Netflix’s Squid Game is part of a fascinating strategy of cultural imprinting

Bethanie Blanchard is head of strategy at Carat Melbourne.

By now, even if you haven’t binged Netflix’s wildly addictive Squid Game, you will be aware of its imminent status as the platform’s most streamed ever title.

Though the show was only released a few weeks ago, the South Korean survival-drama is set to become Netflix’s biggest success in any language, hitting number one in 90 countries, including Australia.

But there is something far more interesting going on with Squid Game than the streaming figures (or indeed which of our favourite characters makes it to the sixth game).

Let me introduce you to the concept of Hallyu.

Hallyu is a Chinese term that roughly translates as Korean Wave. It can partly explain why you may have found yourself cheering on Bong Joon-ho as he took out three Academy Awards for Parasite, doing a K beauty routine at night, listening to BTS, or recommending Train to Busan as a classic of the zombie genre.

The accelerating influence of South Korean culture in recent years has been both exciting and profound. Importantly, however, Hallyu has also not been an accident. It is part of a deliberate strategy on the part of the South Korean government to build the country’s brand by being an exporter of popular culture.

While I’m aware of the irony of discussing marketing in the context of Squid Game, a show which is an explicit critique of capitalism, the broader strategy of South Korea’s national marketing approach is instructive for those of us who work with Australian brands.

It highlights the power of some key marketing levers: building a brand through culture, changing a brand’s popular perception through cultural imprinting, and utilising media investment to shape the landscape both locally and abroad.

Brand building a country through culture

South Korea’s cultural ambitions have been present since the late 1990s, supported by continuous investment from their government. According to the BBC, the budget of the country’s Cultural Content Office – an arm of which is amazingly called the Popular Culture Industry Division – is USD 5.5 billion, with the sole aim being to “boost economic growth particularly through growing the country’s cultural industry export.”

The national brand equity of South Korea has soared, with the positive effects of this investment being improved country image, increased tourism (pre-COVID), and uptake in the learning of their language.

Politically, it has been described as a clear example of soft power, or the intangible power a country wields through its image to “create, and solidify, new long-term changes in how people think about or interact with the country.” Quite obviously, there is little difference between this and the spectacle of American culture we have been subject to for decades.

But from a marketing perspective, however, the very specific aims of the Korean wave are something any of us in brand advertising will be familiar with: to use content and talent through media to win hearts and minds.

Global cultural imprinting

What can be useful for Australian brands to learn from the South Korean strategy is that it stands as a pure, and very successful, example of the concept of ‘cultural imprinting’.

First coined by Kevin Simler in his article Ads Don’t Work That Way, cultural imprinting suggests that the role of advertising isn’t to change minds individually but instead to “change the landscape of cultural meanings – which in turn changes how we are perceived by others when we use a product.”

Cultural imprinting is the antithesis of hyper-targeted advertising approaches. It is about building up a common knowledge in the general population around your product. As Simler explains it: “it’s not enough for everyone to know it. Everyone must also know that everyone else knows it.”

This is a strategy often leveraged in the luxury category. For example, you may never wish to buy a Chanel bag, but you know that they’re expensive, and the owner of a Chanel bag knows that you know too.

Usually, we see arguments for cultural imprinting around the time of the Super Bowl as a way to explain the value of the high cost of entry for a thirty-second spot. But in this instance through the Korean wave, we are seeing its expression as the exporting of culture to the entire world through popular content.

Hallyu is the result of a concerted attempt at cultural imprinting on the globe. The ‘brand’ leaders in Seoul aren’t just producing tourism ad campaigns. They are using long term investment in culture through media to actually change the landscape of cultural meanings around their country.

The upshot

So what can brands here learn and apply in their own Squid Game-like quests to beat competitors and win a significant share of revenue?

Firstly, the Hallyu strategy demonstrates the potential success in ‘positive wastage’ or the recognition of the long term need to prime everyone in the market, regardless of whether they will buy your products or not.

Secondly, conscious investment can powerfully shape the cultural landscape whether locally or globally. We only need to look at examples such as the recent NITV Beyond 3% initiative to see the potential impacts that positive media investments by brands can make to create our own ‘Australian waves’. More should be done here.

Finally, linked to the above, it stands as an exciting reminder of the impact of acts in media over just ads to connect people with your brand, and the central role of being active in culture to achieving this.

Originally published on AdNews here

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