The Image Thing: Korea and World Perception



The recently released Reputation Index ranked Korea 34th out of fifty countries--one place ahead of crime-ridden Mexico. Should Korea care how they are ranked by an organization that puts them on par with Mexico? Well, yes.


BUSAN, South Korea -- According to the 2011 World Reputation Index survey, South Korea ranked 34th out of 50 countries worldwide for its reputation in the eyes of the world, placing it just ahead of the drug warzone that is Mexico.

Canada ranked first in the survey with Sweden next, followed by Australia, Switzerland and New Zealand. Pakistan, Iran and Iraq ranked lowest in the 50-country study, while Japan (12th), Singapore (20th), Taiwan (25th), India (27th) and Thailand (30th) bested Korea and China (43rd) among Asian countries. 

Surveying 42,000 respondents worldwide, the annual study measures overall trust, esteem, admiration and ‘good feelings’ the global public has towards various countries based on 16 different attributes, including quality of life, openness, safety of the living environment, GDP, focus on active lifestyles, developed political systems and neutrality to political upheavals.

I suppose Mexico got extra points for good beaches.

The report cites a “very strong correlation between a country’s reputation and people’s willingness to visit there, buy its exported products and services, invest there, study there or even live and work there.”

Kasper Nielsen, executive partner at WPI, believes the results are worth heeding: “When you consider that a 10% increase in your country’s reputation leads to an 11% rise in your tourism receipts, and a 2% increase in your FDI – this is something both countries and companies might want to take note of.”

While broad-brush surveys such as these are generally press fodder, they do allow a moment of introspection by countries, such as Korea, that got dissed in the data --whether or not deservedly so.

Regardless of whether the numbers are fuzzy, what could Korea do to build up its rep?

There is no shortage of advice to be had, but a recent Korea Times op-ed piece offered some areas they feel the country could improve on.
 

  • Stop taunting foreign sports teams during international matches. Last week, fans were seen holding a sign at the Asian Champions League soccer quarterfinal that read “Congratulations on Japan’s earthquake.” This unnerved large numbers of both Korean and Japanese citizens alike.
  • Allow Lonestar to disinvest itself from KEB. While Korea has become increasingly open to foreign investment, the Lone Star controversy “has created a disproportionately negative perception of Korea as a bad destination for investment.”
  • Avoid sensationalizing and politicizing foreign crimes in Korea, such as the case of an American soldier raping a Korean woman or other isolated incidents of foreign crime in Korea.
  • Curb the high suicide rate, widening income gap and recurring physical clashes at the National Assembly.
     

The Korea Times went on to say, “Korea sometimes does surprisingly poorly in many global surveys...(agencies) need to do extra homework to help the nation earn its due credit internationally.”


Interlude: The About Face

A good case study on managing and mis-managing how one is perceived, comes from the very same paper that had, just a few days earlier, offered advice on how Korea could improve its repuation. 

In an editorial entitled "Miserly Foreign Firms," the KT ran wild on Korea's trading partners with the provocative notion that foreign-run companies would do well to take a lesson on morals and ethics from Korean-run firms.

If Korea drops a spot in next year's survey, it could be due to a researcher hunting info on Google and coming across the likes of this:

"It is the Korean officials’ ― and consumers’ ― job to make foreign firms realize that this is no country where greedy, profit-blind businesses can prosper. These selfish foreign investors, like financial speculators, cannot provide much help for a host society."

"More importantly, such petty, shortsighted practices cannot lead to sustainable management even without citing the first of the three CSR prerequisites ― ethics, environment and non-exploitation."

Well, dust off the welcome mat and step inside!

While blatant hit jobs are rarely a surpise in the anonymous op-ed section in most papers worldwide, this is the kind of rhetoric that should have been run with a name on it. By it's very nature, an op-ed is the approved voice of a newspaper. 

It went on to say that, "foreign businesses (are) bent on making money, even through potentially unethical methods of bribes and lobbying, rather than giving part of their revenues back to the host and consumers." 

I was at first shocked to learn that only foreign businesses are out to make money and keep as much as they can from consumers and the tax man. Then I remembered: nearly all  products made in Korea are cheaper to foreign consumers than consumers in Korea --many of whom work producing the products themselves.

And so the store shelves were stocked by saints.

Businesses are not in the habit of giving back --no matter where they are from. Samsung is not incredibly successful for being generous, nor is their good buddy, Apple. That world is based on the law of the jungle --kill or be killed, colateral damage accepted.

Common sense having failed to nudge the op-ed writer towards less blazing generalities, he or she could have referred back to Journalism 101 and cited another source rather than Chaebul.com.

