In China, the expression ‘Korean Style’ has become a selling point. Korean fashion, make-up, cuisine and entertainment culture are getting more spotlight than ever before.

Riding the Korean Wave in China Pt. 1: Opportunities for Brands

Korea’s low-end cosmetics brand ‘Innisfree’ has already opened over 65 stores in the major shopping malls and streets in China since its launching in Shanghai two years ago. Its target this year is to open 100 stores. Aside from the great value for money the brand offers, the biggest contributor to the success of this brand is its endorser Minho Lee. He is a pin-up actor from Korea who is massively popularthroughout the Asian market after his appearancein several top-rating shows including ‘Boys over Flowers’, ‘City Hunter’ and most recently ‘The Heirs’.

While global brands are having a hard time penetrating the already saturated Chinese market,   Korean brands seem to have it easier than the others.

The Dominance of Hallyu

The secrets behind the so-called ‘Korean wave (Chinese: 韩流)’ phenomenon are the rapidly growing popularity Korean shows and the rise of online streaming as a major media channel in China.

Watching shows on online streaming sites is now one of the favorite activities of many people in their 20s and 30s. Brands in China have also expanded their marketing focus to putting commercials on those online streaming sites before the show starts. This trend greatly helped Korean showbiz to spread and appeal to a wider demographic far faster in the past few years. Korea’s prime time TV shows are shared with Chinese subtitles on China’s major streaming sites such as iQiyi and Youku after several hours they were aired in Korea.

‘My love from the stars’ (Chinese: 来自星星的你) which was aired in Korea during the beginning of this year was a sensation in China. It was listed in China’s leading video streaming sites such as iQiyi and hit close to 4billion views. It quickly became massively popular up to the point that a factory in China closed down for one day so that the workers can catch the final episode of the show. Even the wife of Xi Jinping, the President of the People's Republic of China, mentioned the show during the couple’s visit to Korea.

The influence of the well-made shows in the Chinese market can have broad economic impact. It is not just about gathering some fandom or having more tourists to the nation. It actually enables brands to successfully advertise themselves in the market even without being there.

Media as 'Trojan Horse'

Whatever the lead actors wear or eat during popular Korean shows becomes ahitand gets shared through Weibo (China’s leading social media) or  listed on Taobao (China’s biggest e-commerce site) in a few hours labeled as ‘~~ Style’ named after the lead characters.  The lead actors of the show ‘My love from the stars’ -  Su-hyeon Kim and Ji-hyeon Jeon received a number of love calls from major TV stations of China to be their guest. They have replaced other Chinese or foreign models to be endorsers of some major brands including Haagen-Dazs, Samsung, and Samsonite with unprecedented royalty fees. It’s now almost impossible to go out on a main street in the city of Shanghai without noticing one or two display ads or magazine stands with those Korean stars’ faces.

This diabolic popularity and hospitability towards Korean shows have definitely encouraged many Korean brands to enter the Chinese market. These shows have served as 'Trojan Horses' delivered graciously by Korea to the Chinese market but in reality a ploy to gain traction with local consumers. One successful example is NHN (Korea’s biggest internet company)’s mobile instant messenger LINE. LINE was one of the main sponsors of ‘My Love from the Stars’ and was featured many times as a main communication toolfor the characters. As a result, LINE became one of the top 3 most downloaded applications in the app store in China and grew by close to 15million users even before its full-fledged launching in China. Its online advertising film ‘One LINE Love’ featuring Lee Minho as an endorser got exclusively released thorough iQiyi for the Chinese fans and hit 20million views. It also expanded its capacities to the B2B business by partnering with leading convenience store Family Mart.

It used to be producers’ dismay that their shows get pirated and made into fake DVDs or be on online streaming sites in China. Now in Hollywood, reputable producers change their scripts to cast famous Chinese actors in order to attract the Chinese audience. Even more in Korea, the story and the cast are planned carefully to cater to the Chinese audience.

Sponsoring shows with high potential for success in China is probably the most promising way to enter this hyper-competitive market. However, as history has shown, China can never be an easy target. In Part 2 of this article, I will talk about the risks for brands riding this Korean wave in China, exploring cases including the blockage of messaging app LINE in China.

By Mandy Shin
Analyst Consultant