October 27, 2011
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Korea’s obsession with its national brand

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.

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