Korea needs an image makeoverThe Korean people are proud of themselves these days because big Korean companies, such as Samsung, Hyundai and LG, are rising in the international markets. Large billboards of these companies are found even in such unexpected places as small- and medium-sized cities in the Middle East and Africa.
Koreans who have visited the brightly lit Times Square in New York may have been surprised at an unexpected view. The sight of Samsung and LG neon signs shining next to those of international brands such as Coca-Cola and Panasonic might have made a deep impression. It might have made them proud of those Korean companies and caused them to think the image of Korea in the international community has improved.
However, this is a great misconception.
First of all, few people in other countries recognize that those companies are Korean. According to a survey conducted in May in the United States, a mere 5.7 percent of American college students correctly answered when asked the nationality of Samsung, as 57.8 percent thought it was a Japanese company. In the case of LG, the response was even worse. While 8.9 percent said that it was a Korean company, more than two-thirds, or 67.9 percent, thought it was either Japanese or American.
Here’s our situation: The better Samsung’s stylish Anycall cell phones get, and the cooler LG air conditioners become, the higher the praise that comes from American consumers ― the more they will likely say, “Japan makes really good products.”
What is the reason for this? It is because those companies make no efforts to disclose their country of origin to American consumers. This is totally different from the strategy of Swiss companies, for example, that make Swatch and Swiss Army knives and use the national flag of Switzerland as their logo.
The big difference in the recognition of these products’ national origin comes from the gap in the national image of the two countries in the international community. Korea has always belonged to the lower levels in the ranking of “national brands,” reflecting the degree of preference by consumers in different countries. According to the Anholt National Brands Index, an analytical ranking of the world’s national brands, as of the second quarter of this year, Korea ranked 32nd among 38 countries. Korea ranks lower than China, which ranks 23rd; Mexico, 29th; Egypt, 30th and India, 31st.
The image of Korea has been damaged especially because of the serious lack of credibility of the Korean government in the international community.
According to the report, “Those who answered the survey in many countries, especially in the United States and Denmark, thought the Korean government to be ‘dangerous,’ ‘wicked’ or ‘unstable.’” The report explained, “This is partly due to the fact that they do not distinguish between South and North Korea. However, it is still a factor that damages Korea’s national brand.”
That is not all. Among 30 member countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, Korea provides the least amount of official development assistance, relative to its real gross national income, to developing countries.
The international community is struggling to cope with the problem of global warming caused by greenhouse gas emissions and the resulting rapid climate changes.
The United Nations initiated high-level talks recently to come up with a follow-up program to the Kyoto Protocol, which ends in 2012. The main point of the conference was to find ways to reduce the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, the main culprit of rapid environmental change.
As opinion is divided on the issue, there exists two different views within the Korean government.
One is that Korea should take the initiative in the global movement for environmental protection and the other is that Korea should still give the priority to its economic development and focus more on making profits. These views are creating conflicts within the government. Both sides have good reasons behind them.
Nevertheless, it is a clear fact that the time has come for Korea, as an economic power that ranks 12th in the world, to take its share of responsibilities in international society.
Many consumers in the world buy products made in northern European countries with confidence. This is because people vaguely associate the notion that a country that gives aid to developing countries generously and takes the lead in environmental protection would not manufacture faulty products.
If Korea is stigmatized as a selfish, crafty country focused on taking immediate profits even in the face of such global issues as climate change, it will also have a negative effect on sales of Korean products.
Taking its share of responsibilities as a member of the global community is a shortcut to enhancing Korea’s national brand.
We must be aware that true diplomacy will generate profits that will help Korean companies in the long-term and make the lives of the Korean people more prosperous.
*The writer is the New York correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Nam Jung-ho