K-Pop future branding: Gen Z and a new retro-future

Mar 1, 2024

K-pop group Aespa broke records in 2020 when their single ‘Black Mamba’ got 21 million views within 24 hours, making it the most successful K-pop debut in history.

Aespa was different. It left behind the K-pop rule book that focused on cute, sexy and girl crush concepts and instead incorporated futurism – with a unique twist that was particularly appealing to a Gen Z audience.

In this previous article, we identified three pillars brands use when portraying the future, called ‘future core’. The overall nature of portraying the future is thus surprisingly static and hasn’t changed much from the 1950s (or indeed even earlier). Yet within those pillars, we see changes in the nuance of colour or design cues that make us identify certain futurisms as retro-futures and others as more pure futuristic concepts. By adding their twist on the way they portray the future, brands can increase their relevance.

Aespa, a popular K-pop group founded by SM Entertainment, is composed of four members as well as their virtual counterparts, AI clones, called aes. They together compose a team that fights a villain known as Black Mamba. Their environment is shared between the real world and the FLAT, a virtual universe where their aes live. To be able to connect, they need to “SYNK”. *


Source: Amazon music

1. Aespa’s signal futurism with ‘future core’ colours

The album “Savage” is entirely illustrated with cold colours, appealing to something from an advanced digital world. The limited colour palette, comprising shades of blue on the upper half of the cover and of dark purple on the lower half, with the snake in monochrome, makes the album cover futuristic. These colours, artificial in nature, are commonly associated with energy and innovation and create an otherworldly atmosphere. Touches of frosted white and ice blue produce a crisp effect often seen in futuristic architecture 0r technological products. The fact that there is a lack of gradation, with a clean switch from black-purple to ice blue, further adds to this crispness and futurism.

2. Computer-graphic imagery and seamless design

Achieving a seamless design implies the use of innovative technology such as 3D printing or CGI, both tools associated with modernity. For instance, the abstract snowy mountain ranges depicted on the cover are made of complex lines of seamless digital waves, directly hinting at a future we see in sci-fi movies: Blade Runner, The Matrix, movies that depicted a future where the digital is omnipresent. This gives a strong virtual feel where the limits between the real and the digital become blurry.

Moreover, the album title font is seamless and sleek as it was made out of one piece of metal and with very fine edges. Similarly, the snake has a very fluid, glossy texture, making it look unnatural, almost alien.

3. The juxtaposition of the Organic and Inorganic

Juxtaposing the Organic and Inorganic conveys a futuristic vision of a society where nature and technology coexist in balance, capturing the attention of the viewer and creating unexpected contrasts.

Aespa’s album also covers this pillar by mixing digital elements (such as CGI graphics) with nature. The image depicts a snake slithering through the dark shallow waters surrounded by a half-digital, half-natural landscape. This resonates with Aespa’s back story. The group’s name is a combination of “æ”, which stands for the two letters of “Avatar × Experience”, and “aspect”, implying something is “two-sided”. The concept of the group is to “encounter one’s other self, the avatar, and experience a new world”.

In our collective imaginary, this hybridity reflects the idea of transcending the dichotomy of nature and artificiality and hence, signals the future.

Aespa’s unique twist:

While the three pillars signal what we call future core, the brand added a unique twist by sprinkling hints of the 2000s “retro” futurism, mainly by playing with colours. The specific choice of cool-toned colour throughout the whole album cover, directly hints at digital products from the late 90s- early 2000s considered innovative at that time.

Source: https://www.instagram.com/y2kaesthetic/

Moreover, while the endless grid also makes it look technologically forward and futuristic, it is inspired by retro and cyberpunk references (e.g. Pacman or Tron).

Source: xutianjian.com (left), Pinterest (right)

The font of the album cover, “Savage”, also leans towards retro-future rather than purely futuristic.  The liquid metallic texture, the thick lines and bold minimalism are all representative features of the 2000s retro aesthetic (Y2K) and the sharp edges are reminiscent of Y2K goth girl, tatoos, and even bikers aesthetic.

Source: Amazon music

Aespa gives us a unique perspective of being inside a system but also playing in new ways. It has built a bold, yet relatable brand focused on futurism. With heavy use of cyberpunk aesthetics, endless grids and slick Y2K fonts, Aespa signals the future while hinting at a nostalgic vibe.

A new aesthetic of retro-future for the Gen Z age

At a time when virtual reality is developing rapidly, Aespa bridges the gap between the “now” and the “far future”, boosting the group’s popularity among Gen Z for which a retro-future vision is more relatable and appealing.

Aespa’s uniqueness shines through, setting them apart from the rest of the industry. Boldly embracing a K-pop futurist concept as a group, they share an impactful and thought-provoking virtual experience.

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