached $991,000, according to the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency.
The state-run trade promotion agency made a conservative estimate, putting the value of deals that could be signed in one or two years at $31 million.
Song Hyo-min, who runs ktown4u.com, an online shopping mall that specializes in sales of CDs of K-pop groups and their related goods, said the hallyu expos have been a boon for his company.
Increased demand from more than 200 countries for K-pop related goods drove his company’s sales to 38 billion won ($32.1 million) in 2018, a dramatic hike from 3 billion won in 2011, Song said.
“Hallyu marketing is a great help to smaller companies,” said Lee Sang-yun, deputy director handling hallyu expos at KOTRA.
KOTRA is planning to coax K-pop boy bands into participating in a hallyu expo in Dubai in October this year. The event could involve some 130 smaller South Korean companies, including cosmetic makers and content providers.
KCON, a global K-pop festival organized by South Korean entertainment giant CJ ENM, has also become a popular marketing platform for South Korean and foreign companies.
The two-day event at Madison Square Garden and the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York City earlier this month brought together 11 K-pop bands, including IZ*ONE, Seventeen, NU’EST and The Boyz.
Participating companies included Kakao Friends, a character brand of South Korea’s leading mobile messenger, Kakao Talk; Korean food brand Bibigo of CJ Cheiljedang Corp., South Korea’s leading food manufacturer; South Korean cosmetic companies and U.S. fast food giant McDonald’s.
The events drew about 55,000 attendees, offering a chance for South Korean companies to engage with visitors and promote their products to potential customers while offering free samples of Korean food.
KCON has taken place on 22 occasions in major cities around the world since its inaugural edition in Los Angeles in 2012.