BTS’ Bangtan Universe and the power of transmedia storytelling

MUSIC GROUP BTS performs onstage during the 2018 Billboard Music Awards at MGM Grand Garden Arena on May 20 in Las Vegas, Nevada.


Words by

If there’s anything that K-pop is known for, it’s its “concepts”: An industry term used to describe the themes that set a project’s creative direction. This is the driving force behind everything that hooks audiences into K-pop. The bombastic sets and outrageous outfits are as much a part of the experience as the music.

These concepts are sometimes used to tell stories, which some groups have told through their music videos and tie-up materials. Girl group Twice, for instance, hinted at a narrative connection between their “TT” and “Knock Knock” music videos. More often than not, however, these are one-off projects.

But in an industry that thrives on conceptual experimentation, one act has taken the idea of building on an overarching theme to an entirely different level. Global sensation BTS — whose value is worth around $3.6 billion to the South Korean economy — and their agency Big Hit Entertainment have been silently building a universe for years, integrating storytelling across different platforms. And the effort isn’t just elevating marketing to new heights. It’s fostering a more meaningful connection with the fans, too.

“Seven boys. Best friends.”

What do you do when you have a fanbase that gobbles up music videos and merchandise and is still left wanting more? Big Hit Entertainment’s answer: You give them more.

Enter the Bangtan Universe, a meta-narrative spanning various media platforms, designed as a means to engage with fans on every possible level.

The Bangtan Universe, or BU, follows the story of a boy, Seokjin, attempting to save his six friends from tragic fates by repeatedly traveling back in time. While the universe was officially launched in January along with a teaser of its webtoon Save Me, the story had actually been running since 2015 with the music video (MV) for “I Need U”, the title track of the album The Most Beautiful Moment in Life, Pt. 1.

It featured the tight-knit, rebellious friend group of the seven boys (all portrayed by the members), underlined by snippets of each character’s dark backstory.

Through the years, more parts of the narrative were revealed across several channels. At first, it was only through music videos and supplementary videos subtly labeled as official BU content in their YouTube descriptions. But the 2017 release of their album Love Yourself: Her saw booklets called The Notes inserted in physical copies, an inclusion that would continue in the follow-up albums Love Yourself: Tear and Love Yourself: Answer. Each booklet contained entries by each character across different dates, adding to the mystery of how the story’s events unfolded.

In 2019, days after the webtoon reveal, a separate book entitled The Most Beautiful Moment in Life: The Notes 1 was launched. Copies of the book were subsequently released in March.

More than just singularities

Of course, this isn’t the first time a music group’s written a meta-narrative into their work. Throughout the years concept albums have pushed the boundaries on music as a storytelling medium. British virtual band Gorillaz took that to an extreme with the fictional histories of its band members and alternate reality games (ARG) built into its websites.

But this type of multi-platform storytelling in music has often been the realm of side-projects among niche artists, and never to the commercial scale of Big Hit’s Bangtan Universe.

It’s an approach called transmedia storytelling, which hinges on delivering different pieces of a narrative using different media platforms, each one working to complement each other.

“Sometimes, one platform needs the other to make sense, or to enhance the experience,” said Lisa Sioson, executive creative director at McCann WorldGroup Philippines. This is apparent in franchises like the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The movies in themselves are already based off the comics, but they also have tie-in comics that bridge certain gaps between certain timelines. There are also the various TV series such Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. which may not be directly derived from the movies but tell stories that explain why some things in the movies came to be.

Since the storytelling happens on many different levels, it’s important to note that the narrative doesn’t follow any one path, like more traditional storytelling might. “One of the hypotheses that I’m exploring is the idea that… [you can’t] tell [a transmedia story] linearly,” said Andrew Ty, a film and media studies professor at the Ateneo de Manila University. “That’s why I think it’s best to look at it as almost like the plot elements are networked with each other. So you can start from wherever and just piece these things together.”

A “magic shop” of experiences

And if offloading the work of tying together narrative threads and theorizing larger story arcs sounds like an agency dropping the ball, then you’ve likely never been on the internet. Hardcore fans thrive in these spaces — a reality that Big Hit uses to build an active, engaged fanbase for BTS.

ARMYs, what fans of BTS call themselves, devote countless hours mining materials, dig deep to create their own timelines and theories, taking to Twitter and YouTube to share their dizzyingly granular breakdowns.

By leaving fans room to interpret these stories, Big Hit allows them a sense of ownership over the Bangtan Universe. “The reason you’re doing this is that you’re making the experience more immersive — it allows you to give them delights,” said Greg Martin, executive creative director at Ace Saatchi & Saatchi. “It just makes it a little bit more surprising… makes it stickier as a story.”

K-pop as a whole is already saturated with acts, with dozens of groups debuting annually, and each one with even a modicum of success staging multiple comebacks (an industry term for new album or single releases). BTS has gone further and cemented their place as a global act, with the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry hailing the group as 2018’s second best-selling artist in the world. This also means that they’re competing against bigger, more established names who have their respective marketing activities.

In this “attention economy”, whomever is able to monopolize the scarce resource of human attention has a massive advantage over their competitors. In a recent live broadcast with fans, Jin, one of the group’s members, mentioned that they spend about a third of their time thinking of content for ARMYs.

“I think Big Hit has a brilliant mind for being very flexible when it comes to letting the world know about BTS,” said Geisha Serrano, an executive escalations specialist and ARMY. “I like that they cater to a lot of people with different perspectives and personalities because you can see that they try to use different means to reach out to various markets. And it fits with their craft and artistry because they always proved… how genuine they are in making music.”

Overcoming the pied piper

For now, the future of the Bangtan Universe remains in speculation. The final chapter of Save Me will be released on April 25, though the title of the book, The Notes 1, hints at possible future installments. And there’s also the question of whether the universe will bleed into the band’s upcoming album, Map of the Soul: Persona, just as it did with their previous releases.

Instead of the blind loyalty that’s often painted as characteristic of fandoms, it’s an engaged, intellectually-stimulated following that assesses the intent and quality of the content that they’re being given.

BTS fans love the group for the music they create. But Big Hit’s additional efforts towards leveraging that artistry and communicating their story through this transmedia campaign has further fueled the passion of ARMY — a fanbase that pays not only with their wallets, but with their time and attention too.

In that way, Big Hit’s found its own kind of artistry — walking the tightrope of musical craftsmanship and marketability. And it’s a balancing act that fans truly appreciate.

“We don’t buy [BTS paraphernalia] because it is from our favorite group; we buy because it is worth it and of quality,” said Diana Sipalay, a teacher and ARMY. “Whenever BTS releases something, their advocacy is embodied in it, may it be a song, an album, a music video, or merchandise. So with this BU… the money is not going to waste.”