By Thomas Cromwell
WASHINGTON ― Korea can definitely benefit from a well-executed nation branding program. Already it has one of the world's strongest economies and some of the best international corporate brands, such as Hyundai, Samsung and LG. What it lacks is a distinct position in the world in the minds of most people.
The lack of a strong, clear identity probably accounts for Korea's less than stellar results in nation brand surveys. In the East West Global Index 200 that our company compiles every quarter, based on positive and negative mentions in leading international
media, Korea came out 28th among all nations in the second quarter but improved to 17th in the third quarter of this year. This is not a bad result but well below Singapore and Hong Kong, which were first and second in both quarters, and Malaysia, which was third in the second quarter and fifth in third quarter.
International perceptions of a country can of course fluctuate over time. Decisions and actions by a nation may result in significantly more positive or negative coverage. Using dramatic examples to demonstrate the point: China moved up from 138th to seventh place from the second quarter to third quarter after hosting the Olympics in Beijing (prior coverage had focused on a huge earthquake in Sichuan and international tensions over Tibet), but Russia dropped from 61st to 191st place over the same period after it invaded Georgia.
But over time, one can expect the flow of news, as well as personal experiences with the people, products and/or policies of a country, to shape a fairly consistent image. It is this identity and the associated image that nation branding must be most concerned with.
A strong brand is the best tool for limiting the damage caused by negatively-perceived events or policies. For example, Austria suffered from very negative coverage in the second quarter because of a terrible domestic abuse case. By the third quarter, however, it had rebounded from 146th to 26th place on our Global Index.
Task for Korea
The task that faces Korea is not easy and results cannot be expected in a matter of weeks or months. One great problem is the division of the Korean Peninsula and the tensions that relate to that.
So long as the regime in Pyongyang pursues nuclear weapons, supplies unsavory regimes elsewhere with weapons, starves, imprisons and otherwise abuses its own citizens, and generally conducts itself irresponsibly, Korea as a whole will have a unique challenge in shaping a lasting positive image.
However, the great dichotomy between North and South Korea in itself can be a major issue to address through a nation branding effort. Why not use this program to establish a lasting, positive identity for Korea that is true to the democratic, free market South Korean system? Such a strategic move can only help accelerate international support for Seoul and its agenda for unification of the Korean Peninsula.
Beyond the North-South division, other challenges include finding the best way to blend Korean tradition with Korean innovation. The long history and rich culture of Korea, reflected in its dynamic people, is undoubtedly a big part of the Yin that has shaped the Yang of its modern industrial prowess.
Then there is Korea's geographic location. This has to be a core element in developing Korea's brand positioning as a modern industrial nation. Is Korea a bridge between Japan and China, with all that would mean for today's world? Is it an ideal choice as a regional hub for manufacturing, shipping and finance?
To develop a good brand, President Lee Myung-bak will need to bring together experts with suitable backgrounds in conceptual and strategic thinking, together with key Korean stakeholders, from national ministries and regional governments to NGOs and business associations. It will need to get the input and buy-in of citizens as well as the Korean Diaspora.
Brand Korea, after all, should both embrace and promote all of Korea's core assets and stakeholders. It should be an umbrella brand (a Metabrand in our terminology) that serves the nation as a whole, not just one sector or one constituency.
And only after the core positioning and strategic work has been done should the right people be tapped to translate the brand into images and messages that can be used to reach target audiences.
From this point, the goal should be to get every Korean embassy to serve as a marketing outpost for Brand Korea, and for every Korean person, institution and company to become an ambassador for Brand Korea.
Public diplomacy is an important tool for governments in today's connected world, and a good brand for Korea will supply much of the substance needed to shape effective public diplomacy efforts.
But branding Korea should not be thought of as a one-time effort. Brand Korea will need continuous management, continuous monitoring and research, continuous adjusting of messaging.
This may sound difficult today, but there is a parallel that can serve as a reference. It was not that long ago when tourism promotion was largely left to the private sector.
However, nowadays almost all national governments believe in the value of having an institutional structure (Tourism Ministry or Tourism Board) funded by government that brands and markets the country's tourism products and services. The increased revenue from increased tourist spending justifies the public investment.
