Nowadays, there is no escaping “Gangnam Style,” the meteoric dance craze imported from South Korea. As performed by rapper Psy, it’s been showcased on Today, Ellen and Saturday Night Live, among other major outlets. The song has now also topped the iTunes chart.
Apart from the catchy tune and quirky moves, how can we explain the incredible global response to “Gangnam Style,” a song that’s almost entirely in Korean? More importantly, what are the takeaways that companies can apply to their brands and products?
Bill Lee, in a widely-read HBR blog, argued that “Marketing is Dead” in order to explain how the traditional marketing model between the manufacturer and consumer needs to be changed. That assertion is very much evident in the success of “Gangnam Style,” which appears to have faithfully followed a social network-oriented playbook in its media use, content development and message.
To start, the song intentionally lacked a copyright so that people would be encouraged to create their own online parodies, in essence their own “XYZ Style” like “Lifeguard Style” and “Oregon Duck Style.” The original “Gangnam Style” has been viewed over 200 million times worldwide, but if you count all the views of the parodies, one can imagine the total reach to be many times that.
Another social-network tactic is that crowdsourcing was used to choreograph the now famous “invisible horse dance.” Instead of relying on his internal team, Psy invited and compiled suggestions from the whole Korean dance community to develop the widely popular moves.
Although Psy is generally lumped into the K-Pop (short for Korean pop music) category, he hardly fits the pretty-face mold of other artists in that genre. If anything, his appearance and attitude are much closer to that of an Average Joe. “Gangnam Style” actually pokes fun at how the common man fantasizes about life in the fast lane, as symbolized by the ritzy area in Seoul known as Gangnam. The anti-materialism theme in the time of a global recession has helped broaden the appeal of the song.
For companies seeking their own “Gangnam Style,” there are some simple lessons that can be learned from Psy:
Make your product or brand more ownable.
The no-copyright and “Style” suffix of the song’s title played big parts in allowing people to easily adopt, re-stylize and then spread the song. Similarly, products and brands need to discover their own elements that can be just as ownable. A great example is Oreo Cookies’ Daily Twist campaign where people go beyond just clicking “Like” by suggest timely, personal and innovative ways to celebrate the cookie.
Be open-minded, but in a controlled way.
Psy’s crowdsourcing strategy was limited to just the dance community. Confining the source of ideas to a knowledgeable base allowed Psy to increase creativity, but at the same time make sure that no time was wasted filtering out impractical ideas. Unrestricted crowdsourcing runs the danger of leading to outrageous results, such as when fans or pranksters on the Internet voted that Justin Bieber tour North Korea.
Find an uncommonly-common emotional denominator that resonates across cultures.
Psy has stated that he made the “Gangnam Style” video only for his native country. Nevertheless, both the video and Psy have found universal popularity despite bucking convention in terms of the language and the look of a global pop idol. In fact, Psy’s transcendent appeal is that he is a likable anti-pop idol who is very comfortable in his own skin. It’s something ironically not lost on Justin Bieber’s manager, who recently signed Psy.
Brands face a challenge when they enter global markets that are often quite cluttered with established brands. As emerging global markets become more savvy and search for greater authenticity in their brands, a Psy-like positioning strategy is what companies, especially latecomers, should consider: they need to be iconoclastic, fun and, above all, sincere.
In the end, “Gangnam Style” may turn out to be a one-hit wonder. But by emulating the reasons for its success, businesses can become hit-generating machines.