Branding Activity and the Rising Asian Creative Industry in Itaewon Class

Over the course of many years since it’s entrance to worldwide TV markets, Korean dramas have claimed quite a large number of victims, one such is me. Recently I have decided to finally officially enter the Korean wave by way of starting to watch Kdramas. I have actually started to watch Kdramas before but they were just trial runs and I haven’t clicked to any particular drama or show. But after going through most of western TV series in Netflix I decided that it was high time to start committing to watch an entire series of Kdrama. I decided with Itaewon Class because it’s quite popular on Twitter and a lot of my friends have watched it as well. Honestly, I was quite hooked, it’s not really a special show technical wise or story wise, but it had heart and is very entertaining. But I’m not really here to talk about reviewing the show, actually what I am most impressed by IC is the brand/product placement activity going on inside the show. The smooth advertising accompanied with the show provides a new dimension of culture and storytelling that is separate from the show itself. Also from this show’s branding activity in this essay I hope we can gleam some insights into one of the fastest growing industries in the world right now, the Asian creative industry. Warning! minor spoiler alert for those who haven’t watched the show.

The DanBam crew
Kim Dami is the cutest human ever

The show is an underdog story of one Park Saeroyi, we follow him in his life from his high school days up until his early 30s. The story centers around Saeroyi’s life and hardships in pursuing his dream of getting revenge on a food and beverage mega group by creating his own restaurant and brand. The show also focuses on his group of friends which help him establish his company and sticks with him through his ups and downs. Although the show tackles many themes regarding class relations, Korean racism and bigotry, and the overall Korean corporate culture, I’m not here to discuss about that. What is quite excellent in this show is it’s meta ability to look upon the Korean creative industry itself. IC’s story also delve quite a bit into branding areas, showing the main character’s strategies in achieving success, also his nemesis corporate group Jangga.co and their business management strategies. But if you pay attention quite a bit just below the surface of the story exists advertisements from real life brands. This essay will analyze 3 brands and how they seamlessly incorporate their advertisement inside the show, and how this show correlates to their respective brand equity. The three brands being showed throughout the series are Mont Blanc, Mercedes Benz, and Tiffany&Co.

As per usual in these next paragraphs we’re going to lay down some theoretical frameworks to help us better understand the process of meaning making inside a creative industry. We’re going to talk about branding, and those cool terms used to describe things in the branding world like brand equity and consumer segmentation. Next, because the economy is not free from a critical Marxist perspective we’re going to talk about consumerism, how it came to be, and also commodification. First up is branding, branding from my perspective is a mainly storytelling process, but what is a brand? A brand is a name associated with a product or service, and with that name comes its identity and reputation.

A good brand needs to have a strong identity, something that consumers can link to when they hear or perceive something that is closely linked to the brand. For example is when you hear fast food you automatically think of Mcdonalds, or if you are interested in sports you’ll immediately refer to Nike. That’s an example of strong brands, you don’t even need to see their logos or their store to immediately recognize their products or their values. That’s why I equate branding as a storytelling process, the process of branding mainly consists of creating these bridges from your product to objects, ideas, or visions that correlate with the goal of your brand. Now creating these bridges requires a certain amount of storytelling skill, because people will not be interested in boring data sets or product specs, that’s why marketers need to be able to have a certain control in brand narratives. By controlling narratives or creating stories the marketers are essentially translating these boring data sets and specs into stimulating aspects of everyday lives, or turning people’s mundane consuming behavior into something grander. Now all those things equate to brand equity, a brand equity is essentially the brand’s value in the eyes of the consumer. So how does one determine a value for a brand? It primarily consists of public perception, and reputation, the brands ability to deliver on their promises and advertisements is a testament to how well the brand does things. People need to believe that you are not just all bark, next is what happens when a good narrative meets the ability to deliver quality. What you get are the strong brands that I just spoke of brands like Nike, and Rolex and many other around the world. Of course the process is much more complicated than this but this is the gist of what you need to know for the purpose of the essay.

