Cream tea and curry

Posted February 2, 2006 by Steve Bowen
Categories: Brand Korea

What does it mean to be British? asks the International Herald Tribune today. Good question – and it probably depends on which side of the border you’re viewing it from.

The UK has one of the strongest national brands out there, with a wealth of visible symbols, cultural idiosyncracies, landmarks and a rich heritage. To a great degree, Britain continues to sell its past – the bearskins outside Buckingham Palace, the thatched cottages and cream teas, the country pubs and medieaval market towns. There’s an appetite for that and, at least from the outside, most people will have a clear vision of what Britain “means.” More importantly, it’s a vision that will encourage people to visit – tourisim in the U.K. is a multi-billion dollar industry. At the end of the day, who cares about what the British themselves think?

As a long term British expat, I often argue that “the U.K.” is an image I carry around in my head – an image that no longer exists and arguably never did. I don’t associate the country with binge drinking and soccer hooliganism and I think if I grabbed someone off the street and asked them the three things that come to mind about Britain then most people would not think of those either. In fact, I could probably draw up a list of 25 items that would cover the majority of answers.

The issues that the IHT addresses are, in many ways, similar to the issues that Korea faces. Korea tends to look at the brand from the perspective of what Koreans feel about being Korean – and those images do not gel with international perceptions. No-one other than a Korean is going to have the deeply felt attachment to the land that is characterisitic of many people in this country. No-one else is going to feel bereft if they have to go two days without kimchi. No-one else – except the Chinese – cares who goes to the Yakasuni shrine.

At the end of the day, a modern brand serves a single purpose – to arouse desire in a third party. That desire could manifest itself in stakeholder loyalty, increased perceived value, higher respect or the purchase of an air ticket. But the first step in arousing desire in someone else is understanding what that person desires.

What the British themselves think Britain is or should be is irrelevant to the brand, so long as the targets of the brand continue to value it. Likewise, what Koreans believe about Brand Korea is largely immaterial in building international prestige. If the brand exists only in the mind of the consumer, then it is in the mind of the consumer that you must search for it.

Korean Brands and Brand Korea

Posted February 1, 2006 by Steve Bowen
Categories: Brand Korea

The current global appeal of Korean brands like Samsung is not generating the wished for halo effect around the national brand, according to a report in today’s JoongAng Daily.

What I found interesting in this piece is the assertion that Korean companies emphasize their global brand rather than the national one and don’t “plaster the Korean flag on their products.”

I’m not about to dispute that – it’s interesting that many consumers in France think Samsung is Japanese. Indeed, many Japanese think Lotte is a Japanese company as well! However, I think there’s an element of catch 22 here. The national brand is weak so Korean companies don’t leverage it so the national brand is weak.

Looking at the way Korea has “managed” the national brand over the decade or so that I’ve been watching it, it seems quite clear that what has to change is the way the national brand is portrayed. The “Dynamic Korea” positioning – apart from being plain awful – is just not in keeping with images of Korean women in hanbok and dreamy landscapes of Jeju-do, which still make up a surprising percentage of Korean national branding imagery. As a former boss of mine once put it, Korea has spent 20 years selling bulgogi, kimchi, hanbok and the Korean Folk Village as reasons to come to Korea, and they can’t uinderstand why no-one has turned up. But they keep selling it anyway.

It’s no secret that Brand Korea is very weak. I don’t believe that it is the responsibility of Korean companies to take on the responsibility of improving the situation. though. It is up to Korea to peg the national brand to those attributes that attract public interest, not to try and shape public interest to its own model.

Slim Koreans

Posted January 26, 2006 by Steve Bowen
Categories: Random Stuff

Korean stars can eat anything they like and not get fat crows the Chosun Ilbo – citing a gushing report on Chinese website Apparently slim Korean actresses astonish the Chinese with their capacity to guzzle huge amounts of food without losing their svelte figures.

I would imagine that the plastic surgeons raking in the liposuction fees are looking considerably plumper, though.

Missing the bigger picture

Posted January 26, 2006 by Steve Bowen
Categories: Brand Korea

According to the GMI/Anholt Nation Brands Index one of the biggest hurdles faced by Brand Korea is negative perceptions of the country’s fractious northern neighbour.  Other countries consistently place Korea in the bottom five of 25 surveyed national brands (the findings are in the Q3 report).  This is a consistent theme – the Q1 study sees other countries characterising the Korean government as “dangerous,” “sinister” and “unstable.”  Anholt puts this down to confusion with North Korea (of course, those of us who see the antics of the National Assembly might question this interpretation).  If this is true – and it certainly seems reasonable – then North Korea has a very negative impact on the national brand.

It is therefore worrying to see President Roh issuing a public warning to the U.S. over North Korea, as reported in the International Herald Tribune.  Despite the protestations of both parties, friction between Korea and the U.S. is contributing to the capacity of the North to build up its claimed nuclear arsenal:

“I think the biggest problem in six-party talks, frankly, has been the problem between South Korea and the United States,” said Balbina Hwang, a Northeast Asia expert at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research institute in Washington. “The alliance is in trouble. The bilateral relations are in trouble. There is a great deal of resentment and misunderstanding, and a great deal of suspicion and mistrust on both sides.”

