The universal appeal of K-Pop: A cultural view

For 25 years, Rakuten Insight Global has been at the forefront of consumer market research data collection and pioneered panels in Asia, US & Beyond. To understand consumer data properly it is important to analyse the data through a local cultural lens. Arguably one of the most important sociocultural phenomena of the last decade has emerged from Korea – K-Pop & K-Drama. As such, Rakuten Insight decided to take a cultural view of the universal appeal behind this phenomenon.

To some extent, K-Pop’s popularity can be explained in similar terms to the myriad of boy bands and girl groups from all the eras, from the Beatles to One Direction. The music contains catchy hooks, sing-along lyrics and good-looking, talented heroes to idolise. There are, however, some cultural reasons why K-Pop differs from the Backstreet Boys or the Spice Girls to explain how K-Pop has achieved universal appeal, selling out across Asia, US & Europe.

Work Ethic:

The work ethic of K-Pop artists is seriously impressive. Bands such as BTS, have got song writing down to a science. The catchy hooks do not require an understanding of Korean and no longer limits the appeal to speakers of a single language. The insane work ethic behind the choreography is also impressive. Groups perform complicated and challenging routines that would usually require professional dancers. K pop artists are well-known for proving their talent by performing these complex sequences live.

This same work ethic can be seen within the daily life in South Korea too. Company employees are often under strong social peer pressure to demonstrate their work ethic is stronger than the next person. This results in working longer hours, endless studying or practicing and attending company social or sports clubs. Generally, in some cultures such as Europe, people also work hard but also place importance on work-life balance and enjoying their lives outside work too.

Attention to Detail:

Alongside the work ethic comes a famous attention to detail. This precise attention to detail was applied to and developed over time through the various forms of Asian artisan craft, from producing foodstuffs to pottery to sword making. To craft the best product, an extreme attention to detail was required throughout the whole process. A lack of attention to detail can represent a lazy approach and show you and your group in a negative light. For the more goal-oriented Westerner, this focus on small details can seem pedantic. The work-ethic combined with attention to detail enables K-Pop & K-Drama to produce an end-product of higher quality than the competition.

Embracing Technology

K-Pop would not have achieved its global success without embracing technology. It’s easy to forget that many K-Pop followers were too young in 2012 to even have seen Gangnam Style, which went viral globally. Technology has changed dramatically over the last decade. Streaming platforms like YouTube, Netflix & Viki utilising subtitling technology and open-source fan collaboration have meant that Korean pop music and dramas are widely available and easily accessible. Even when the content is solely in Korean, there are few barriers to entry.

Group Consensus over Individualism:

The development of technologies such as social media (TikTok, Twitter & Instagram), online voting and online communities also taps into a wider cultural value of group over individual. K-Pop allows the fans to follow their favourite groups and members due to the large amount of available content, such as variety shows, live streams and interviews. Fans can feel like they belong to a tribe, sharing values and being able to have common conversation with like-minded fans. From one point of view, this is no different to having favourite members of other groups. However, with K-Pop, the sense of group is a stronger and a key driver behind their universal appeal. For example, the success of BTS had a lot to do with the loyalty they cultivated among their fans for individual members as well as the group. Their fan base is called Army – all K-pop groups have a named fan group. Army’s enthusiasm – and membership – has only been growing in recent years.


A concept of Dualism is best known from the Taoist understanding of the forces and cycles of nature – Ying & Yang – describing a dualism of complementary opposites working in harmony and balance to create a whole. Without one, you cannot have the other. Common examples are night & day, dark & light, cold & hot, etc. It is not a stretch to see how K-Pop’s universal appeal consider this holistic perspective. K-Pop bands such as SuperM, EXO, Blackpink, Twice, TXT, Seventeen and the more recent NewJeans all apply this work ethic to raise the bar of the end-product. Not just in terms of melodies, lyrics & choreography but also fashion, costumes, storytelling, colour theory, training, high concept product and multi-lingual lyrics.

The closest to this in the West is possibly the Beatles. At various times in their careers, the Beatles led the way on some of these aspects – the personality & fashion Love Me Do (1963), the storytelling of Penny Lane (1967) or the highly conceptual, colourful Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) – but even the Beatles never combined them all at the same time. 

Thanks to technology, the diverse cultures from around the world can be shared and enjoyed by everyone. There is no clearer example of this than the global phenomena of K-Pop & K-Drama. Through these art-forms, Korea is educating the world on Korean culture: their food, their free time activities, their friends and family, their lifestyle. In this way, Korea can successfully distinguish their culture from other Asian countries such as China or Japan. Opening Korea to the world and extending their soft power across borders. The young people of today have it all at their fingertips and know what it took previous generations a long time to find out. Asian culture can help the world navigate through various political, social and cultural challenges of the day – and it is very cool!

Looking for a Korean online market research panel? We’d love to hear from you!

For 25 years, Rakuten Insight Global has been at the forefront of consumer market research data collection. By combining our 1st party data with the highest levels of quality assurance processes, Rakuten Insight Global has remained our clients’ trusted research partner for Asia, US & Beyond.

Our proprietary, double opt-in online panels have been developed throughout 12 major Asian markets, including South Korea, China & Japan, as well as the US. All of the panels are managed by dedicated local support teams and meet the highest industry standards. The Rakuten Insight Global team offers 24-hour coverage from 11 worldwide locations, providing exceptional service for 500+ clients across the globe.

Rakuten Insight Global is tasked with leveraging the 1st party membership assets of the Rakuten Group for market research purposes. Having access to such a diverse and unique group of research participants allows Rakuten Insight to remain at the forefront of online research.

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