South Korea Embedded marketing

Embedded marketing in South Korea is the gateway for brands to a Korean and Global audience

As South Korea is the hot-spot of Asian dramas, embedded marketing, or product placement (PPL) is very common in the country. It is a form of indirect advertising where branded goods and services are exposed to viewers through dramas, movies, TV shows, and other productions. Though it exists in other parts of the world like the US and China, embedded marketing in South Korea holds a special status.

In Korea, broadcasters do not air commercial breaks during shows, which causes brands to find another way to reach audiences and producers to find another way to monetize their shows.  Embedded marketing started in the 1980s in Korea, after showing commercials during programming was banned in 1973.

While embedded marketing in South Korea was meant to be a sneakier way to sneak product ads in shows, Koreans are so familiar with it that the term “PPL” is even jokingly used to refer to random objects. Although  too obvious or not-fitting of embedded marketing can have unintended effects, the marketing tactic often bring good results like it does for the sandwhich chain, Subway (서브웨이).

Brands compete intensely for embedded marketing placements on Korean shows

Many brands in South Korea are involved in embedded marketing, sometimes even leading to fierce competition for a good spot in a promising TV program by big broadcasters like  MBC, KBS, and SBS. Brands often pay hundreds of millions of Korean won (or hundreds of thousands of US dollars) to cover the production costs. In some cases, several brands may put in offers to have a placement with a well-renowned writer or actor in an upcoming film or show. 

The effects of embedded marketing in South Korea are not always certain. Despite that, brands from the K-beauty industry, the food and beverage industry,  the luxury goods industry , continue to do it. For example, an official from an imported car industry said, “Although we cannot figure out the effect of embedded marketing on the increase in sales numerically, we received reports from the sales sites that consumer interest increased. Considering that the Covid-19 will restrict on-site events, the increased use of embedded marketing is expected to continue.”

Lamborghini in K-drama

Image Source: Gia Allana, blue car from Italian luxury sports car and SUVs brand. Lamborghini in K-drama Vincenzo, starring actor Song Joong Ki (송중기)

Moderation is key

Although there is no single “right way” to do embedded marketing in South Korea, the rule of thumb is to do it in moderation. In a popular 2022 K-drama called One Dollar Lawyer (천원짜리 변호사), many people shared their response online regarding the extent to which the steamed chicken brand twozzim (두찜) crossed the line. Although some people mentioned that the embedded marketing was done in moderation and blended well with the storyline and characters, another group said it was too aggressive that it felt like they were watching an advertisement. These responses from the audience signals that it’s easy to go overboard in the eyes of some drama viewers.  

On a similar note, a K-drama called The King: Eternal Monarch (더킹: 영원의 군주), there were ten branded products in a single episode, receiving wide criticism.

How a beauty brand with limited capital has won the crowd through embedded marketing

KAHI (가히), a skincare brand launched in 2020, has been aggressively using embedded marketing due to its lack of manpower and capital as an SME. It has appeared on TV countless of times, with actress Kim Go-eun (김고은) as their exclusive model. KAHI’s multi-balm has gianed admiration from viewers for appearing on Extraordinary Attorney Woo, initially known for being “embedded marketing-free”.

An official from Korea Tech, the company that created KAHI, said it would maintain an aggressive advertising and public relations strategy as it aims to promote KAHI globally. It has even created a separate “Drama Script TF Team”, who is responsible for selecting dramas that can blend in well with their brand.

KAHI, demonstrates that embedded marketing in South Korea doesn’t have to be exclusively for big brands. As a new brand with limited marketing manpower, it narrowed in on embedded marketing and carefully chose which drama and actress to collaborate with, which won over the audience.

KAHI balm in Extraordinary Attorney Woo as embedded marketing in South Korea

Image Source: KAHI Bounce Multi Balm (left), Actress Ha Yoon-Kyung wearing KAHI balm in Extraordinary Attorney Woo as embedded marketing in South Korea (right)

YouTube is becoming a popular platform for embedded marketing in South Korea

YouTube is growing in the South Korea, with celebrities, media companies, and ordinary citizens creating their channels. Many brands have taken advantage of this by exposing their products and services to the viewers. One example is South Korean hip-hop and R&B record company AOMG’s cooking talk show meenoi’s yorizori (모노이의 요리조리), which regularly incorporates branded goods. Actor Lee Dong Wook and the show host Meenoi have a meal together with Georgia Craft (조르지아 크래프트) in the background. Meenoi also gives Lee some time for him to freely talk about the product. Other popular YouTube channels that do embedded marketing include I haven’t done much for you (차린건 쥐뿔도 없지만) by rapper Lee Young Ji (이여지), Short Paper (짧은대본), and Shot Box (숏박스).

Lee appearing in a show with bottled coffee from Georgia Craft

Image source: Korea NewsWire (left), Lee Dong Wook holding coffee from Georgia Craft and AOMGOFFICIAL YouTube (right), Lee appearing in a show with bottled coffee from Georgia Craft

The success story of Subway’s embedded marketing in South Korea

American fast food franchise Subway (서브웨이) is an example of a successful brand which has largely used embedded marketing, especially in K-dramas. In September 2021, it had the highest average sales per store in the Asia Pacific region. Subway has appeared in over 17 shows, such as the globally popular Goblin: The Lonely and Great God (도깨비) and Crash Landing on You (사랑의 불시착).

Subway’s use of embedded marketing didn’t only positively impact sales in South Korea but also those across the globe. In 2021, Subway opened a new store in Jakarta, after 21 years after its complete withdrawal in October 2000. This was largely supported by the embedded marketing in K-dramas, widely perceived to be popular in Indonesia.

Key takeaways of embedded marketing in South Korea:

  1. Embedded marketing in South Korea is very common. Although it’s not new or unique, it’s important to note that a lot more people in the country take it seriously. They are highly aware of it that the term “PPL” is known by many people.
  2. The effects of embedded marketing are uncertain. However, many brands still do it since it may bring them good results, especially if it’s from a promising K-drama or movie. In the best case, results aren’t only domestic but also international like it was for Subway (서브웨이).
  3. Although there’s no success formula, it is generally understood that embedded marketing should be done in moderation. Doing it in excess may annoy the viewers, leading them to publicly call it out.
  4. Embedded marketing has been largely visible on traditional media like TV. Now they are also found in popular platforms like YouTube.