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  • Writer's pictureDeonna Lindsay-Lewis

World-Build Like A K-Pop Idol

Updated: 6 days ago


Allow me to introduce you to the big-daddy example of world-building: The phenomenon that is K-pop where the groups are universes unto themselves and each idol is his/her own planet.

K-Pop groups are masters of storytelling, over-the-top immersive experiences, merchandising and selling.


Here, fans aren't just consumers; they're the epitome of a cult-following and the lifeblood of a vibrant, fan-driven economy. Imagine a world so immersive, fans camp out digitally (all night long) for concert merch that sells out before a single note is sung. How about the fact that they can make millions in 2.5 seconds off of an album drop, turn around and repackage the EXACT SAME ALBUM with a different cover and sell out in record time AGAIN?!?! To the EXACT SAME people!!! And speaking of merchandising, these groups inspire unboxing experiences that have you dissect the most beautifully packaged idol bomb with the precision of a neurosurgeon and lust of a seventeen year old pubescent virgin-intent on unveiling sacred artifacts, not missing a THING-lest you DIIIIIIIEEEEE!


So yeah, we’re going to Press Play on this wild, wondrous world, and find out how you can weave some of that K-pop magic into your own universe, creating a space where loyalty knows no bounds, and every interaction feels like a high speed bullet train through Gyeongju.




LANDSCAPE/ATMOSPHERE:

K-pop isn't just music; it's a gateway to immersive experiences that blur the lines between digital and physical realms. Creating a smorgasbord of visual eye-candy, identity systems, an insane execution of performance, and beautiful merchandise that rivals museum collections is what give each K-pop world gravity. 


Each group crafts a complete fan-ecosystem elevating music to just one part of an expansive universe filled with interactive pop-ups, fashion, games, characters, web-toons, beauty products, and more. And within it, each idol is a world unto themselves, creating original content, spin off projects/groups, and collaborations while literally becoming their fans’ biases. 


Groups make a strategic decision to build their world around their fans-which creates an extreme feeling of closeness and intimacy. Like characters in a book or actors in a movie, you become emotionally invested in your favorite idols. You miss them already when you learn that it’s their turn to enlist, you're proud when they have a successful solo project, you care about if they’re happy, sad, or lonely, and because they are masters of creating special moments for their fans, they’ll make you feel as if they care the same about you. 


Press Play: Side Effects by Stray Kids

Consider your business a galaxy unto itself. How can each team member or product become a world unto themselves? How can the building of these individual brands support the larger universe and create insane loyalty as its main side effect? Consider how all of the individual parts could be their own content packages (complete with their own back stories, experiences, point-of-view, unique contribution) that come together to tell the greater story of your universe.


HISTORY & CULTURE

Centering Korean culture, K-pop has amassed global appeal and cultural exchange that is something like a phenomenon. Fans take a deep dive into Korean culture to understand the nuance behind what makes their idols tick. We witness how younger group members acknowledge older group members (and vice versa), we immediately understand the sense of duty in enlistment, we witness humility in every expression of gratitude, we watch them live out their lives from the foods they find comfort in and can even learn Korean with our favorite groups-after all, most of our idols are also working hard to learn our language as well. 


The world of K-pop is deeply steeped in Korean culture; however, the K-Pop companies themselves give their worlds history and culture by creating backstories for each group and/or subunit. They have entire lore strategy teams dedicated to this MF-ing genius! Want to see it in action? 


EXO is considered to be the father of K-pop lore worlds. The backstory they created for their world goes something like this: 


In a timeless tale, twelve "forces" form two subunits, EXO-K (Korean) and EXO-M (Mandarin), to guard the split Tree of Life hidden between two similar worlds. They fight the evil Red Force (which coveted the heart of the Tree of Life), aiming to purify it and merge into a single, perfect root to unveil a new, perfect world.


Creating this rich origin story that serves as the backdrop for the group (or universe) allows each idol (or world) to obtain special “powers” (which get revealed in their song and video “Power”). They create a myriad of digital and physical breadcrumbs that allow their fans to follow and live out the story as it unfolds. EVEN MORE important, because EXO is rooted in lore, it’s given them tremendous flexibility. For instance, EXO-M is no more, and its one remaining member, Lay, has joined the EXO core group. They've adapted and allowed their story to evolve in real time-adding more tension, twists, surprise and interest- instead of having to rebrand. 


How about another example of lore strategy at work? Check out the back story of K-pop group ATEEZ: 


Set in a dystopian world, ATEEZ, are an insurgent group planning a coup to overthrow a system that has banned music and art; reigniting a world dimmed by silence and monochrome. 


Ah, a sticky Rebel Storyline! They then activate their story with mystery QR codes that distribute content to build upon the narrative. 


