Tinder is trying to shed its hook-up image

During its first four years, Tinder, the popular dating and hookup-facilitating smartphone app, largely ignored everything west of the Pacific.

Tailoring the service to varied local dating rituals in Asia was deemed too challenging for the fledgling company. For example, premarital sex is frowned upon in the Philippines, arranged marriages are commonplace in India and sogaeting (blind dates arranged by friends) is the norm in Korea.

But that has changed. As Tinder’s explosive subscriber growth has started to wane in North America, its parent company, IAC/Interactive Corp.’s Match Group Inc., has done what so many companies have done before: it’s looked to Asia.

Over the past two years, the company has been strategizing a way to expand in the region, where millions of single people have never tried a dating app. To win over Asia, Tinder is reinventing itself.

In South Korea, the company is trying to shed its reputation as a hookup app—instead, it’s selling itself as a place to find new friends. In university towns, new billboards have emerged for Tinder: “New Year, New Friends, New You.” In Seoul, illuminated cubes adorn subway stations with models blowing chewing gum bubbles while asking if “anyone is down for a quick chit-chat.”

Famous South Korean pop star Seungri signed on as the local face of Tinder, telling his fans that many of his friends around the world use the app. The strategy seems to be working. In the past two years alone, Tinder’s user base has more than doubled. In 2015, Tinder didn’t even feature in the top five dating apps by downloads on iOS or Google Play in South Korea, according to analytics firm App Annie, but now it’s ranked No. 1 for both downloads and monthly active users in the country.

A generation ago, women in South Korea were pressured to get married and start having children in their early 20s. It was typical for families to spend small fortunes on match-making gurus to set their child up with someone from an equal socio-economic background.

“During my parent’s generation, women got married straight after college graduation,” Jieun Choi, 26, said. “People in our generation were raised by such parents who expected us to go through that rite of passage.” Her parents began urging her to date in her early 20s and even her chiropractor weighed in, suggesting a love life could help ease her back pain. “Being a single, you’re kind of considered incomplete,” she said.

The way young Koreans have traditionally found romantic partners is sogaeting, where a mutual friend sets two people up on a blind date, or meetings where groups of friends all hang out together and pair off. “There’s no casual meetup that happens spontaneously in Korea. Friends introduce you to friends,” Choi said.

The atmosphere is changing, though. After leading an independent life while studying abroad in Hong Kong, Choi moved back to Seoul recently and said the old-fashioned match-making traditions felt inapt.

About five years ago, a number of Korean entrepreneurs were watching the meteoric rise of Match in the U.S. and noticed a gap in their market. Homegrown apps like Amanda and Sky People started attracting millions of subscribers.

Lyla Seo, 35, saw this as an opportunity when she became Tinder’s first general manager in South Korea in July 2017. At the time, Tinder had no marketing strategy to court the tech-savvy Korean population, and so she partnered with a research agency to conduct interviews with local users.

Her most significant discovery was the lack of awareness about Tinder and how it should be used. Seo found young Koreans were desperate to meet new people and hang out. So Tinder invited hundreds of young men and women to roller skating discos, secret concerts with pop singers and all-day surfing clubs. Tinder advertisements are everywhere: TV, Facebook, buses, movie theaters.

Those familiar with Tinder’s more transactional reputation in the West are bemused. “Tinder is so tied into American culture, the thought that it could hide its identity in Korea is kind of absurd,” said University of Michigan Professor Fred Feinberg, who has studied the marketing behind online dating apps.

Match’s foray into Asia stretches beyond South Korea. Match Chief Executive Officer Mandy Ginsberg is betting big on this corner of the world, spending more money on marketing in Korea, India and Japan than anywhere else in the world, despite the Asia Pacific region only pulling in 12% of Match’s revenue last year. In May, she told analysts this would increase to 25% by 2023.

In an interview, Ginsberg recalled recently attending her nephew’s wedding in India and when she was speaking to a group of his friends who live in the country, she asked if anyone thought they might meet their significant other through an arranged marriage. “They all started laughing at me and said, ‘that ended with our parents,” Ginsberg said. “This generation is different.”

If anything is going to upset Ginsberg’s plan, it’s the cultural nuances. In America, Tinder profiles tend to be overrun with selfies and swimsuit shots, while profiles in South Korea include pictures of users’ favorite food, pets or hobbies. In India, religion, language and caste are important features in a potential mate. In Japan, it’s typical for prospective suitors to list their blood type, or ketsuekigata, on their dating profiles as a hint at their personality type, alongside their salary and an often inflated height.

To understand all these intricacies, Match has been seeking local managers with knowledge of local customs. In India, Match has a new general manager, Taru Kapoor, who is working to improve the chances of matching people with compatible cultural views by asking new users to disclose their thoughts on the #MeToo movement and whether women should continue working after marriage. Junya Ishibashi was elevated to general manager for Match in Japan and Taiwan. He is trying to lobby the government to backtrack on strict regulations enforced in the 1990s that ban marketing dating products on television, near public transit stations or on Google. Match is also targeting Indonesia, Singapore and Vietnam.

The recent announcement of Tinder Lite, an app targeted towards emerging markets, will certainly help with Match’s expansion eastward, said Cowen analyst John Blackledge. Tinder Lite will be smaller to download and take up less space on smartphones to make it more effective in remote regions where data usage comes at a premium. “If localization is what’s needed, that’s the direction they will go,” he said. “They want to win.”

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Tinder is trying to shed its hook-up image