“Made in Korea” and Korea’s Nation Brand (Part 1)
Wednesday, June 30th, 2010
We had the occasion on June 1st to discuss in depth with Martin Roll, business and brand strategist, former Honorary Ambassador to Korea and the author of the global bestseller “Asian Brand Strategy“. As a world-renowned thought-leader on value creation through brand equity, he was one of the earliest supporters of the Branding Korea Initiative and was particularly interested to share his thoughts on the challenges faced by Korea’s global brands, the role of “Made in Korea” in developing Korea’s image internationally as well as the overall National Branding process.
This is the first part of a two-part series of articles based on our discussions and exchanges.
Korea’s Image and Promotion
Branding Korea: Before we go into more details about the role of the “Made in Korea”, we would like to start by discussing Korea’s image from a visitor’s perspective. In fact, it appears that there are some contradictions between the way Korea promotes itself to the world and the way the world sees it. Based on your branding expertise in Asia, what are your first impressions regarding the image of the country and how you do think it is perceived as a whole internationally?
Martin Roll: I think Korea is really an “unpolished jewel“. It is a country that has a lot to offer to the world, way beyond LG, Samsung and Hyundai, but it is also a country that is very hard to get to know. For example, Leo Burnett made a study a few years ago where they asked global citizens about their perception of Korea. What first came to their mind at that time was the Korean War. Even if it’s not entirely the case anymore, especially with the rise of Hallyu, the Korean wave, in Asia and elsewhere, there is still a huge job to do in terms of explaining to the world what Korea is.
From our observations we can see that Korea is making huge efforts to deliver a single message about what the country is and where it is going. So far, we have seen many initiatives, whether public or private, that have contributed to this “Nation Branding Definition Process”. From a visitor’s perspective, Korea often tends to center its communication on its modern infrastructures and some of its most contemporary lifestyle attributes. On the long term, this could a be a potentially risky communication strategy as Korea might miss a opportunity to differentiate itself from other destinations and lose part of its authenticity.
You are right, the challenge is in fact not too become too westernized, even if there is nothing wrong about it, because you also need to keep your own roots. Moving forward, this is what will give Asia a different edge and make global citizens love it. Other countries in Asia such as Japan or the Philippines went into the same direction a few decades ago. In the case of Singapore for example, the country went through a rapid extension under Lee Kuan Yew about 15 to 20 years ago. A lot of old houses were demolished, some of them dating back to the time of the Chinese traders, and in the process the city lost a part of its soul. Recently, they decided to turn the ones left into conservation houses by refurbishing and modernizing them. This is a very important point, because when you look at Seoul, everything is new and modern, but at the same time Korea has to keep its own identity and culture, even though it’s foreign to most people. In the end, being original is exactly what will make Korea stand out.
You mentioned “being original”. Korea has a rich culture and history that has not been actively and widely promoted to the world yet. However, we can see that there is a great enthusiasm and interest not only from foreign visitors but also from the Koreans themselves to understand and learn more about Korea’s culture and history. In fact, we truly believe that this country has a huge potential in terms of and tangible and intangible assets to be used to help promote the destination.
Exactly, you have temples, old houses, food, you can travel the country side, you can drive in the mountains, there’s a lot of amazing things to see, and that’s exactly why Korea should start to keep a little more of the classics. Even if it’s sometimes controversial, Seoul is the center of gravity of the country, and it’s so modernized, broad-banded and ITnized. If you can somehow blend the modern with the old, that is the mix that will help Korea become a real destination.
The mix between modern and old is a very interesting point you just introduced. In fact, Korea appears to be “made” of contrasts, and this creates a real dynamic inside the country and around the way the society works and is perceived. From this perspective, the “mix” is a very important characteristic to emphasize in the perception and representation of the country towards potential visitors.
That’s right. In downtown Seoul you have these state of the art buildings and some of the best headquarters in the world probably by any standards. Then you can walk just a few streets away and eat in the oldest Korean shack and enjoy fantastic food. You have people dressed up in suit, others dressed up in a funky lifestyle. In fact, Korea is conformed but also mixed and contrasted at the same time. It is really a melting pot, and that’s in fact what Korea should try to bring to the market. Korea is also ahead of most nations when it comes to IT, technology, innovation, and in certain aspects even leadership, attitude and values. So again the mix is very important, and that’s exactly what makes Korea beautiful.