It’s important to note that these stories don’t get told in chronological order; rather, they serve as a jumping-off point (a sticky, solid concept) from which groups build their identity systems, experiences and so much more! 


Press Play: Wonderland by Ateez

Create a 2-3 line grand narrative that gives your world history. Is your world already grounded in the culture of your heritage? How can that play a part in creating a multi-layered Wonderland  for your storytelling and world-building? 


PEOPLE & LANGUAGE

Within the universe of K-pop groups, their inhabitants or natives, are their fans. They create an ecosystem where their fans are not simply consumers of content, but the inspiration and driving force behind it. In the K-pop universe, fans are considered passionate, sophisticated experts who contribute to the artistry and innovation of the world. And they come with their own language! 


Outside of the native tongues of the idols and fans alike, words like “bias”- the idol you most adore within a group, and your “bias wrecker”- the idol who you’re growing more and more in love with who sometimes makes you rethink your whole bias, are part of the everyday language of K-pop. 


You could lose yourself in fan theories (as they work to piece together lore, set lists, content drops, and how every piece fits within the grand narrative), and group glossaries the likes of Stray Kids


The more fluent you are in the language, the easier it is for fans to determine if you’re a visitor, a resident, or a lost grifter who’s somehow stumbled upon the welcome gates.


Press Play: Growl by EXO

Your work needs language lest you leave your people to grunt and growl. How can you create a lexicon for your people? How can you inspire a community so tight-knit, that they create that vocabulary for you? Having common language transforms your people into insiders-gives them a place to live that they never want to leave. 


VISUAL STORYTELLING

Now to take a deep dive into the eye and ear candy all packaged to complement a sticky AF concept or narrative. Oftentimes K-pop groups will create a concept around a particular album (from the opening beats to the final design of the album packaging) or create videos that further the storyline-dubbed "Storyline MV's". In other words, the concept is for a single item (album, artist, product, etc.) and the storyline ties multiple concepts together to create a grand narrative.


K-pop MV’s are not just performances but a vibrant trifecta that showcases the group's current concept, idols’ talents and looks, and iconic choreographies. The secret formula that has captured hearts around the globe? They tease the narrative with artful ambiguity and narrative gaps, serving more like short films than traditional music clips, that leave room for imagination and interpretation. This creative interplay between the artists and the audience is distinct to K-pop, transforming music videos into a shared canvas for collective storytelling. It’s a completely novel viewing experience that fuels a give-and-take relationship where viewers become co-creators. The audience is invited to participate, leading to fan theories, fiction, and discussion.


BTS “Wings” Teaser #4. Here is a great example of this open-ended short film-style in action: 



K-Pop choreography is an art form altogether. Idols showcase their dedication to the craft within their MV’s and concert performances alike. Check out 24 Hrs by Seventeen to see an example of this at work, followed by a choreography video that breaks down each step so that fans may follow along. 






“Dum Dum” by Red Velvet is a glorious example of the trifecta at work with striking color, stunning architecture, picture perfect idols, and the vocal and choreographic prowess to match. 



“S-Class” by Stray Kids. I love this example as it showcases their SKZOO concept that is each idol’s representative animal.






Think you know what's inside a K-Pop album?

Think again! These aren't just any ordinary albums; they're treasure chests brimming with photos, concept books, and special goodies that transport you right into the heart of the album's narrative. 


Take, for example, GOT7's "DYE," an album that dares to draw its inspiration from the classic tale of Romeo and Juliet. Not only does it feature a lush, hardbound cover fit for any literary aficionado, but it also comes complete with a bookmark to keep your spot as you waltz between the realms of music and classic literature.



And how about this album drop from EXO-SC?



The FML album from Seventeen is a perfect example of how a group repackages albums to sell multiple copies. Idol groups will release albums that contain different photoshoots, a twist on the concept (note how the meaning of FML changes from cover to cover), and special-edition albums as shown below.





After absorbing all that energy, it's raindrop clear. K-Pop changes the game with storytelling that pervades every beat and visual. There's a powerhouse strategy within K-Pop's 'concepts'—a mastery in keeping the narrative alive and kicking across all platforms, from meticulously crafted identities, web-toons, and thunderous tracks to visually stunning album packages. 


Press Play: Pink Venom by BlackPink

How can your brand utilize this same high-octane approach to storytelling? How can you create narratives that feel like a question- a “What does this want to be?”; rather than a declaration? By considering who is on the viewing end, you can extend an opportunity to co-create with you, spinning a tale dripping in pink venom that everyone wants to tune into, time and time again.