-Shia Labeouf

Now we are going to dig a bit deeper into the branding process with the concept of segmentation. Segmenting is a process of dividing up consumers into groups based on their defining common characteristics. There are a multitude of segments like demographics among many, demographics consists of dividing up key aspects in a social group like age, race, gender, social class, etcetera. Segmenting helps the brand target a specific market to which they will sell their products. These specific targeting helps brands create targeted messages, establish customer relations, and sell better. Better targeted than universal, brands need to know who they are selling things to and segmenting is the way to know that. Customer segmentation also affect what channels the brand uses to market their products, one of the key concepts that we will be discussing further on this essay.

Next we will be delving into critical discourse regarding consumerism and commodification. Consumerism relates to how we as a society gives value to a certain commodity. Now in today’s society a commodity is not just tied to a thing or a material object, but it can also allude to other non tangible objects which satisfies our existential needs. In a traditional assumption people will buy things out of basic needs, such as hunger, shelter, or clothing. But in a critical Marxist discourse it its revealed that the existence of capitalism bore a side effect in which things are given value for them to be consumed by society, not as a means of prolonging life, but as a mode of existential satisfaction. Simply put today people consume because of their need of“being”. Consumerism is closely linked to how we work and of course the notion of how we spend our disposable income. The myth that capitalism has created is that in spending or consuming we affirm our existences and consuming is an activity separate of itself than the basic need of prolonging our survival. Now commodity is an object that has been given value, whether it is financial values, use values, or exchange values. For Marx, labor was the true source
of value, but the mystique of the commodity made it seem that it was valuable in itself. To be under this illusion was what Marx famously called “commodity
fetishism.” For Marx, it was in exchange that the commodity became fetishized, that is, when its mystique overshadowed the labor that produced it, and particularly when it was being exchanged for money. In practical terms today, we are talking about the difference between what a certain “good” is good for, and the price we are prepared to pay for it. In Marxist critical discourse, “commodification” has become a key concept,applied to situations where what was once free now comes with a price attached, where what was once publicly available has become privately held, and where what was once natural and authentic has been contaminated, diluted, dumbed down, or otherwise corrupted, and then usually packaged for mass, or perhaps niche-market, consumption.

I’m actually quite tired of talking about Marx all the time

That’s quite enough theory and conceptual talk, now we’re going to get to the real thing which is diving into the show and analyzing the tactics used by marketers and how it correlates to day to day life. The three major brands being shown in the show are Mercedes-Benz, Mont Blanc, and Tiffany&co. All three of them are luxury brands so the first thing we’re gonna do is analyze their brand image and why would the marketers choose Itaewon Class as a spot for marketing their brands. First up is Mont Blanc, Mont Blanc is a legendary luxury brand specializing in fountain pens founded in the early 20th century. Now Mont Blanc has an image synonymous to luxury, masculinity, and elegance. A quick look at the main actors’ Instagram, Park Seo Joon reveals that he’s a brand ambassador to Mont Blanc, so it’s no surprise that Mont Blanc would want to sponsor the show. But despite of that Mont Blanc has targets and of course customer segmentations, any form of marketing is a form of targeted messaging. And showing characters wearing or using Mont Blanc has a meaning directed to those they felt would most likely be interested in their products. Moreover they specifically choose the products which they market, the first one is a watch, which belonged to the main characters deceased father, and the other is a leather backpack which is also used by Saeroyi. Now we can assume that Mont Blanc specifically targets upper class citizens because most of their products have >1000 dollar price tag, but what made them specifically choose Itaewon Class?

