RM, Jin, Suga, J-Hope, Jimin, V, and Jungkook. Before 2018, these seven names, along with the name of the musical group they comprise, BTS, were unknown to me. Then in September of that same year, the K-pop band made an appearance on The Tonight Show, and things changed in my household. My wife shared their performance with my then five-year-old daughter, who was drawn to how they looked, danced, and sang. And so began my daughter’s growing interest in listening to their music, watching their videos, and acquiring their collectibles, such as BTS-branded calendars, cards, dolls, and even an “Army Bomb” (more on that later).
My daughter was a fan. I was not. I grew up loving songs and songwriters and, to me, it seemed that this group placed a higher priority on their appearance, including their performance, than they did on being serious musicians. The band was prolific—in 2018 alone it churned out a movie (Burn the Stage), new episodes of its variety show (Run BTS!), released more than 50 songs, and circled the globe performing live concerts—but struck me as an outsider as inauthentic and prepackaged: more like The Monkees than the Beatles.
Still, wanting to support my now eight-year-old daughter’s interest—and open to learning something—I turned to the Twitterverse. Late one night in July 2020, I posed the question: “Which of these iconic boy bands is most likely to have the greatest lasting impact on the history of music: The Beatles, The Jackson 5, or BTS?” I hit “Tweet,” put my iPhone away, closed my eyes and went to sleep. By morning, I had received more than 5,000 likes, more than 1,500 retweets, and nearly 500 comments.
I read every reply. What I expected was a fairly equal distribution of fans, each advocating for why they felt their choice was right. But I was wrong. I received a big response from one fan base. The Army, as BTS fans are known, turned out in force to share respect for the iconic UK and US bands and their love for the Korean group. Respondents included authors, celebrities, parents, professors and researchers. What I observed qualitatively was later quantified. In 2020, more than 400,000 Army members participated in a fan-organized census, revealing that nearly 50% are over age 18, one in five have some college education—including a population of PhDs—and one in 20 are parents. Fans also proved to be globally represented, digitally savvy and very influential.
More Tweets and emails followed. Through my now regular interactions with members of the BTS Army, I have come to appreciate that BTS deploys an unorthodox 5-point strategy to transform its audience from initial awareness to lifetime advocacy. The way the band entices, enlightens, enrolls, engages and empowers the BTS Army stands in stark contrast to the traditional relationship-building model. For modern marketers aspiring to forge lasting bonds—to drive advocacy beyond loyalty—there’s lots to be learned from serving your fans first rather than asking them to serve your brand first. What follows is a distillation of these transformations: how BTS and its fans collaborate to make influence a two-way street.
Selling Your Brand: Traditional marketers ask customers to make the first entre into the brand’s world.
Enticing Your Fans: The modern marketer entices by meeting consumers in their places and spaces—in their own worlds.
Before inviting new audiences to tune into their music, BTS first demonstrates real interest in tuning into their lives. One way the group does this is by joining contemporary conversations and adding something of high social or entertainment value. For example, they will not only appear on a popular variety show like The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, but also participate in a Fortnite Dance Challenge alongside the host to bring their dance talent to your living room. And they will not only show up on The Late Late Show With James Corden, but also participate in a Carpool Karaoke segment to share their singing talent in a relatable way. This is also why BTS turned up on YouTube to contribute to a livestreamed graduation ceremony, called Dear Class of 2020, by delivering a commencement speech—to share their message of self-belief—in a student forum beyond a stadium. When you lead by serving your fans, like BTS, you entice them to your world by understanding the necessity of first stepping into theirs.
Selling Your Brand: Traditional marketers educate by focusing on the products they are pitching.
Enlightening Your Fans: Modern marketers enlighten by leading with the stories they have to tell ahead of the products they have to sell.
Once BTS has enticed new audiences to pay attention, they prioritize storytelling as a way to open more interesting conversations versus closing more album sales. The group has created myriad ways for interested viewers, from casual fans to serious devotees, to dig in and learn more about who they are as people and performers. Documentary films, such as Burn the Stage, feature behind-the-scenes stories of the making of the band, their music and their large-scale worldwide tours. Reality-based shows, like BTS: Bon Voyage and In the Soop, reveal different types of stories—set away from the spotlight and set out in the world, by and large. Here, the group lets audiences learn more about the fullness of their lives. And on the aforementioned variety show, Run BTS!, their individual personalities, on top of group dynamics, are also brought to life. In a sense, by sharing stories about all facets of their lives—including vulnerabilities that marketers wouldn’t typically see as “marketable”—the superstar group becomes more accessible and more interesting. When you lead by serving your fans, as BTS does, you enlighten them by telling powerful stories that are, from the start, more relevant than just selling your products.
