Anything Wrong With Korea’s Image Today?
This is the first in a series of articles highlighting solutions for upgrading Korea's image and brand from international `Nation Brand' experts on the occasion of the 58th anniversary of The Korea Times ― E.D.
By Simon Anholt
Creator of Nation Brand
There is a lot of talk today about Korea's `nation brand,' the phrase I first coined 12 years ago in the Journal of Brand Management. Branding Korea has been announced as the cornerstone project of the Lee Myung-Bak administration.
Citing Korea's low
ranking in the Anholt Nation Brands Index in a speech to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Republic, the President commented that ``if the nation wants to be labeled an advanced country, it will be necessary to significantly improve its image and reputation.''
I think that this is a good moment to ask some important questions about Korea's current obsession with its international image.
Isn't image a vague, superficial idea? Shouldn't governments deal with reality, not perceptions? Isn't it trivial and unhealthy to become obsessed with how others see you?
National image may seem like an abstract concept, but its effects are beyond doubt.
The reputation of a country has a direct and measurable impact on almost every way it engages with the rest of the world: its products, its politics, its people, its culture, its ability to attract tourists and investment, all are underpinned by its image.
If the country's image is weak, out of date or negative, there is no doubt that this can seriously obstruct many of the things the country wants to do in the world. I have always claimed that it is the responsibility of all good governments in the 21st century to see themselves as guardians and custodians of the nation's good name: the country's "brand managers".
Is there really anything wrong with Korea's image today? The Anholt Nation Brands Index (NBI), one of the largest regular opinion polls in the world, has been measuring the images of 40 to 50 countries since 2005, polling over 20,000 people in up to 35 countries ― a sample that represents over 80 percent of the world's economic power.
Korea has ranked, on average, in 29th place in the NBI results; even the Korean respondents themselves rank Korea no higher than 9th. There seems to be some confusion between the Republic of Korea and North Korea in the minds of some respondents, especially in Europe and the Americas, but this isn't the only reason for Korea's poor scores in the NBI.
The world just doesn't think very much about Korea, or think very highly of it. It is not a country that orindary people perceive to be very relevant to their daily lives, or believe to be very attractive or admirable.
Korea's image is pretty good in much of Asia, mainly thanks to the `Korean Wave,' and it has a fairly positive reputation amongst international elites ― investors, diplomats and so forth but when it comes to global popular opinion, Korea's remarkable economic development over the last decades, its natural beauty, its cultural wealth and its human capital have simply not registered.
There seems no doubt that Korea needs a better, truer, fairer, stronger and more positive image in order for it to continue to develop and prosper. I also believe that it deserves a better image than it currently has: most countries, at some level, get the reputation they deserve, but the reality of Korea is generally far better than its reputation.
But can Korea be branded? Is it possible to do anything to change that image, make it more positive, update it, make it stronger?
That's an entirely different question, and one that I have devoted the last 15 years to trying to understand: by collecting over a million research responses from people in 35 countries, by working closely with the governments of more than 30 countries on their image challenges, by founding and editing the only academic journal on this subject, and by studying the ways in which hundreds of countries, cities and regions have tried to take control over their image during the last 500 years.
My conclusion? Yes, national image can be influenced, but it's one of the most difficult tasks a country can face. It requires huge amounts of patience, wisdom, skill, resources, courage, leadership and imagination. It requires a long-term partnership between government, business and civil society.
My most important conclusion is that 'branding' is absolutely the wrong word to describe how countries can change their images. This process has almost nothing to do with marketing.
I would advise the Korean government to think very hard and very critically about the idea of 'branding' as this project moves forward, and not to fall into the tempting trap of believing that national image can be managed or manipulated by communications.
A country is not a running shoe or a can of fizzy drink. It is not a product for sale in a supermarket. Its image cannot be altered by spending money on logos, slogans, advertising and public relations campaigns. This is propaganda, and it is an absolutely unjustifiable expenditure of taxpayers' money.
In all the years I have been studying national image and reputation, I have never seen a single, properly documented example to show that any country's image has ever been altered by marketing campaigns. In fact, in the NBI there are several examples of countries whose image has declined in spite of major branding campaigns, and several others whose image has improved without any marketing at all.
But surely you're the guy who came up with the slogan 'Sparkling'? Why are you now saying that slogans don't work?
``Sparkling'' is a tourism slogan. Its purpose is to promote vacations in Korea, not to try and change the image of the whole country. The rule is this. If you're selling a product, then marketing communications ― all the range of logos, slogans and promotional campaigns ― are not just desirable but necessary.
Tourism is a product, just like Samsung phones or Ssangyong cars, and it needs to be properly marketed. But Korea is not for sale, and it cannot be directly marketed to the world.
Whatever reputation the country wants, the country needs to earn. So if branding is the wrong idea, how do you change Korea's image?
National image can only be altered by a close partnership between all sectors of government, business and civil society, sharing a long-term commitment to courageous and strategically inspired policies, innnovations and investments. The government needs to lead a working coalition of all those stakeholders in developing a strategy that clearly identifies the following:
1.What the country's image is today in its most important overseas markets?
2.Where the country is going and how it is going to get there?
3.What sort of reputation it needs and deserves in order to achieve those
4.How it is going to implement the actions needed to build that reputation?
This plan should be clear, simple, transparent, accountable and measurable. It should set concrete objectives, and identify how those objectives are going to be met, and how success is to be measured.
President Lee has correctly identified an important problem and an equally important opportunity for his country in the age of globalization, and he is to be applauded for having understood something that few leaders in the world today fully understand.
I hope ― and Korean people and businesses must also hope ― that in the all-important next stage, this clarity and perception do not abandon him and his government. The temptation of a 'quick fix', and the appeal of attractive marketing gimmicks and ambitious PR campaigns, should not distract them from the seriousness and the scale of the task that faces them today.
There are no short cuts to a better image. If I have learned one thing in the last 15 years, it is this: countries build their reputations by what they do, not by what they say.