“Government officials on both sides,” Hwang added, “need to stop pretending that there is no problem, because there is a very serious problem.”

The conservative Chosun Ilbo sees South Korea marginalising itself on the issue of the North, citing the current dispute over North Korea’s counterfeiting activities and the appropriate response to take.  The Hangyoreh takes the opposite approach, accusing the U.S. of dissembling:

It was quite provocative for the U.S. embassy to have issued press material different from our government’s explanation about the visit by U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary for Terrorist Financing and Financial Crimes Daniel Glaser and his entourage. The embassy claimed that when Glaser met with Korean government officials he asked that Seoul work harder to isolate North Korea financially. The government, however, says that it was never urged to do so, either officially or unofficially. Unless it is lying, the only view left to take is that the Americans attempted a tactless media spin. The right order of business would be to first produce positive evidence about counterfeiting activities by North Korea and talk about isolation later.

Of course, it is outrageous to think that the Korean government would be in any way economical with the truth!

The point is, Korea is missing the bigger picture.  Fact: North Korea is seen by the outside as a threat to South Korea.  Those perceptions affect confidence in the national brand.  Public spats with the U.S. don’t help to restore that confidence.

Koreans don’t distinguish between the Korean people, the Korean nation and the  Korean state.  The outside world does.  No-one is investing in the Korean people – they are investing in the South Korean state.  When the safety and integrity of that state are seen by the outside world as compromised by a competing state, confidence goes down and respect goes down.

Regardless of your opinions of the U.S. administration, it is clearly in the better intersts of South Korea to present a unified front aimed at bringing North Korea to the table, not to publicise dissension in the ranks.  There’s a lot more at stake than the sensitivities of the North.

“The Korean [insert comparison here]”

Posted January 25, 2006 by Steve Bowen
Categories: Brand Korea

According to the Korea Times Kwanghwamun Gate is to be dismantled and refurbished. Nothing wrong with that IMHO – I’m very much in favour of the ongoing refurbishment of Seoul.

What caught my eye was the following quote from the Ministry of Culture and Tourism.

The space in front of the gate will serve as Seoul’s equivalent to London’s Trafalgar Square or Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate.

I remember reading the opinion a few years ago that one of the fundamental differences between Asian branding and Western branding is that Western brands attempt to differentiate themselves from the competition – “A is better than B” – while Asian brands seek parity – “A is just as good as B.”

Certainly there is a habit in Korea of having “the Korean version” of all sorts of things – Lee Hyo Ri was reported this week as “the Korean JLo”(here’s what the Lost Nomad said about it); “Hallyuwood – the Korean Version of Hollywood” is being built around the corner from where I live (and I hope to god they don’t up a big white sign in Hangul on Cheongbalsan!) and a few years ago I remember a competition to find “the Korean Cameron Diaz.”

At the end of the day, Kwangwhamun will be the Korean version of – well – Kwanghwamun. Trafalgar Square and the Brandenburg Gate are icons of their cities because of what they represent to the history of those cities – a celebration of the capacity to knock the stuffing out of the French in the former case and a celebration of peace (and later a celebration of knocking the stuffing out of the French) in the latter. To my eyes, positioning Kwangwhamun as a “Korean Trafalgar Square” is denigrating Kwangwhamun.

Korea has some excellent landmarks, but there is a clear need for them to stand alone and represent the history and culture of the country, not “Korean equivalents” of other global landmarks.

On another – totally unrelated – note, it’s interesting to see how irate the Koreans get over the “Japanese version of kimchi.”

Going through the motions

Posted January 24, 2006 by Steve Bowen
Categories: Corporate Korea

Choe Young-shik in his “Global mind, Global marketing” column in the Korea Times, points out the disparity between Korean corporate logos and logos from international companies, highlighting the fact that international companies were brought in to create the new logos for some of the country’s corporate behemoths.

The fact that Korea’s largest corporations often hire international brand consulting firms of global fame and pay tens of millions of dollars does for their new logos does not necessarily mean a success.

GS Group has been awarded a mere S logo toned in three different colors from the U.S. consulting agency Landor Associates. In a sense, Landor may not have any other option than that since the client divulged that the trade name GS can mean anything, from “great satisfaction,” to “good service,” to “great success.”

Now I have long argued that Korean companies should be more open to working with international branding companies if they want to build international brands.  However, the problem in my experience is twofold.

In the first instance, many Korean companies are not able to brief their advisors properly.  This derives from the fact that many of the decision makers do not have specific expertise in marketing or branding – they have inherited the marketing position because there was an opening there that matched their tenure within the company.

The second problem is that Korean companies generally approach the process of branding from the outside in – deciding what will “look good” to their (Korean) customers without necessarily thinking about how their company credo fulfils that brand. The result is a shallow brand experience aand, by extension, a largely meaningless logo.

In other words, it’s not a problem of spending too much money on international branding experience, it’s a problem of not spending enough time deciding what the company is before you decide how to paint it.