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What businesses can learn from Gangnam Style

By Lawrence Loh

The other day, I was preparing a video on Gangnam Style during my undergraduate class on strategic management so as to discuss its lessons for business. Even while I was testing the video, with just one “nanosecond” of the starting music, many of the students immediately yelled with much glee - “Gangnam Style!”

I think the current wave of this K-Pop single needs no introduction. (For the still uninitiated, the video can be viewed at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9bZkp7q19f0.) All across the world, parodies of the original performance by an otherwise unknown artiste called Psy popped up in humongous numbers.

They came up in almost every imaginable setting - from schools to shopping malls, from navies to nightspots, from prisons to playgrounds. (Even Singapore has a good parody at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=npCSLS1_Rfs.)

Since its YouTube’s publication on 15 July this year, Gangnam Style has garnered almost 400 million views by the beginning of October (and the number is rapidly increasing by the day). It is now holding the Guinness World Record as the most “liked” video in YouTube history.

It has conquered the top hit charts of many countries (too many to mention here). It is the top entry in iTunes in many countries, including U.S., U.K. and Canada. In fact, it has been featured in the major talk shows in the U.S. – The Today Show, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, Saturday Night Live. It is amongst the top 10 search terms on Google (no wonder even Google’s Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt was publicly featured to be learning the Gangnam Style dance).

Gangnam Style seems to have spawned many strange phenomena worldwide. Fussy babies were reported by Huffington Post to stop crying and became willing to eat upon hearing Gangnam Style. Lifeguards were reported to be fired due to their performing of the dance in the pool with their working attire, but only to be re-hired back to their positions by no less than the city’s mayor in response to public pressure.

Media reports are now declaring that Gangnam Style may break the world’s Internet due to the immense popularity and intense strain on the information infrastructure.

So what are the lessons that business can learn from Gangnam Style?

I believe the three main takeaways are the three paradoxes that can be discerned from the Gangnam Style wave.

One, the ordinary can become extraordinary.

The artiste behind the rap song - Psy - is not, by any measure, a flamboyant, dashing young man. His real name is Park Jae-sang, born in Seoul on 31 December 1977. A bit on the plump side, he was even ever advised to go for plastic surgery during his hitherto unspectacular singing career since 2001. He has been everything - singer, songwriter, rapper, dancer, record producer - but was relatively unnoticed for many years.

But probably his revolutionary music education in Berklee College of Music, located in a hip part of Boston, may have helped to nurture an unconventional potential in him. The fact that Gangnam is a wealthiest part of Seoul serves to only popularize the social satire in the video.

Two, consumers stick better if they are also part of the product.

The Gangnam Style is one contrarian product where copyrights are deliberately not enforced. Consumers are encouraged to adopt, adapt the video and song without limits. And this arrangement, on top of the catchy tune, makes the whole sensation goes viral almost
overnight.

Psy was indeed smart enough to rope in “lead consumers” like the setups of established artists - Britney Spears, Justin Bieber and Katy Perry - into the burgeoning epidemic fever which then grew even bigger.

Three, ride the social media - it is not just noises but also signals.

Don’t underestimate the social media - this is the mantra for modern business. But it is easier said than done, and businesses are often stuck in token embrace of this new form of media.

Gangnam Style did not have the support of a big business with big advertising bucks. It was almost singlehandedly made and promoted by Psy. The YouTube, where the video was born, may be a cluttered medium but Psy got many well-linked people also using Twitter to lead people to the online video.

Some may argue that Gangnam Style is just a fluke shot, a flash in the pan that will come and go. It is like a Macarena Dance that was popular for a while and then disappeared, all during those pre-social media days. But now Gangnam Style has the full arsenal of social media for its propagation.

Whatever the reason and rationalization for the rise, Gangnam Style definitely offers an insightful business education for all. One may even quip: “Everything I need to know about business, I learn it in Gangnam Style”.

Gangnam Style is actually a very simple four-step dance mimicking horse-riding. In the true spirit of the Style and taking a “parody” off astronaut Neil Armstrong’s famous words, perhaps Gangnam Style is four small steps for Psy, one giant leap for business. 

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