Pay Attention to the Bag’s Logo

Next up is Mercedes-Benz, Mercedes is of course a brand of luxury cars from Germany. Again, another legendary high end brand, Mercedes is known for its comfort, elegance, reliability and is often a choice of cars for executive or even high ranking government officials such as ministers, diet members, or even presidents. In the drama itself almost all the main characters use Mercedes as their choice but in different models tailored specifically to their roles on the film, but we’ll get to that later. Now the same as Mont Blanc, Mercedes chose this drama because it will possibly lead to the highest potential buyers. Of course also the same targeted message as Tiffany&Co, as these three are all high end luxury brands, not high end enough to be niche and unknown to the public, but high end enough that people can catch their presence in just a glimpse of their logo. Now this leads to the segmentation of the drama itself, although TV series are universal in nature meaning anyone can access or watch it, but the story, production, and distribution channel used by the show reflects a more targeted audience and that audience coincides with the brands targeted markets.

Story wise Itaewon Class does not drag on, not like a soap opera or a housewife drama. Next up it portrays some serious corporate culture, business wise and upper economic class lifestyles. And it its targeted to young people. The show’s smart plot and concepts used are a trademark of a show targeted to middle-upper class audiences. The production value of the show itself is also quite high, opting to use the streets of Itaewon rather than studio sets. They even made a real cafe based on the cafe started by Park Saeroyi, DanBam. Then there’s the issue of it being a netflix production, the fact that it is an original netflix means that it will most definitely break through international markets. Streaming worldwide with netflix as a channel offers IC an opportunity to market it to international audiences, seeing as all these brands are international brands makes it logical for them to put their eggs into IC. Also netflix productions have been known to generate hype, no matter what country they originate from, like the worldwide phenomenon of Money Heist or Stranger Things, even segmented movies like Marriage Story have generated quite a buzz in the internet sphere. Nowadays big productions + netflix + popular actors= huge hype, netflix is no stranger to big audiences and with current shifts from conventional TV to streaming services netflix is the leading platform of streaming. Also it is worth noting of customer segmentation in netflix itself, netflix being a paid monthly subscription makes it less accessible to working class citizens therefore filtering out that demography from the start. Especially in developing countries people have less disposable income to spend it on a streaming subscription. The shows airing on netflix are also shows targeted for middle-upper class citizens.

Shame it’s not a tourbillon

Now the interesting part is, is how the brand and the writers incorporate these advertising to the story itself. The picture above shows a watch by Mont Blanc worn by Park Saeroyi, it is no big deal image wise, shown a couple of times throughout the show. But it has story significance, making it not just an advertisement but a storytelling process like I said in the beginning. The line of watch Saeroyi wears here is the star legacy calendar model, it is a newer line of watch produced by Mont Blanc but it is inspired by 19th century model pocket watches making it look like an older model. The watch itself has a day/date calendar and a moonphase dial, surely one of the more expensive products, but not as expensive as a tourbillon model, costing a solid 5000 dollars it is still quite affordable to some upper middle class citizens. The old look of the watch is actually quite important to the story, the watch is a memorabilia from Saeroyi’s deceased father which he holds very dear, he only wears the watch in important events and he has a habit of checking it when nervous. There’s more to the story of the watch but it contains quite heavy spoilers for the series so we’ll not be discussing further. But the point is creating a story narrative makes it so much more salient to potential consumers. The story gives the impression that Mont Blanc is also a family brand, a long lasting product that can be handed down as a memorabilia, timeless, and of course a symbol of masculine elegance. Combining that with the nature of Park Saeroyi’s character gives it a whole new dimension in creating a specific brand image

The same is true for Tiffany&Co. although not having such an impactful presence story line wise, it is used as a gift for Saeroyi’s love interest Jo Yi Seo. The story sets up Tiffany&Co. as Yi Seo scrolls for jewelries online and asks Saeroyi to buy it for her as a gift, leading him to buy it for her when he is distraught as she is sick. The story gives Tiffany&Co. an image where it is a jewelry brand for your lover as a gift, as a way of expressing one’s feelings, as a feminine symbol of romanticity. Of course it combines as well with Yi Seo’s nature as a character and her conception of beauty so again it creates a new dimension of storytelling for the brand to build on. Mercedes-Benz however has an even more unique marketing in the story, I mentioned that every character uses a Mercedes but they use different models in accordance to their characters. The antagonist group of Jangga uses Mercedes’s S class Coupe models, a more high end model usually reserved for executives and officials. The Jangga people are also driven around by their driver defining their social status. Soo Ah the second lead femme uses a sporty roadster SLC model with a convertible top, she drives around on her own mostly and this signifies her freedom and character as a young attractive executive. While Saeroyi, a mostly utilitarian guy drives around with the newest GLC model, an electrical/hybrid option from Mercedes. This creates an image of versatility and reliability in any situation.

