Korea’s Branding Woes

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If image is everything, South Korea needs a tune up. At least as far as the West is concerned.

To be sure, as government officials are quick to point out, the meteoric rise in the popularity of media and material exports during the last decade significantly boosted the Republic of Korea’s global reputation and established the South as a world player. The Land of the Morning Calm’s economic and cultural success is venerated in much of Asia, Africa and the Middle East and is often held up as an example of best practices. From Indonesian housewives to Ghanaian students, the ROK’s ascending star shines bright.

North America and Europe are another story. A survey of recent articles from leading Western news outlets paints a dour picture in the Southern peninsula: North Korean missile launches, bumbled police investigations, the training death of ROK conscripts, hyper-stressed students, a South Korean blue-on-blue incident at the DMZ, artistic censorship, subway gas attack preparation, video game addiction, the shrinking export market, a tongue-in-cheek Spam story and, of course, the Sewol ferry tragedy. All too depressing. Media stories that show the South in a creative, dynamic and positive light – “earned media” in public relations parlance – are few and far between.

What’s the relevance? In our increasingly image-conscious reality, how one thinks and feels about a product, concept, or company will often trump other marketplace considerations. This sentiment extends to nation states as well: How the global community perceives a given country helps establish its place in the international pecking order and directly affects trade, tourism, diplomacy and soft power. Accordingly, the concept of “nation branding” has gained significant traction in the international communications sector. If a nation’s brand is well-received, foreign tourists, investors and businesses will come in droves. If a country is seen – regardless of the reality on the ground – as unstable, unsafe, unwelcoming, uncool, or corrupt, it risks driving foreign interest elsewhere, directly affecting, among other things, the standard of living of its citizens.

The ROK’s consistent spate of unfavorable press risks permanently coloring Western perspectives and represents a PR crisis that threatens both economic growth – of the world’s ten biggest spenders, North American and Western European consumers are responsible for more than two thirds of aggregate consumption (2012 World Bank Household Final Consumption Expenditure, current dollars) – and global influence. Certainly, recent negative coverage in the New York Times, Le Monde, and the BBC is in no way representative of life on the southern peninsula. Every day, dynamic, creative and passionate individuals and entities in the ROK are doing great things; unfortunately that story is not being told. Yes, Gangnam Style received noticeable international press, but one hit K-pop wonders do not a branding campaign make. As a colleague recently noted, aside from a couple of dance moves, few remember much about the popular 90s hit Macarena.

Previous attempts have been made on the government’s part to address South Korea’s lagging international reputation. In 2009, the former administration created the Presidential Council on Nation Branding with the expressed goal of “upgrading Korea’s relatively undervalued nation brand.” Targeted strategies included: increasing interest in Korean food, language and taekwondo, expanding international volunteering, encouraging global etiquette and, of course, promoting K-pop. Though there was some relative success in raising brand prominence – between 2008 and 2011, South Korea moved from 32nd to 26th in the annual Anholt-Gfk Roper Nation Brands Index – there were notable marketing failures in the West. For instance, the twenty million dollar Globalization of Hansik campaign, as promoted by both the pop band Wondergirls’ excessively cute “K-Food Party” advertisements and the disembodied Bimbimbap commercials which ran in Times Square, was judged an utter failure by the National Assembly’s budget office and shut down last year.

Unsuccessful efforts such as this demonstrate an inherent misunderstanding of Western cultural and media norms and fail to take into account advertising styles and tones that, though well-received in Asia-Pacific, are not taken seriously in many Western markets. This messaging disconnect is not without consequence: The BBC’s recent nation branding study, The 2013 Country Ratings Poll, indicates that only 36 percent of worldwide respondents polled saw South Korea in a “mainly positive” light with a marked year-on-year increase in North American and Western European “mainly negative” sentiments. Clearly there is still work to be done.

The most important and often the most challenging aspect of successful branding and public relations campaigns is understanding the needs and interests of your target market and, subsequently, addressing them in a creative manner that is culturally appropriate within the target audience’s media culture. Accordingly, future Western-focused national branding strategy must be developed in consultation with communications entities that understand, first hand, Western messaging norms. This approach, though more expensive than locally developed, in-house campaigns, will assure a greater return on investment in the long run.

Moreover, a more dynamic approach to messaging must be adopted. Direct advertising campaigns, logos and cute slogans, though well-intentioned, are not adequate in securing long-term audience interest and, as is the case with the Branding Council’s “Korea, A Loving Embrace,” are often unintentionally inappropriate. In addition, this type of rigid marketing does nothing to actively counter the current climate of negative press that is so prevalent in Western reporting. Successful, affecting brand management requires that the advertising entity, be it a corporation or a nation state, connect with the target audience on a visceral level. To this end, South Korean messaging is best served via a proactive campaign of personal, narrative news stories that will serve to both counter fear mongering and tragedy-focused reporting, and highlight the companies and people on the ground and the good work they do.

Additionally, though there is some merit in promoting Korean culture abroad, national and local governments need to adopt an active policy of encouraging in-country Western event hosting (such as Formula One races, MotoGP events, international film openings, creative conferences, and fashion shows), which will serve to boost ROK awareness, increase tourism spending and help establish a progressive identity outside of material goods exporting.

In the end, if the South wants to boost economic growth and play a leading role on the world stage, closer attention must be paid to PR efforts within Western markets. New steps must be taken to manage and control brand image via strategic communications efforts. The Republic of Korea is a country rich in history, culture and creativity. It’s time to get the word out.

Luke Stanhope is a Seoul-based strategic communications professional and a former South Korea Fulbright Research Fellow. 

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