Riding the Korean Wave in China Pt.2: Risks for Brands

By July 22, 2014
korea wave

As a Korean working in Shanghai, the influence of Korean wave always fascinates me. I have been reading a number of articles and also often had conversations with my colleagues regarding the topic, and learned that there are several hurdles for the Korean showbiz and brands should consider when entering the Chinese market.

The first hurdle is regulation of state government. It is a well known fact that some of world’s leading internet services like Google or Facebook are blocked in China. Either from their worries for propaganda or the protectionism for local enterprises, China’s state has the ultimate power to drive any business out of the country. It doesn’t only apply to the foreign companies but also to the local players. Thus, entering the Chinese market always entails a high risk. This is especially the case for social media or instant messaging services like LINE, where a service failure for even several hours can cause the drainage of millions of users. From July 1st this year, LINE’s entire messaging and relative services suddenly got cut off in the mainland China. Not just LINE, but also the famous photo sharing app – Instagram also mysteriously disappeared from the some Chinese app stores early this month. It is also speculated that the currently loose regulations around online streaming sites would be reinforced this year. If the Chinese government starts to regulate the number of foreign shows that can be listed or the contents, it’s also possible that some Korean shows get restricted.


The second hurdle is nationalist sentiment. As the popularity of Korean shows grew in the China, the voice of worries regarding ‘contents market being dominated by the foreign influence’ or ‘showbiz in Chinalosing creativity and power’ started to rise. For thousands of years, the Chinese believed that they were the origin and the center of the Northeast Asian culture. The recent booming of Korean culture and China’s young generation preference to foreign shows were enough to concern the society. Still, the perception toward Korean culture among the young generation is more towards curiosity and hospitality. However, if there is any small thing that could hurt the feelings and pride of Chinese audience, it can return as a severe stigma.


The third hurdle is the difficulty to protect intellectual property in the Chinese market. In the recent couple of years, the formats of some popular Korean shows ‘Where are you going, Dad?’(Chinese:爸爸去哪儿) and, ‘Running Man’ were sold to Chinese broadcasting stations. Along with the trend, there were even more low-budget productions that stole formats of Korean shows. However the bigger problem was to brands that wanted to enter the Chinese market using popular Korean shows. Many Korean brands spent a fortune to hire ‘Korean Wave’ stars for maximum marketing effect. However, they soon learned that, their ‘star marketing’ can get immensely diluted  with lots of street shops and C2C online shops frequently abusing the portrait rights of famous Korean actors such as ‘Suhyeon Kim’ or ‘Minho Lee’. This can severely ruin the high-end image of those celebrities, and also the credibility of the brands they are endorsing. Furthermore, since the apparel or accessory designs of the brands featured in the famous shows get quickly copied and distributed through the small e-commerce vendors in China, by the time those brands are ready to enter the market it gets too late for the brands to compete anymore.


From trend to Culture

As much as sponsoring good shows for brand exposure is a tremendous marketing opportunity for many Korean brands, it also entails big risks. In order to turn the Korean Wave into a permanent form of entertainment and culture, the attitude towards the market should shift from ‘one way street’ to ‘intersection’ for cultural exchange. Korean showbiz industry and brands could be more open to hiring Chinese actors and co-productions of movies and shows. The monetization strategy should not be opportunistic but for pursuing a long-term investment. The focus is in maintaining a good relationship with the Chinese productions, giving a positive impression to the Chinese audience, and investing in understanding the market. Most importantly, the product quality and commitment should always come first. It is likely for many producers and brands to become complacent and overly confident about the Korean brand name. The quality of the shows and also the sponsoring brands should both keep in mind that they affect the lifespan of the Korean wave in the Chinese market. More importantly, they should note that China is honing its skills to someday get back their past glory of being the center of culture and influence other nations in return. China is not hesitant in showing its ambition to do so, and it has been already witnessed across industries how quickly China can disrupt the global market. That is why the brands thinking of riding the heat of Korean showbiz to enter the market should be more careful and be even more ambitious.

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