Going Gangnam!

A Korean obsession

In December 2012 the world became obsessed with Korea thanks to pop legend Psy. His ‘Gangnam Style’ was the first YouTube video to reach 1 billion views and it topped the music charts in over 30 countries including Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, Spain, and the United Kingdom. The world loved the pony dance, and in turn started to love everything about Korea.

But what was it that made a grown man prance around pretending to ride an imaginary pony? Apparently it was the result of a soju drinking contest, where Psy drank 13 shots of a drink that he refers to as his “best friend”. . . Soju is the national hooch of South Korea. Jinro the leading soju brand has topped Drinks International’s Millionaires’ Club with sales of 71m 9 litre cases in 2015. This is double the size of the next biggest brand, and nearly three times more volume than Smirnoff. Soju has been part of Korean culture since the 14th century, when Mongol invaders taught the locals how to distil, with fermented rice as the traditional starter grain. Jinro began its road to domination when the industry was consolidated by the Korean government; a distillery was allocated to each major district, and Jinro got Seoul.

Traditionally international sales have been hard to find for soju which clearly loses something in translation. Beyond Korean diasporas, Japan – just across the Korean Strait – is currently the only significant market for soju. However, Jinro aims to be selling 100m 9 litre cases in the next 10 years. To achieve this it needs to not only continue its mission of attracting new young drinkers, and more women in Korea (it promotes to university students and offers a lower ABV variant) but also to expand internationally. They are seeding the brand in the 11 world markets with a population of more than 100m. Psy and the growing interest in Korean food in the on-trade, will further help Jinro to expand its reach. The Korean craze has already hit the UK and US. In Waitrose soju sales rocketed by more than 40 per cent in 2014, and soju bars opening in San Francisco, New York and London are serving up Korean twists on classic cocktails like the Soju Mojito served in East London’s Jubo.

But the challenge is to establish the brand not just the sector. Prosecco has now overtaken champagne to become Britain’s most popular sparkling wine; shoppers spent £182million on the Italian fizz last year, compared with £141million on its French counterpart. But, how many prosecco brands can you name? The product sector has taken off, but brand awareness and consumer loyalty has not been built at the same time.

In the west there is a tendency to assume the global flow is from traditional established markets to emerging ones. Jinro, with its strong domestic base, may succeed in the opposite direction if it can build a brand that engages. If soju is promoted mainly in cocktail form there is an added danger – no one names the brands they want in their cocktail… The Jinro packaging is also missing a trick – it has back bar impact but does too little to engage a western audience, or invite participation – gangnam style.

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