Selling Your Brand: Traditional marketers seek to convert customers by making rational arguments, such as price-value appeals.
Enrolling Your Fans: Modern marketers enroll by maintaining emotional appeals—where the experience is the marketing.
When enlightened audiences are ready to graduate from spending time learning about BTS to spending money on the group’s music, concert tickets and collectibles, BTS emphasizes the worth of the experience to fans over the cost of merchandise. In fact, in all they do, BTS prioritizes what’s in it for the fans. When releasing a new track as part of a comeback (the K-pop term for a new album release), the group offers sneak peeks of any accompanying videos to create a sort of currency—to give fans something of real worth. They also share glimpses of album imagery, such as the collectible photocards that are included with each album purchase. When recordings evolve into tours, whether in real life or virtually (due to the pandemic), BTS will put a spotlight on their experiential Army Bombs—Wi-Fi enabled light sticks that come to life during live performances, creating rare real-time connections between artist and audience. When you lead by serving fans, you enroll them by speaking the language of emotion, not reason—allowing the worth of the experience to be your marketing.
Selling Your Brand: Traditional marketers tend to incentivize engagement with a catalog of rewards.
Engaging Your Fans: Modern marketers engage by focusing on recognition beyond rewards.
After they are initially enrolled in the experience, BTS works to keep the relationship with fans strong and never takes their loyalty for granted. Instead, they earn it by emphasizing the principle of recognition—by treating fans as important and as insiders. For example, breaking down the barriers between artist and audience during the pandemic, Suga asked fans to send questions or share stories using a hashtag so he could talk to them directly as part of his radio show on the V Live app. All seven group members have participated in livestreams, creating arts and crafts and having fun with fans. It is also not uncommon to hear about fans selected to be featured in Weverse Magazine—a publication that is distributed on the platform that connects BTS to its base. To understand how seriously BTS takes fan recognition, note how the group interacts with them even when the cameras are not rolling. They are known for wishing fans good luck before they take important school exams, for following up on their personal relationships and, overall, for inquiring about them as human beings. When you lead by serving fans, you engage by recognizing them as part of your success.
Selling Your Brand: Traditional marketers do all they can to maintain brand control and protect their status as the primary influencer.
Empowering Your Fans: Modern marketers empower loyal customers, to relinquish some control so fans become advocates, and to turn those influenced into powerful influencers as well.
While other groups use their influence to engage with audiences, BTS sees their audience as influential as well. Rather than try to discourage this to protect the hierarchy—artist as influencer and audience as influenced—BTS celebrates it by recognizing Army members as influencers too. BTS does not simply release documentary films to tell their story, there’s also a fan-based group that makes and releases digital shorts as a means of participating in the narrative. Not only does BTS give charitably to causes and social movements of importance, but so too does the Army self-organize to make large matching donations. When BTS contributed one million dollars to support Black Lives Matter, their fans, without prompting, made a million-dollar match. And not only does the group want to better know its fans, its fans also want to better know each other—which is why they organized their own global census. When you lead by serving fans, you don’t limit their influence, you empower it.
Explaining his enrollment in the Army, wrestler and actor John Cena said, in a September 2020 appearance on The Tonight Show, “I got interested in their music. Then I got interested in what the music stood for. They advocate [for] self-love. They advocate [to not] be afraid of failure. They advocate that you are enough.” He elaborated: “They are great performers, but it is the message they send [that] resonates with people.” Echoing the sentiments of other Army members, Cena added that while taste in music is subjective, the cumulative effect of BTS and the Army raising their voices is irrefutable. While the power of like-minded people coming together to do something positive is a timeless story, it is particularly timely in the world we are living in right now—one in which it will take unprecedented positivity and unity to advance society forward.
While BTS is still in its relative infancy—the group was only formed in 2013 and its members are all still in their 20s—I think there’s something particularly mature about their approach. For them, music is not an end, but a means to an end; it’s for bringing people together to do good. In turn, if in 2021 I had the chance to rewrite the first question I posed on Twitter, I would. Instead of asking which boy band was likeliest to have an enduring impact on the world of music, I would ask which one was likeliest to have an enduring impact on the world through music. To which the answer—especially for the most important eight-year-old Army member in my world—is clear.
Mark Miller is the chief strategy officer at Team One, a fully integrated media, digital, and communications agency, and the coauthor of Legacy in the Making (McGraw-Hill Education). He is a regular contributor to Fast Company.