The Brand Story: Lessons through K-pop Idols, ‘Meh’ Cupcakes and A Place Called SMTown.

It was stupid and unnecessary.

But my hand reached out for my pocket anyway, nudging my phone deeper into its dark pits. I felt like I needed to hide my BTS-themed phone case from sight. Like I said, totally unnecessary but the girls in the SMTown Cafe looked like they meant serious business. And I’ve witnessed enough fanwars to know that it’s wiser not to provoke a territorial fangirl or stan.

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I feel like I’m getting ahead of myself, so let me just give a brief intro on what SMTown is. You know, before imaginations stray towards a darker, wilder place filled with leather spandex and whips. SMTown (specifically SMTown @Coexartium) is a museum and exhibition centre of sorts that belongs to SM Entertainment, one the Big 4 entertainment companies in South Korea. It was founded by Lee Soo-man, hence the ’S’ and ‘M’.

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Housed within the museum is the paraphernalia of SM’s roster of idol groups and artistes — EXO, SHINee, Super Junior, Girls’ Generation, Red Velvet, BoA and many others. It acts as a shrine to SM stans who make that special pilgrimage to pay homage to their faves. To the casual visitor, it provides a window to only a tiny fraction of the K-pop world, a place where someone squealing over a display of a snazzy yellow outfit worn by a Girls’ Generation member could present a pretty confusing picture.

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At the behest of a SM stan -friend, I decided to make the trip to SMTown during my time in Seoul. Allow me to state upfront that I am a BTS ARMY (ARMY = name of BTS fandom) and that BTS is under the management of another entertainment group, BigHit. Having said that, I can also state that I’m not an ignorant civilian in the world of SM Entertainment — I can differentiate between EXO’s Baekhyun and Chanyeol, SHINee’s Taemin and Minho and name all of the current members of the different NCT sub-units. But standing in the SMTown Cafe was a different matter. The experience of being surrounded by clusters of SM stans exchanging photo cards with the same intense air of stony-faced Wall Street men dealing with million-dollar stocks made me feel like I was going to be torn limb from limb if I so much as reveal my BTS Suga-wallpapered phone.

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Of course, it was all in my head. In reality, no one gave two figs about me. Why would anyone care when there was the important business of exchanging and collecting precious photo cards involved? So, without fanfare, I made my way to the food counter and found myself standing in front of a selection of cupcakes whose appearance looked amazingly bland, despite having the perfunctory coloured icing. Each uneventful cupcake was saved by the pickets on top which featured the artistes and idol groups’ names. Essentially, what was on offer were your EXO cupcakes, Red Velvet cupcakes, SHINee cupcakes — cupcakes defined more by the artistes and idol groups rather than the flavours themselves, which were of the regular “meh” variety.

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I went up to the counter and asked for an EXO cupcake. I was a casual fan so it was an easy choice. The server then asked “Which member?”

I had to choose a member? What was this? A friggin’ surprise pop quiz? I hesitated before answering, “Baekhyun.”

The server rummaged through a shelf before returning to announce, “Oh…sorry…no more EXO cupcakes. Can you choose again?”

How do I choose another cupcake for the love of Lord? My mind blanked out for a moment. You see, if someone had asked me to pick a back-up BTS cupcake I would have mouthed off members’ names like a know-it-all begging for a punch in the mouth. However, decision-making became more of a bitch when none of the cupcake flavours were actually appealing to me and I haven’t pledged fealty to any of the artistes or groups. But I badly wanted a cupcake with a picket on it to complete my SMTown experience. So I took a few steps back to look at my choices again.

Here’s the truth — I am indeed blessed by the Fangirl Gods; they bestowed upon me the gift of chatting any fangirl up, whenever and wherever. (A skill I will add to my LinkedIn when I’ve reached my peak of delusion.) When I heard the familiar accent floating nearby, the voice that set off my radar, I made my way to the Fellow Malaysian hanging around the food counter. It was time to make friends with someone from home. Her name is Khadijah.

Khadijah certainly wasn’t the only Malaysian I met in SMTown that day. In the museum, I stumbled upon a few Malaysian EXO-Ls (name of EXO fandom) whom I chatted with, peppering the conversation with the word du jour — jinja — which means ‘really’ in Korean. Somehow, when I said it, the word ended up sounding Hokkien.

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As for Khadijah, she was gracious enough to humour me when I asked her, “I bukan SM stan…so dunno what cupcake to choose..how about you? Which one you nak?” I was genuinely curious to know where her allegiance lies.

Now, ladies and gentlemen, this is when my adwoman mind started running on the hamster wheel. When Khadijah told me, with earnest conviction, that she will always, always choose a SHINee cupcake, I was reminded immediately just how powerful branding can be. Powerful enough to drive a stan to pick one bland-looking cupcake out of its many equally so-so siblings on display. And when Khadijah mentioned that she always picks the SHINee cupcake, yes it’s “always” because Khadijah makes a yearly pilgrimage to SMTown to feel closer to her idols.