Talk About Hard Selling

Another thing we’re gonna highlight is the lifestyle and image of Itaewon built within the story. Itaewon is a downtown region in Seoul that centers around modern culture and a place of international hub for tourists. The first thing that is stated in the show is about Itaewon’s expensive real estate and it’s hip nature, kind of like Roppongi in Tokyo, a place of buzzing nightlife. The next thing you’ll see is how these characters are impeccably dressed, it’s actually insane. All of the clothes worn by the main characters are high end fashion pieces ranging from yeezy’s to raf simmons to comme des garcons. The fashion aspect alludes to the kind of lifestyle portrayed in Itaewon, a hip young vibrant lifestyle buzzing with creativity. The fashion choices made by the characters and their onscreen look also conjoins with the product that the three brands market.

Speaking about creativity, there is of course the aspect of the Asian creative market we have yet to discuss. I talked about consumerism and commodity before, consumerism is portrayed in the show as those products that are marketed and the fashion used by the characters. The show makes us want to consume and gives us a projection of a desirable lifestyle. Because consumerism has gone past to being just about objects, it also makes us desire intangible aspects that can be picked up from the show or even the show itself as a form of product. Now speaking of commodification I want to talk about a concept that the Koreans have executed to a quite astounding effect. What the Koreans and the Asian creative industry is doing right now is commodifying people.

Most of the show’s success is owed to the actors of course but it wouldn’t be to such lengths if the actors were not “sold” as a separate commodity as the show. What we can see from the K-pop phenomenon is that these corporations that are churning out idols are selling personas. Everything from an actor or an idols fashion sense to their daily lives just screams commodification. It comes to the point that the products are the people itself, so when brands are sponsoring certain people it can be seen as buying their personas which is tailored to specific markets. Think of BTS or Blackpink, the mega groups which all the members have different personas they portray in daily lives, different fashion senses, different tastes. These aspects create a persona in which the labels and corporation takes advantage of in numerous tools. Now these people then have price tags attached to them both financially and exchange values. The tools that are used are variety shows, reality TV, fan meetings and the Koreans do it so well that it is a lot more effective than it’s western counterparts. Their daily lives portrayed through vlogs because they have created irresistible personalities that people just can’t get enough of. These personas have created an aspect separate from the projects that they work on and of course perpetuating a symbolic and meaning making process in the whole K-pop mythos. There is a phrase I heard from an Indonesian musician “your idol is just a marketing success” I wholeheartedly agree but in a good way. Creating a marketing success is no small feat let alone creating multiple marketing successes in multiple people that have time and time again broken through international markets.

Damn straight this is iconic

Although dehumanizing to some extent, these notions of commodity in people used by the Asian creative industry introduces a new wave of branding and storytelling. And this is what the Asian market excels at, building images, stories, and generating culture. There is no denying that worldwide attention is currently shifting to Asia, no longer as a place of esoteric nature or exotic travel destinations, Asia is the new cultural center for world pop culture. With fashion trends seeing Japan as a Mecca for new fads or epic music productions from Korea, and of course lovable dramas in the form of Kdrama, the Asian creative industry is ever expanding and it is leaving the west in the dust. So next time you think what to watch next in the lockdown, I suggest you run straight to Kdramas, because I have fallen down the Korean rabbit hole and I sure as hell will not be alone in this.

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