Foreign Visitors Messengers of Koreas Image
By Kang Hyun-kyung
In the 1990s, the selling price of a Samsung widescreen television set was 20- to 30-percent lower than the price estimated based on product quality by industry experts on the international market, according to an empirical study.
On the contrary, study author Han Choong-min found Japanese brand Sony's widescreen television set was sold at 30 percent higher than the price estimated based on product quality.
People living in neutral countries feel that Japan is more attractive than Korea, and their perception is reflected in the deep price gap between the products of the two, Han said.
``There is such a thing as a national brand effect. It is real, not exaggerated as some critics argue,'' said Professor Yoo Jae-woong of the public relations and design department of Eulji University in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province, in an interview with The Korea Times last week.
According to Yoo, several empirical studies support the view that consumers' positive or negative perception of a country of origin has a real impact on product selling prices in international markets.
Yoo stood firm on the national brand factor when asked his views on the skepticism that the term national brand is hard to assess, and therefore it would be difficult to conclude there is such a thing as its effect.
If it really exists, what should we do to fix the undervalued Korean national brand?
Yoo said, ``Policymakers should chart a smart brand strategy based on the competitive edge that we have compared with other countries.
``For example, we are one of the leading countries with strong information technology, and made-in-Korea dramas are a big hit in Asia. Policymakers can come up with a brand strategy by combining those two strengths that we have to better position the country in the world.''
Yoo, who gave 28 years of public service in the external communications divisions at the culture ministry and the presidential office, stressed the first thing that branding strategists should do is find the right area that can best represent the country and appeal to the minds of people living in other countries.
``Few Koreans actually know that France is a country that has a strong chemical and aerospace industry. Instead, most of us think about Chanel, French wine or other luxury cultural brands when we hear about the country,'' he said.
This reflects that there is a gap between what a country is about and how people in other countries perceive it, he stressed.
``The discrepancy shows why positioning our national image in the way that we would like to be perceived by others matters,'' Yoo said.
To raise awareness of Korea among foreign people, Yoo proposed the government step up efforts to expand more foreign language services, not only in English but also in other international languages such as French, German and Chinese, in publications and other content-oriented areas providing information on the country.
``Approximately one million foreigners are working or staying temporarily in the country now. And six to seven million foreign tourists visit Korea annually. We need to help these foreigners have a positive image of Korea so that they can have some good memories to tell to their friends, families and relatives after going back to their home country,'' he said.
Image vs. Brand
Yoo, who served as chief of the Korean Overseas Information Service from 2004 to 2008, praised President Lee Myung-bak's determination to create the Presidential Council on Nation Branding to enhance the country's profile in the world.
``I think it's a great idea for President Lee to improve Korea's image in the global community. The will of government is the most important factor in a drive for nation branding,'' he said.
He refuted criticism toward the government ― which plans to downsize government and public firms ― over the establishment of the new committee.
``Previously, several ministries took care of the national image-related affairs and there was no control tower. As a result, policy inconsistency and overlapping duties took place. This made it difficult for the government to handle the crucial issue properly.''
During the previous Roh Moo-hyun administration, a non-standing committee aimed at improving Korea's image was established under the Office of the Prime Minister. Members of the committee met on a regular basis to discuss issues related to the national image.
According to Yoo, the existence of a non-standing committee and several ministries' involvement with the national image caused a lack of focus among those who could see only ``trees and plants but no big picture of the entire forest'' ― such as strategy, a policy goal and directions.
He argued that creating an independent brand committee that can take care of a consistent brand strategy and implementing supportive policies was necessary.
Yoo pointed to a distinction between the terms of image and brand.
``Image is a consumer-oriented term in that it refers to how people feel about a particular product or a country. Meanwhile, brand refers to the effort made by suppliers to position themselves in a way that they prefer to be perceived, and therefore this term is more supplier-oriented,'' he said.
Many governments, especially those of advanced countries such as the United States, Britain, Germany and Japan, launched brand campaigns or initiatives earlier than Korea. Each launched branding efforts for different reasons.
Some proved successful, while others failed.
Yoo called the German government's branding initiative in 2006 one of the most successful, practices from which he says Korea can learn a lot.
Under a public/private initiative, dubbed ``Germany ― Land of Ideas,'' which aimed to better position the country in the world on the occasion of the 2006 World Cup, the government worked closely with private sector entities, the civic sector and the general people to present ``an authentic and modern image of Germany as the land of ideas.''
The government and the private and civic partners launched a new marketing drive that featured Germany as a land of full of creativity and surprise.
``The lesson we can learn from the German experience is that participation and bipartisan efforts matter to move the campaign forward,'' Yoo said.
Without public support and participation, he said it would be difficult for the government to achieve the goal.
Yoo cited Britain's ``Cool Britania'' initiative as one of the failing branding efforts and said the British campaign was vain mainly because the government failed to get public support.
To be successful, he stressed that the importance of the role of the private sector cannot be overemphasized.
To build a positive image of Korea, the roles of private and civic sector entities such as businesses, non-profit groups and volunteers are very important, he said.
``There is certainly a role that the government can play to encourage these players to participate in building a positive national image. But one thing to remember is that the government should be very careful not to be heavy-handed,'' Yoo stressed.
If the government is active in encouraging the private and civic sector entities to participate in the branding Korea project, the effort could be seen as propaganda, he went on.
``The role of government is to build supportive infrastructure so that these private and civic sector actors have few problems in joining hands with the government on branding Korea,'' Yoo said.