Each artiste or group’s name stuck on the cupcakes is branding, really. Warning: Telling a stan that her group is a brand could result in one’s neck being snapped into half, I kid you not. And I get it. If someone likens BTS to a branding machine, my fangirl self would feel inclined to gut that person out with a rusty butter knife. The adwoman in me, however, is eager to prostrate herself to the group’s marketing team and their impeccable strategies. Look, if BTS is the reason why an Applehead a.k.a me almost* defected to a Samsung Galaxy S20, a phone currently endorsed by the group, I could only hail the BTS brand as KING. ( *Yes, I said almost. If it weren’t for my still-existent common sense that urged me to embark on an austerity drive during these hard times, I would definitely buy the damn phone and other BTS endorsed items. And end up spending my retirement years, sleeping in a makeshift home created by boxes of BTS albums, while fighting for food with street pigeons. )

But the other question remained — why did Khadijah choose SHINee? Why not EXO? The hottest group of SM? Or Red Velvet, SM’s other household name? To paraphrase Khadijah’s response — “SHINee is happiness. The group makes me happy during a time when I was very unhappy…I won’t say much about why….sorry. I don’t really have a deep reason but they helped me get through my difficult phase. Even with Jonghyun’s* death, they still stayed strong. If they keep going, I will keep going.”(*Jonghyun is a member of SHINee who, sadly, committed suicide in 2017.)

When we proceeded to buy the cupcakes. I followed Khadijah’s lead and chose a SHINee cupcake. When the server asked me again, “Which member?” I looked at Khadijah. “Choose-lah Onew.” I picked Onew. I settled down with my cupcake after Khadijah and I exchanged our contacts and parted ways. I took out the SHINee and Onew pickets, stuck them into the icing, snapped my pictures (a must!) and removed the pickets to finally chomp on it. It met my expectations because a low bar was already set. Without the extras, without the trimmings, without the stories, and more importantly, because I am not a SHAWOL (name of SHINee fandom), the cupcake tasted as dry as it looked. The Americano was weak as well but I knew I wasn’t in SM Town for the food.

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Like I knew I wasn’t in the House of BTS for its less-than-stellar coffee. At the House of BTS — BTS’ own pop-up exhibition and store — I savoured every sip and bite of its cafe offerings, because I willingly inhaled the group’s zero-to-hero story and my being there, consuming their goods, is a show of my lifelong support for BTS. Call me gullible, if you must — I happily wear that hat.

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We are creatures of emotions who, sometimes, let our hearts and in my case, loins, guide us along our path to purchase. When you grow up with Girls’ Generation, you would naturally reach out for a Girls’ Generation cupcake. It’s not the rationale side that speaks to girls when they pick EXO nuts over NCT nuts. (Okay, I realise that that this sentence sounded wrong on so many levels.) I’m pretty damn sure there are better fish sticks out there than the ones packaged under the Super Junior name but that didn’t stop a stan from filling her basket with the stuff.

Come to think of it, the whole SMTown Cafe and Market experience was an exercise in brand love and loyalty.

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As I walked around the SHINee area in the SMTown museum , I read the placard that explained the meaning behind the group A manifesto, if you will. These are the words:

The name of the group, SHINee, means ‘Person Receiving the Shine’. SHINee is a contemporary band which suggests and leads the trend that fits the contemporary world in all aspects from music to performance, and fashion. Feel the unlimited charms of SHINee who captured the hearts of music lovers around the world by interpreting refreshing music styles and innovative performances in their own style.

Truth be told, the paragraph sounded like it was nicked from a corporate annual report. I much preferred Khadijah’s version. “SHINee is happiness. They make me happy when I am unhappy.” That is her SHINee story. Not the most eloquent. But it’s personal. Simple. From the heart.

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Perhaps, someday, I could casually slip the story of Khadijah and her SHINee cupcake into future client presentations when I have to stress the importance of a brand story in giving a product that something extra, in swaying customers into seeing the product in a different light. It goes without saying that if the product is so bad that it warrants a below-zero rating system, a brand story will only be as good as the flower planted on a huge pile of ripe cow dung. Forgive me, for putting the words ‘cupcake’ and ‘dung’ in the same paragraph.

When a goods story hits the sweetest of spots, the emotional bond would form eventually and the brand (or in this case, an idol group) would eventually yield unshakeable loyalty. Loyalty measured not only by data and numbers. I’m talking about loyalty in the form of a girl standing for hours in front of a wall of portraits, drawing fan art of her faves. Or a girl who would scarf down a mediocre cupcake, every year, in the name of love.

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A writer. A fangirl. A human being trying to stay afloat during this chaotic time.

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