by Lindsay Wong
Along with its addictive music and intense choreography, the K-pop industry is a profitable business that entices fans of all ages to open their wallets in order to obtain pieces of paper with their favourite idol’s selfies, or travel across the world to attend a concert. Fans are willing to spend exorbitant amounts of money on both boy groups and girl groups alike to have a chance of interacting with their idols or growing their merch collection.
Nevertheless, entertainment companies may use different strategies to market boy groups and girl groups in an attempt to retain fans and attract new ones.
Dark vs light
One of the basics in K-pop 101 is that each group’s comeback (when they release new music) follows a certain concept. Concepts may range from dark to bright – darker concepts use darker scenes and have a colder vibe, while brighter concepts use light and vivid palettes. More often than not, dark concepts are for more beat-heavy songs, or even ballads, and bright concepts are for cheerful and uplifting songs. Based on the concept, the music video and album/song convey different moods to the audience and add to the group’s image.
Traditionally, dark concepts are employed more commonly for boy groups while girl groups go for bright concepts. Masculinity and femininity are used to differentiate boy groups and girl groups – boy groups will play on their masculinity in comebacks with dark concepts, while girl groups play on their femininity for cute concepts.
This may be through their outfits, or even how much skin they show on screen. Boy groups going for a darker, sexy concept are likely to expose their toned bodies or don streetwear. Girl groups may wear frilly dresses or big ribbons for girly or cute concepts.
Boy groups will almost always try out dark concepts because it follows a formula that is known to be successful for them. For example, Stray Kids’ latest music video for “MANIAC” follows that concept.
The same goes for girl groups and cute concepts, as can be seen in BLACKPINK’S “Ice Cream” music video. These are both instances in which idols will play on their masculinity or femininity to make a concept work.
This is not to say that there aren’t exceptions to the rule, especially in the current generation of K-pop. 2NE1 is one of the oldest veteran girl groups that do not rely on feminine concepts. Their oldest and most successful songs have dark concepts that thereby added to their “girl-crush” image. (G)I-dle has not done a cute concept but they are currently one of the top fourth generation girl groups.
Nowadays, more and more groups are going for the “girl-crush” image, which tends to appeal to both male and female fans – many of whom are tired of the cute concept mold and want to see girl groups in the industry becoming more versatile with their music.
There are even some male idols that are not afraid to show off an ambiguous look, for example, by adopting certain makeup styles (like ATEEZ) or donning long hair and skirts (like Taemin from SHINEE). As such, gender marketing is becoming less relevant in the K-pop industry and fans buy into different concepts and looks.
Buying into gender
In terms of global appeal, it seems that K-pop boy bands dominate in terms of popularity and fandom numbers. Fans would also pack out stadiums of boy band concerts more often – for instance, BTS’s 2019 “Love Yourself: Speak Yourself” world tour had a audience of 2 million, while the most popular girl group, BLACKPINK drew around 260,000 concertgoers for their “Kill This Love” world tour.
This could be attributed to the fact that it was male musicians who pioneered the Korean boy band movement, with groups like Seo Taiji back in the 90s. Back then, there were virtually no female groups so it’s no surprise that the entire marketing (ie. merchandise, concerts) of K-pop revolved around boy bands. While female groups existed in the late 90s, women were expected to behave in a certain way, and female groups were often marketed as being hypersexualised.
However, while boy bands may be more lucrative for talent agencies in terms of concerts and merchandise, girl bands actually have the upper hand when it comes to digital streaming power. For example, on streaming platforms like Melon, female bands’ tracks are often ranked higher on the charts, largely (presumably) because their songs are more easy-listening and appealing to the general public.
As boy bands evolved, it was clear that their loyal fanbase were predominantly women, and they were very willing to spend money on their idols. There were also less male fans of boy bands, probably because of the social stigma attached. By contrast, girl bands have their share of both female and male fans; however, with the exception of a small percentage, male fans generally tend to be more casual fans than their female counterparts. Based on fanmeet surveys, some of the most popular girl bands have a heavier female audience, with MAMAMOO (96%), Red Velvet (83%), and BLACKPINK (61%) leading the way.
Therefore, regardless of whether they’re boy bands or girl bands, fandom marketing is more often geared towards female fans as they tend to be serious fans who spend more. As with any industry with gendered marketing, they go where the money is.