Korea’s Global Brands and Country Branding
Always from a visitor’s perspective, we have seen that Korea has increased its awareness in the last decade mostly through the global development of local brands such as LG, Samsung and Hyundai to name a few. What are your thoughts on the influence and importance of these brands in developing the image of Korea as a whole?
If we look at Singapore for example in terms of Nation Brand Equity, it is interesting to know that about 20% of the value that you connect today with the country comes from Singapore Airlines. Almost 95% of its passengers only use Singapore as a hub and have never visited the country. However, from flying with Singapore Airlines, they get the feeling that Singapore is clean, quality and service oriented. It is a great case of perception management.
In the case of Korea, global companies like Samsung, LG and Hyundai have contributed in the same range to the Korean Nation Brand equity. The “Made in Korea” has come a very long way in the last 15 to 20 years. Nowadays, we can see a lot of lifestyle oriented products from diverse industries such as cosmetics, cars or IT come from Korea. This is also the result of strong synergies between the government and private enterprises, and it could easily serve as an example for other countries in Asia as well.
Now that these companies are operating on most foreign markets, there might be a risk for them, like for the country itself, to become too global and loose some of their identity in the process. Is it time for these brands to put a little bit more emphasis on their Country of Origin and maybe associate the “Made in Korea” more clearly with some of the Korean values or cultural aspects of the country?
There’s a famous example from Denmark with LEGO. The company was created in the 30s and became in 70 years one the global toys manufacturers and brands. But this also lead them to a huge crisis because their vision at that time was to become a global brand for families with kids and therefore not to emphasize their country of origin. Around 10 years ago, they decided to hire a new CEO (a young former McKinsey consultant). Among his key decisions (there were many) was the will to show a little bit more that the company was from Denmark, because in this country there is a certain way of educating kids, a certain freedom to express yourself as a kid, and a lot of creativity. That’s the reason why LEGO came into existence, and that what makes them different from Nintendo, PlayStation or Hasbro. Today LEGO has become one of the strongest toy brands again, and they are really successful because of a dedicated turn-around strategy.
We can also make an analogy with personal relationships. If you meet someone, you can become acquaintances. If you want to become good friends, then you need to know a little bit more about the other person, his or her background, etc. If you want to fall in love, you really need to know about his or her roots and family. This is the same for a brand. When people fall in love with the iPhone and Apple, that’s because they have a deep psychological understanding of the brand, its background, and its values. They create and maintain a very strong connection, a bond between the brand and themselves. Psychologists talk about brand communities.
In the case of Korean companies such as LG, Samsung or Hyundai, there is a real danger for them to try to become this huge global enterprise that somehow also becomes a little rootless. For example the center of gravity for Samsung Marketing is now becoming more and more the US, and a recent study showed that about 70% high-school students in the US believed that Samsung was actually an American brand. 15 years ago, when nobody knew Korea, it made a lot of sense not to emphasize the country of origin, but not anymore.
If we look at the two main components of a brand, the functional one and the emotional one, we can see that in the case of Samsung, it is an incredibly well-known company but it still lacks the emotional equity. Samsung is now looking very strongly on Apple, to try to learn from them how they can create that immense and intimate consumer connection, this huge bond between the consumer and the brand. Because moving forward, people will ask increasingly about the roots of the company, its values and personality. If you suddenly try to answer that from a global perspective, there is a big risk to become nobody. That is why you need to have cultural roots and links back to where you come from. Korea really will count a lot in the years to come for the large Korean enterprises.
In the end, it is very important not to try to be different things for different people. Without showing the national pride of Korea all over their products, it is also important for these brands not to become too westernized, not to try to become this global company for everyone, because it doesn’t exist. In the long term, by trying to relate more to their country of origin, these companies could also have a strong impact on helping build the Korean Nation Brand.
Stay tuned for the second part of our discussions!
Update: Read the second part.