President Lee Myung-bak's initiative to address Korea's brand perception overseas has stirred a debate about what nation branding really is, and whether it is worthwhile. In a nutshell: this is a very good initiative that can be of great benefit to Korea.
An Aug. 28 Korea Times article, ``Korea Undervalued Overseas,'' elaborated on one view of nation branding, best summed up, as the story said, quoting an expert: ``It is a policy task, not a communications task.'"
I would suggest a very different view.
It is obvious to most that a country with good policies will have a high quality of life, well-protected human and civil rights, good governance, a well-established rule of law, pro-business laws and a tradition of innovation. Such a country is likely to do well in country rankings of any sort, including brand perception.
In our just-published East West Global Index 200 (which ranks the perception in leading international media of all 192 U.N. members plus 8 major territories), Singapore comes out as No. 1. Few would disagree with the view that Singapore deserves recognition as a model of success, and that it incorporates the policies mentioned above.
Good government policies make for a good ``product,'' namely a successful country that is admired internationally. Every country that wants to improve its international image has to work on this core set of policies and seek to constantly improve the lives of its citizens.
But nation branding is much more than creating a good ``product.'' It has to do with differentiating and promoting that product effectively.
Think of the example of a corporation. Its good business policies, strategies and processes enable it to produce products and/or services. But how does it seek to achieve market share by setting its products and services apart from those of competitors? ― through branding.
Countries should use the strategies of branding that have been developed in the corporate world to their benefit.
Some major corporate and product brands were born and have evolved naturally as they have gained market acceptance and market share: Think Coca Cola (soft drinks), IBM (computers) or Mercedes (quality cars).
These brands achieved success before branding was developed as a method of achieving differentiation, recognition and promotion. All of them now use branding to increase their market share.
Other major brands were created by using modern branding methods: Think Apple (cool computers, the iPod and iPhone), Samsung (electronics, cell phones) or American Idol (a rock star-creation and branding machine!).
``New'' countries, such as Singapore, or the countries that have emerged from the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, have a rare opportunity to create attractive and effective country brands. After all, they are creating images on a global tabula rasa.
Major countries with a long history and well-known international identity, such as Britain or France, have to live with entrenched perceptions of their brand. But, nevertheless, these countries are brands that need developing and managing.
Major events, new initiatives and creative policies are some of the things that can change perceptions, especially if they are communicated effectively.
Korea as a country is not well known, despite its long history, rich culture, successful economy, sports prowess, powerful global brands and extensive Diaspora community. I think this is what President Lee has rightly noticed.
If Korea were a large corporation, producing world-class products and services, it would definitely deserve branding, and invest heavily in branding. Through effective branding it would rank higher among other brands (Korea came in 28 on our Global 200 Index: http://eastwestcoms.com/global.htm).
A country brand is more complex than a corporate brand, but the arguments for branding are the same for corporations and countries.
Nation branding is all about distilling the core assets of a country, from its people, culture and art, to its location, industries and services, into a single, effective and attractive brand identity. That identity serves both public and private sector agendas and promotional efforts.
Branding is all about differentiation, which is achieved through positioning. That is the core of your brand identity. It is your brand essence. For Korea, a branding project needs to identify Korea's core differentiators, built on its diverse set of assets.
Brand Korea should then both incorporate the nation's core assets and support the various sectors and stakeholders. The branding process itself will help you identify your strengths and weaknesses, providing a very useful set of tools for policy-creation as well as for branding and messaging.
And, yes, branding is ultimately all about communications: How you articulate and present yourself to the world. It is vital to raising a country's influence in the world, as well as to achieving economic objectives through promoting exports, tourism and inbound investment.
Can you imagine a major corporation today simply waiting for the world to discover its great products and services? Why, then, should Korea wait for the world to discover all the things that are great about it?
The whole point of nation branding is to be proactive in getting your message to the world. Brand Korea already exists, but it is not the brand you created. It is the brand that others (including the media) created for you. Korea needs to take control of the development and management of its brand.
Go for it!
Thomas Cromwell is the president of Washington-based East West Communications and a leading expert on nation branding. He has visited Korea many times. He can be reached at email@example.com.