TECHNOLOGY

K-pop wields the power of technology not just to WOW its fans but to envelop them in a universe so immersive, stepping into it feels like magic made real. Imagine this: stepping into an arena, armed with a lightstick- emblazoned with your favorite group's logo. When the lights go down, they come to life with a dazzling orchestra of light, each one syncing perfectly with the beat, creating a visual symphony of unity and excitement that's palpable in the air. This isn't just a light show; it's a collective experience, a moment of magic in the palm of your hand, perfectly synced with the heartbeats of thousands.


And then there's We-Verse, a digital haven where idols and fans converge in an exclusive online space. Here, fans get their hands on unique merch, deep-dive into interactive video games, and, most thrilling of all, share private chats with their idols. It's intimate. It's special. It's like having backstage passes that never expire.


And don't even get me started on mini albums. It's in these bite-sized masterpieces that technology truly shines, encapsulating vast thematic concepts boiled down to a singular QR code allowing the end user to digitally download the music. K-pop groups use augmented reality in photobooks and interactive app content tied to each release which blurs the lines between the digital and physical, creating a 360-degree sensory adventure that fans download, listen to, unbox, and carry along on their key chains everywhere they go.


But wait, the tech spectacle doesn't end there. Imagine the grandeur of virtual stages, constructed to foster connection in times when physically coming together wasn't an option. BTS's "Bang Bang Con" is the epitome of this innovation, breaking barriers and setting a Guinness World Records title for the most viewers at a music concert live stream. They took their traditional tour completely online for a two-day experience that earned 50 million viewers. This is K-pop – always pushing the limits, always together, even when apart.




Press Play: Glitch Mode by NCT Dream

How can we use technology to create new experiences and ways for our audience to interact with our products, services, and people? Turn every touchpoint into an extraordinary experience that captivates, connects, and converts. Imagine catapulting your audience into Glitch Mode; a realm where boundaries blur, and the real and digital worlds converge to create magic.


ARTIFACTS AKA BREADCRUMBS

Artifacts (affectionately known as ) Breadcrumbs are what we leave behind to lead people deeper into our narrative as well as evidence that echoes “I was here and it was brilliant!” long after we’re gone. 


In the K-pop universe, artifacts are gateways that usher fans into worlds brimming with painstakingly designed narratives. Every visual element, down to the most seemingly trivial, serves a dual purpose: to further the overarching theme and to entice fans into a multi-dimensional experience. 


Take TXT's "Minisode: Blue Hour," for example—a masterclass in turning fan interaction into a fine art. Fans are drawn into the narrative right from the get-go, lured by the promise of a video game-style adventure on their official site, where navigating through the members' photos and themed aesthetics feels like leveling up in a game. But the adventure doesn't stop there; it spirals out, weaving through their discography and merch with interactive challenges, secret-coded galleries, and geo-tagged clues that elevate simple fan engagement to an exhilarating cross-platform scavenger hunt. Welcome to the era of K-pop, where every album drop is a mission, and every promo shot is a portal to untold stories. 


BTS is also at the forefront of this revolution, with pop-ups near tour spots teasing the dream of evolving into massive city-wide theme parks. The vision expands beyond creating hits and eye-catching visuals; it's about conjuring up all-encompassing experiences where fans can plan their entire journeys through the We-verse app. Imagine booking a stay at a K-pop themed hotel, hitting up dedicated pop-ups, indulging in exclusive idol-themed dishes, all culminating in a concert that feels like stepping into a Coachella on steroids. 


This grand vision reinvents fan interaction, inviting followers not just to observe but to step into the story worlds themselves, erasing the divide between reality and imagination in the most spectacular way!


Press Play: Sugar Rush Ride by TXT

Instead of simply creating artifacts- a logo, an app, a website… Consider how your brand can spin these individual elements into a delicious trail of breadcrumbs leading your people deeper into your story or concept. The key word here is “Immersion”. It’s a “hopper” ticket across platforms and experiences that gives your audience one hell of a sugar rush ride leaving them screaming, “Gimme more!”



COLLABORATION

The byproduct of great world-building is big brands knocking down your doors for exclusive collaborations. By now, I don’t have to explain how any product that comes remotely close to a K-Pop idol is certified GOLD. Both K-pop bands and artists alike have landed some pretty impressive brand collaborations striking deals with major brands as ambassadors- offering a unique opportunity to engage and immerse fans in a meaningful way. Let’s dive into a few! 


Black Pink X Starbucks 


PHOTO: STARBUCKS


Baekhyun X Burberry




Rose X Yves Saint Laurent 


PHOTO: SAINT LAURENT/INSTAGRAM


How about ads that feel like music videos?!?!?! This campaign makes every sip feel like a Happy Feelings anthem comparable to a hit song. Coca-Cola X NCT 127 "Taste The Feeling" 





Apart from brand partnerships, K-pop fans LIVE for the moments when their favorite idols collaborate with members both inside and outside of their groups to form spin off groups and performances. 


