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Korea’s obsession with its national brand

October 27th, 2011 / 9:08 pm

Here’s my latest contribution as The Holmes Report’s Asia-Pacific ‘ThinkTank’ columnist:

If there is one country that is preoccupied with its national image, it is the Republic of Korea.

Having lived in Seoul for a few years, I became very familiar with the acute sensitivity of South Koreans to their standing in the world, which has increased progressively and impressively in recent times.

Just 50 years ago, Korea was one of the world’s poorest countries, and now it’s one of its richest, recently setting new national records for GDP per capita and proudly earning its rightful place as a member of the G-20.

A country with few natural resources, Korea is well endowed with human wealth in the form of an ambitious and hard working population in a culture where the kids with the best grades are cool in school. The culture of continuous improvement through education runs deep in Korea and helps explain many national advances.

With remarkable speed, Korean companies like LG, Hyundai and Samsung have gone from producing cheap products that used to compete on price to premium products that sell on the basis of what is now their first-class quality.

That’s one reason why Korean corporate brands keep rising up the charts, but the national image remains a relative underperformer – and the Koreans know it.

Sandwiched between the giants of China and Japan, Korea has needed to fight for attention and it has historically struggled to communicate a clear and compelling brand in the world mind. Having been occupied by foreign powers in past, perhaps there’s a psychological legacy that helps motivate a keen national interest in proud differentiation.

Milestone national platform events like the 1988 Seoul Olympics and the 2002 Korea-Japan World Cup have gone a long way to well introduce an impressive vision of Korea to the world.

Unfortunately, though, the continuing PR menace of Pyongyang casts a long shadow, especially when you consider that the most famous Korean in the world is likely the dictator Kim Jong-Il, the “Dear Leader” of the North.

There are actually a number of favourable media themes from the Koreas these days (most recently about the rising worldwide popularity of Korean cuisine), but such soft positives have often been obscured by a torrent of hard negative news from North. The terrible famines, the reckless nuclear sabre rattling, the destructive military adventures do tend to make a large proportion of “Korean news” rather bad news indeed.

It doesn’t help that Korea has misfired with its national marketing in the past, coming up with overseas campaigns that fail to catch fire with foreign audiences, because they have been dampened in their development by insular domestic dynamics.

But this is clearly changing now. The state of the marketing art in Korea is among Asia’s most advanced, and there is a widely shared national commitment to adding a premium country brand to the long list of Korean accomplishments.

During my years in Seoul, I was struck by how many companies had, as their guiding corporate objective, becoming a “global top 10″ or better in their respective fields. Some say that there is a national “inferiority complex” behind such thinking, but I prefer to believe that these lofty aspirations reflect a confident ambition that other countries would be well advised to emulate.

Categories: blog, national brand
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Yingluck and Thailand’s chance for a new image

July 26th, 2011 / 3:27 am

Here’s my latest column as the Asia-Pacific contributor to The Holmes Report’s ThinkTank section:

Travelling in Thailand last week, most people I met were talking about the country’s new Prime Minister-elect, Yingluck Shinawatra, who just won a convincing election victory. Interest in the outcome has also been riding high overseas, and that is unsurprising because this story contains several newsworthy elements.

First, Yingluck shares her brother Thaksin’s famous surname. Second, there has been a long power struggle pitting the colour-coded ‘red shirts’ of the Shinawatra side against the ‘yellow shirts’ supporting the outgoing government and there’s nothing the news business loves more than a battle between two starkly different sides (who in this case have been fighting a closely watched pseudo civil war). Third, the prospect of election violence made media watch more closely than might otherwise be the case because there seemed an excellent chance it could erupt in the aftermath of the vote. Finally, Yingluck seems quite unlike other Thai leaders because she is a woman and this sets her apart in a country where most senior political leaders are men.

In Bangkok there is all kinds of speculation about how long Yingluck will last in office. The most frequent prediction I heard was “a year, maybe two.” This is, after all, a country where the results of democratic elections have not always determined who ends up running the country. Yet just about everyone I spoke with is hoping that Thailand’s new elected government will be given a fair chance to succeed and that the democratic process will prevail.

There has been a sad political instability in Thailand for years, holding the country back and making it seem a rickety regime and a bad bet for doing business. Now that Thailand seems to have a chance for a fresh start with a popular new government, there is an opportunity for the country to earn a new and improved reputation overseas.

The key to building a better Thailand brand is the ability to exceed expectations, for positive things to happen henceforth that are contra to the past negative or limiting stereotypes. For example, boring stability for a change would be an effective antidote to the past eventful and erratic political pattern.

Not many people know that Thailand is the second largest economy in Southeast Asia (after Indonesia), so communicating the commercial dimensions of the country will help underline why markets and media should pay closer attention.

How many famous Thai companies are there around the world? I would say most people could not name one. This limits the extent to which opinion-leaders will feel that “Thailand matters.” This lack of known national champion corporations (like LG or Hyundai in Korea) keeps Thailand confined to a national stereotype template as a terrific tourism destination but not as a serious commercial contender.

I am told that there are many Thai companies that merit external attention and engagement, but unlike conglomerates in other ASEAN countries like Malaysia and Indonesia, I don’t see any actively communicating their story through public relations on a global basis.

That’s why the fact that Yingluck is a CEO with experience as a company spokesperson may be her most significant public relations asset. She has run a business in Thailand and her ascension to high office has allowed her communications skills to flourish. I believe that this should help her help Thailand become a rising force in the world of national reputation.

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