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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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The 12 Truths of Modern PR

October 11th, 2011 / 8:23 am

Today I spoke at the Dow Jones forum in Korea: “Information Explosion: from Burden to Blessing.” See below for a copy of my presentation:

Categories: blog, speaking platforms
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NK provocation a chance to enhance Korea’s brand power

December 20th, 2010 / 6:33 pm

The North Korean surprise artillery attack on Yeonpyeong Island will not influence Korea’s positive national brand image.

“Korean society was not deterred by the North Korean forces’ provocation, and neither was I, having arrived only seven days after the incident,” explained Bob Pickard, the President and CEO of leading communications consultancy Burson-Marsteller Asia-Pacific.

Events like this used to have a significant impact on foreign investment. However, things unfolded quite differently this time in Korea. Pickard considered the successful hosting of the G-20 summit as one of the reasons. According to Pickard, foreigners now know Korea given its recent role as the host of the G-20 summit and they also view Korea as a developed country.

“Korea’s geopolitically unstable image was improved by intensive efforts before and after the G-20 summit,” said Pickard. The situation may have been different if the North Korea provocation had occurred before the G-20.

Pickard stressed that Korea should not settle for the status quo. “Korea should focus on making ‘positive contrast’ with North Korea as one of its key brand management strategies and communicate consistently,” said Pickard. He explained that issues should not be centered on negative content, such as North Korean provocations or damage to South Korea. Instead, the ‘positive contrast’ should emphasize the strong attributes of South Korea.

He explained that South Korea should build a ‘mind and smart thinking’ image to reflect sharp contrast with North Korea’s ‘muscle and brute force’ and promote an open image against the traditionally closed stance of North Korea. “Without even mentioning North Korea in the process, the ‘positive contrast’ is made by promoting the strong attributes of South Korea,” Pickard added.

“Three adjectives that describe Korea’s national brand image are: dynamic, passionate, and fast. Korea can succeed by employing different national branding strategies based on these images,” said Pickard.

Categories: publicity
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Will junior turnover always be with us in PR?

June 23rd, 2010 / 5:00 am

Check out B-M Seoul’s new ‘Intern-Speak’ blog, the first of its kind in Korea. I like it because the idea is to engage the rising next generation of PR talent, listening to what they have to say and providing a place where colleagues can build peer-to-peer relationships with each other.

I just don’t accept that junior turnover is an insoluble problem for PR agencies. Sometimes I see this depressing tendency for senior managers to throw up their hands and assume high staff churn will always be with us, so why bother doing things differently?

Such wrong-headed thinking results in attitudes where entry-level staff can feel like they are an anonymous labour commodity expected to fail, rather than as a precious community of individuals supported to succeed.

Just about every PR firm’s offices are brimming with young digital talent. When they see their firm using modern platforms and techniques, I hope they will see a future in the consultancy business and be empowered to proactively advocate the digital approaches senior people in the profession need to personally master.

Let’s face it: there is a generation gap in pretty much every PR firm (crudely between the older ‘analogues’ and the younger ‘digitals’), and this makes staff retention more difficult. PR business leaders of high caliber and true character should confront that reality as a motivating challenge to overcome, not as a necessary evil to accept as a given.

PR leaders need to wrap their heads around the fact that the future of our business will be built by people who ‘get’ the importance of transparency and information-sharing, where the credibility of communication comes from fearless conversation, not from timid control.

That’s why I like the thinking behind B-M Korea’s intern blog.

Categories: talent
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How the art of PR is becoming a science

April 24th, 2010 / 3:08 am

On April 23rd, I gave a speech to the 5th Annual Opinion Mining Workshop in Seoul. Attended by 150 academics, marketers, and social media thought leaders, the event was hosted by Daumsoft, a very exciting Korean company that among other things provides ultra-advanced business intelligence-gathering and media monitoring systems using their text mining technology. Here’s a copy of the presentation that I delivered:

How the art of PR is becoming a science

Categories: measurement, speaking platforms
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Asia’s PR powerhouse

April 5th, 2010 / 2:00 am

When I was in Seoul last week meeting with B-M colleagues, clients and communities, I was pleased to meet with Mr. He-suk Choi, an engaging journalist who asked me some really original questions about PR in Asia generally but particularly in Korea.

Here is the resulting article that appeared in The Korea Herald:

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