Such is the genius of 4th-gen K-pop girl group branding that despite debuting so close to each other, the two don’t overlap
Originally published in TheDiarist.ph
When we think about K-pop girl groups, who are the first to come to mind for you? What about them do you like? What sets them apart from other girl groups?
Basic marketing classes tell us about branding. Branding in K-pop is imperative to set groups apart from one another. When we think of TWICE we think upbeat, bright, catchy songs with “killing lines” (lines that were made to go viral and get stuck in our heads). What about BLACKPINK? Edgy, hard-hitting beats with a sense of bad-girl elegance. In theory, branding helps make sure that a group has its color, and gives them the “it” factor to set them apart from and even above the other groups.
Back when I first got into K-pop, girl groups were often distinguished between bubblegum pop and sexy or some derivative of the two. Concepts were rarely ever pushed beyond that. Ten years later, K-pop’s concepts and branding have evolved so much today that it feels like it can and should be used as case studies for marketing majors, what with interwoven narratives with groups like Loona and EXO, or groups with conflicting yet distinct concepts like Red Velvet (Red and Velvet concepts, anyone?), or whatever else is under the sun. Agencies and production companies have even made a spectacle out of the creation of a group based on whatever concept they could think of, like forming groups out of 101 trainees, idols from disbanded groups, and trainees from abroad or outside Korea.
At the end of the day, branding is just one of the essentials that can get a group’s name out there and in people’s heads.
But what happens when a label has multiple groups under them? Not only that, but how do you not only create a girl group that is distinct enough to stand out, but also will not overlap with another group under the same label?
That’s where Le Sserafim and NewJeans come into the picture.
It was unheard of for companies to debut groups within months of each other. The rule was a few years between each gendered group at the very least. But months?
Groups can debut at close interval, but the two-month gap between Le Sserafim and NewJeans felt far too close for comfort. In K-pop, it was unheard of for companies to debut groups within months of each other. The rule was a few years between each gendered group at the very least. But months?
Couple that with the fact that NewJeans had no immediate stand-out members in its debut, the way Le Sserafim did with its ex-I*Zone members, the veteran Miyawaki Sakura and the main vocalist Lee Chaewon. It felt as if Le Sserafim was being set up to drown out NewJeans. The only thing that I remember hearing about NewJeans was that they were under HYBE labels, and their creative director was Min Hee-Jin, the creative director behind a number of legendary concepts back when she was with SM Entertainment. From Girls’ Generation’s Gee to Red Velvet’s Red Flavor—these were only two of the multitude of concepts she’s helped create for SM.
What grabbed me immediately about NewJeans was that, well, the girls weren’t incredibly distinct from each other at first.
Hairstyles in K-pop are one of the first things to help distinguish the idols from each other, especially when they first debut. It’s a way to help individual members of a group stand out so they won’t be glossed over. Oftentimes when idols are new to the scene, if you can’t completely win over fans with your song, sometimes you end up relying on an idol’s looks—which is fair! Like with product packaging, you really sometimes do end up judging a book by its cover, and people are drawn to a member who they consider the most distinct or attractive, based on their individual standards.
So when a girl group debuts with long, dark hair of the same length? It feels unique and new. The last time I saw something of this level done was when I was younger and getting into Girls Generation (second-gen stans, anyone?). Back then, all the girls debuted with varying shades of natural brown hair. For Girls Generation and NewJeans, dark hair was the concept, and was meant to evoke a youthful, “just like other girls” type of energy—one that the public could easily connect to even in the sea of experimental concepts that K-pop has come to be known for. Couple that with the song Hype Boy going viral within a few weeks after their debut, and you have yourself a rocket ship blasting off to the top of the charts.
What set NewJeans apart from Le Sserafim was the fact that they capitalized on the girls being young, and played to the strength of their being rookies, while Le Sserafim projected the fact that four of the (initial) six were already seasoned performers. Other than the two I*Zone members, Yunjin is a charismatic vocalist onstage with stage presence by the bucket, and Kazuha is a ballerina who transitioned into being an idol in six months. That’s on top of the fact that they all debuted fairly later in the age range of idols. From what I’ve seen, the oldest anyone tends to get is maybe 18-20 years old before they debut. It is more the exception to be older. But Le Sserafim already had three members who debuted above age 20, and their eldest was 24!
NewJeans capitalized on the girls being young and played to the strength of their being rookies, while Le Sserafim projected the fact that four of the (initial) six were already seasoned performers
When you saw Le Sserafim, you saw a polished group with experience onstage. They were clean-cut, synchronized, and they already looked like pros even early on in their debut. Compare that to NewJeans who practically screamed “rookie,” but being a rookie is by no means a bad thing, either. With NewJeans, it wasn’t all about being polished or executing difficult choreography to stand out. You were drawn to their youthful charisma. They had so much fun onstage that you couldn’t help but fall for their sweet charms.
It also helped a lot that their songs were so easy to get into. With the simple beats and angelic vocals coupled with adorable and professional performances, their image as a rookie group only enhanced rather than hindered their success. Instead of creating a group that set themselves apart and tried to transform themselves into instant professionals, the NewJeans’ agency capitalized on the fact that the girls are still on a journey to improvement—they made that a part of their branding. You were excited to see them grow, and that’s what made NewJeans’ branding a work of genius. Add the fact that NewJeans members are all gorgeous and have yet to develop an individual image apart from their youth, and this versatility has helped them jump from being the face of a new McDonald’s menu item, to being luxury ambassadors, all in one go—all before their first year of debut.
There’s so much more to dissect about each member, on top of the concepts they were given to expand their kind of “in-music” universe. What HYBE does well, aside from simply picking their idols, is also picking multi-faceted and creative ones, as well. Huh Yunjin of Le Sserafim has already released two singles under her name before even her first year of debut. Sakura is a veteran idol who’s capable of hosting her own variety show. NewJeans still have a lot to work to be artists, but that’s the beauty of watching these girls grow into seasoned idols and artists.
At the end of the day, NewJeans and Le Sserafim, despite debuting so close to each other, have been branded in such a way that there can be little to no overlap of the two bands. Even though they’re girl groups under the same label, they can promote close to each other, and still stand out. If anything, getting into both gives you something different to enjoy while waiting for the other group to have a comeback. Fans of K-pop can easily be stans of both groups, and the public can get into their songs and distinguish them from each other.
Le Sserafim already has that polished feel, so you’re excited to see them push boundaries and to experiment. Meanwhile, with NewJeans, you’re excited to see the journey of improvement. HYBE is creating stories with these girls, which we may not notice readily until we look closer.
And that’s the art and genius behind K-pop girl group branding.