Check out former BigBang member Taeyang enlisting Blackpink’s Lisa for the track "Shoong" from his EP Down To Earth.






What happens when powerhouse duo SM Entertainment and Capitol Music Group collaborate? You get Super M, a spin off group of talent drawn from four iconic bands: Shinee's Taemin, EXO's Baekhyun and Kai, NCT 127's Taeyong and Mark, alongside WayV's Ten and Lucas. Check out their chart topper, "Jopping".





And K-pop's foray into global music creates new sounds by blending cultures. Take a look:


Nicki Minaj X BTS "Idol" 



Lady Gaga X Black Pink "Sour Candy"




Coldplay X BTS  "My Universe"




Jason Derulo X Lay, NCT "Let's Shut Up & Dance"



Through these strategic partnerships, K-pop has seamlessly integrated itself into a colossal business empire that encompasses music, movies, dramas, fashion, cuisine, and even a distinctive lifestyle-turning everyday products into must-have collector's items and transforming ordinary experiences into moments of fan-driven passion.


Press Play: Butter by BTS featuring Megan Thee Stallion

World synergy is what you get when you find other brands whose vibe aligns with yours like butter-where together you make beautiful brand babies that bring home the bacon. How can your brand partner with others to create cool new spin offs, apparel, products or services? Create a list of dream brands as well as options that exist right in your own back yard!


BELIEFS

Every world needs a belief system-it’s what makes it more believable; gives it gravity. In the world of K-pop their values are front and center, put on display for all to see. At the heart of this vibrant universe, cultural diversity, fan appreciation, engagement, and the universal language of love and kindness are not just ideals—they're the very air that fuels the K-pop phenomenon. 


K-pop brings together fans from all corners of the globe, cutting across differences in country, language, culture, and background. It unites not just minority groups including communities of color, Latino, Latina, Latinx, and the LGBTQ+ community, but all who step into its universe also feel a profound sense of duty to amplify the voices of younger generations. 

They traverse beyond entertainment, aiming to leave an indelible mark on society with messages of self-love, social awareness, and the encouragement to spread love and hope far and wide. In moments of transcendent unity, K-pop idols and their fans have mobilized to make waves of change, like when BTS and their ARMY raised $1 million for Black Lives Matter, or when various fan bases have come together in impressive acts of charity and protest.


What makes K-pop’s impact singular is its ecosystem of connection—fostered through social media and online fan meetings—that cultivates a close, palpable bond between idols and fans. K-pop idols take entire half hours or more at the end of their shows, sitting at the edge of the stage, intimate and up close to express heartfelt gratitude to their fans. They never miss a moment to share what they liked most about the areas they’re visiting-making sure to check out the museums and historical significance of where they’ve landed in their tour schedule-making you feel that they too love where you come from. 


In the world of K-pop values are not simply stated; they are intricately interwoven into every facet of its culture. This world ensures that every interaction, from the grandiose to the mundane, is imbued with its core beliefs, creating a global, connected family united in diversity and love.


Press Play: Psycho by Red Velvet

Want loyalty? Want raving fans-the kind that are lovingly psycho? Give them something to believe in. Give them something to rally behind. What does your world stand for? What does it prioritize? How can you prove it? Every single touchpoint-message, hashtag, email, etc is an opportunity to weave in your values. It's what grounds your world-gives it permanence and importance.




The phenomenon that is K-pop didn't happen by chance, and it didn't happen overnight. Years of dedicated effort, clever strategy, and serious investment have carved out what is truly the ultimate source of world-building inspiration.


The profound loyalty and the unwavering support of its worldwide fanbase stem from continuous innovation and the special, dynamic rapport between the stars and their admirers. The strong financial endorsements and future-oriented policies from the South Korean government, which sees K-pop as a key player in its international "soft power" strategy, cannot be overstated. In a bold move in 2021, the Ministry of Economy and Finance poured an impressive US$584.8 million (696.1 billion won) into propelling the K-pop culture to even grander heights, signaling its immense value on the global stage.


This careful, deliberate nurturing has elevated K-pop beyond a music genre—it's become the archetype for a new kind of global community, a manifesto on how to build a universe united by shared values and identity. With its pulsating heart and soul energized by its idols and legions of fans, supported by the strategy of an entire nation, K-pop stands as a prime example of how diverse, inclusive cultures can achieve global resonance and harmony.


Here's to building more immersive, connected worlds built on open-ended, addictive concepts! Welcome to the future of global culture, inspired by K-pop.



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