South Korea’s growing global pop culture presence, from boy band BTS to the television series Squid Game, is driving a new marketing push into Japan, as consumer goods companies leverage the country’s soft power to drive sales of everything from liquor to clothes.

Hite Jinro, South Korea’s leading beverage maker, said this week it will launch new products in Japan to attract younger drinkers after its exports of the Korean firewater Soju shot up 27.2 per cent last year to Won28.5bn ($23m).

The company said a new generation of Japanese drinkers was buying Soju because of the increasing popularity of Korean films and TV dramas that feature the rice-distilled spirit, usually served in a small tumbler a bit larger than a 2 ounce shot glass.

Hite Jinro released a television campaign in Japan for its new sparkling Soju with fruit flavours last week. The campaign comes after the viral success of a Japanese advertisement parodying Korean romance dramas that got almost 3.5mn views since December.

“We aim to lead the trend of the Japanese liquor market with various marketing activities and increased sales power,” said Hwang Jung-ho, head of Hite Jinro’s overseas business operations, about taking a bigger share of Japan’s $35bn alcohol market.

Japan has cycled through different waves of Korean pop culture mania. Korean companies are making a renewed push into the country as hopes for improved bilateral ties rise, according to officials at state-run Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency (Kotra).

The agency held an online event on Wednesday to advise about 300 small and midsized Korean companies interested in entering Japan.

South Korea’s president-elect Yoon Suk-yeol, who will take office on May 10, has called for a “future-oriented approach” to bilateral ties, and plans to send a delegation to Tokyo this week, marking the first such visit in at least five years.

According to a recent survey of 327 groups by the Korea Chamber of Commerce and Industry, two in five companies expect bilateral relations to improve while over half of them plan to increase trade and investment with their Japanese counterparts.

“Japanese love of K-pop and Korean dramas seems to be increasing their preference for Korean food and other products,” said Baak Saang-joon, a professor at the School of International Liberal Studies at Waseda University in Tokyo. “We are likely to see more Korean companies using this for their marketing campaigns in Japan”.

Musinsa, South Korea’s fast-growing ecommerce clothing platform with more than 10mn users and Won2.3tn in gross merchandise value, is keen to gain a foothold in Japan. The company set up a Japanese subsidiary last year and is now in talks to take over Dholic, a rival specialised in selling clothes to young Japanese consumers.

“South Korea’s fashion worn by K-pop idols is attracting more interest in Japan,” said a Musinsa official. “As Korea is increasingly seen as a stylish country thanks to the popularity of its cultural content, its fashion is also getting increasingly popular among young Japanese.”

Musinsa is using Korean actors such as Yoo Ah-in and Jung Ho-yeon, who starred in the hit Netflix series Hellbound and Squid Game, respectively, as its models in advertisement campaigns. It plans to launch an online commercial featuring Korean pop stars and celebrities this year as part of its Japan push.


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