President Lee's Initiative
Now that President Lee Myung-Bak has decided to initiate a nation branding effort to improve Korea's international image, the whole notion of nation branding and what it really means is becoming a subject of interest in Korea. The related discussion can only help Korea in undertaking a worthwhile program.
Truth be told, nation branding is a new field populated with individuals and companies that hold often divergent views as to what it means in practice. Even so, now that the terminology has gained fairly widespread usage, countries are embarking on what they believe is nation branding by establishing official or public-private bodies to pursue it.
Some countries set up committees to devise logos and tag lines that best encapsulate the essence of their nation, as they understand it. Others look to international activities that can raise their nation's profile.
Yet others host events that will draw positive attention. All of them recognize the importance of being attractive to the rest of the world and working to communicate this attractiveness to target audiences.
More specifically, these efforts reflect a commonly perceived need to go beyond adopting good government practices and policies in trying to shape international perceptions of your nation.
Which is precisely what nation branding should help you achieve. At stake are your country's international reputation and prestige, as well as its success in attracting international investment and tourism and promoting exports.
The challenge to governments is how to make their nation stand out from others in a positive and effective way. Nation branding can be a key tool.
To draw a parallel with the business world, where branding is extremely important: a corporation's business models, technologies and methods, its culture and innovations, produces its goods and/or services, while its branding and advertising activities differentiate and promote the corporation as well as its products and services in the marketplace. Product and service brands are ultimately sub-brands of the corporate brand.
Most well run companies apply well tested and widely used management methods and tools as well as successful marketing methods and tools. Branding has become a key tool used to differentiate corporations and their products in a crowded global marketplace. It leads communications, public relations and advertising.
Most developed countries are similar to successful companies in that they share with other nations a fairly common set of principles that underpin their government and economy, such as a balance of power among branches of government, democratic selection of leaders, transparency in administration, the rule of law and a free market economy.
You can always improve the operations of a company or country, which is the core task of managers and governments, respectively. However, although branding and marketing are well-established skills in the business world, they are not yet well understood or used effectively by nations. In this respect, governments can learn a lot from the business world.
The trick is finding the right way to use branding skills developed in the business world so that they can serve the complex and multifaceted needs of government. This is where strategic thinking, as well as an understanding of international affairs and how governments work, is critical.
These strategic skills are not typically found in branding and communications companies, but they represent the core competence that we have developed at East West Communications. To help shape brands and messaging we have also devised several proprietary tools for analyzing how countries are perceived around the world.
The purpose of nation branding is not to come up with an attractive logo and catchy tag line, although those can help. Rather, the purpose is to develop a strategy to harness your national assets to an overarching identity that will help you achieve the optimal position for your country in the global system.
In other words, nation branding is a strategic use of national assets to shape a desired identity and image that enable your country to stand out from all others and to achieve its national objectives, from foreign policy priorities to economic development.
In the future we can expect this model to be used for nation branding. By taking up the nation branding challenge now, Korea has an opportunity to be a leader.
Who is Thomas Cromwell?
The president of Washington DC-based East West Communications, a company specialized in nation branding and communications, Thomas Cromwell has extensive experience in helping governments around the world communicate their messages to international audiences. He has advised senior officials on nation branding strategies and devised specific programs to help countries differentiate themselves in the global system. Having lived in various parts of the world, and visited 125 countries, his positioning and branding advice offers a truly global perspective, and he is considered a leader in the nation branding field. He has been a periodic visitor to Korea since the 1970s and has a keen interest in Korean affairs and the reunification of the Korean Peninsula.
Korea Wastes Money in Inconsistent Branding
It should be recognized that the Korean government has spent (and is continuing to spend) billions of dollars on various promotions and advertising campaigns, on hosting major events (Olympics, World Cup, etc), on tourism promotion and on a network of embassies around the world. Korea should leverage these expenditures by using them to support and promote Brand Korea.
Then there are all the below-the-line costs, of stationery, brochures, books, movies, websites, etc, produced by various government ministries and agencies. Even though these are all products of a single nation and government, without the cohesion that comes from a Korea Metabrand the concepts and images used by various governmental bodies are not coordinated and communicate mixed and sometimes confusing messages. This is a waste of resources that no corporation would allow.