The Corruption Perceptions Index, would have done well as a contrasting reference. The CPI is another glam survey yes, but they have been tracking perception trends for sixteen years. Apparently somebody's buying what they're selling.

According to the 2010 results, New Zealand and Singapore were perceived as being the least corrupt countries. The U.K., America and France at 20th, 22nd and 25th have little reason to proselytize, but the ROK ranked 45th on the index --- six spots below China at 39th. It seems a harsh number, in reality, but there it is.

Where this ties in to Korea's reputation is the simple fact that the  KT's fire and brimstone discourse will not read well with international business execs looking to invest money in Asia. And wasn't that the aim of the conciliatory tone the same op-ed page espoused just a few days earlier?

Granted, the Monday it was published was a holiday and this might well have been written after tossing a few back at the office party. Had the writer simply included one domestic company in his xenophobic tirade, it would have made for a fine socialist rant.


Nation Branding

Much has been written in both the Korean and foreign press about the country's nation branding. Oddly, South Korea has yet to break the top 30 in the annual Global Brand Index. (Though it has ranked as high as 4th in the science and technology category).

After watching the results over the past few years with little ascention, the government rolled out a nation-branding plan looking to make it into the top 15 by 2013. This goal was later retracted while at the same time announcing a controversial move to no longer measure success against the Global Brands Index standard, but against a new, Korean-made index instead.

If you can’t beat ‘em, make up your own rules. Fair enough. Korea's low ranking does seems a bit skewed considering the massive success of Korean products in the world market.  

It's more than just products that make a difference, according to Lee Bae-yong, chairwoman of the Presidential Council on National Branding. It's all about soft power.

"The marketing of products for economic development is important, but we can raise South Korea's stature by highlighting the sincerity of our culture and sharing it with the world," said Lee.

The government released a 10-point sincerity Branding Korea Action Plan:

  1. Promote taekwondo – The country’s most popular martial art.
  2. Dispatch 3,000 volunteers abroad every year – “Korean Supporters,” a Peace Corps-like program. Some 2,000 South Koreans already go abroad as volunteers every year, already the third largest group after Americans and Japanese, but their services are rarely linked to the country as they are dispatched by individual organizations.
  3. Export the “Korean Wave” program –  Korea should provide underdeveloped countries technical assistance to help their economies move forward based on its past achievement of double-digit economic growth during the industrialization period.
  4. Introduce Global Korea scholarship – A new scholarship program, “Global Korea Scholarship” will be established for foreign exchange students to help improve the country’s image among foreign students and scholars.
  5. Adopt “Campus Asia” program – A separate program, through which South Korea seeks to develop and recruit young, outstanding workers and academicians, and target students from neighboring Asian countries.
  6. Increase external aid – Send more aid workers to meet global humanitarian needs.
  7. Develop state-of-the-art technologies – Showcase technological advancement by reaching high-tech milestones which should hit the international media.
  8. Nurture culture and tourism industries – Among the initiatives, the government will unify Korean language institutes across the world under the name “King Sejong Institute’ (named after the Joseon Kingdom monarch who spearheaded the invention of the Korean alphabet Hangul), and will better manage the growing number of foreigners wanting to learn the Korean language.
  9. Treat foreigners and multi-cultural families better – A campaign to foster better etiquette and improve hospitality. This is aimed at making Korea a more pleasant country to visit.
  10. Help Koreans become “global citizens” – Smooth Koreans’ attitude to the world and focus on Korea’s traditional nationalism and anti-Americanism.

As an American long hoping for a scholarship to Ehwa Women's University, I like the list. 


English Slogans

I will preface this by saying that I am uni-lingual and at times troubled with mastering my own native tounge. Thankfully, the world has surrendered to English as the global language; from product, city and country slogans to teaching it in the schools.

As far as slogans go, some do it well and some could do it better.

English speaking global companies are themselves no masters at the art of cross promotion when selling abroad. GM imported its Chevy Nova automobile into Mexico, where "no va," means “no go.” PepsiCo mistranslated “Come Alive With Pepsi” into Chinese as “Pepsi Brings Your Ancestors Back from the Dead.” Ouch.

Such a simple fix this one: City leaders or business execs need simply stop a native speaker and ask, “Hey, does this make any sense?” I am sure Pepsi execs wish they had before blanketing China with the necromancer cola.

Of the 246 local governments in Korea, nearly 50% have coined English slogans for themselves. Some are interesting. “Hi, Seoul,”  “Super Pyeongtaek,” “Hi-Touch Gongju,” or “Gwangju Clean,” come immediately to mind, along with the national “Visit Korea Year: 2010-2012.”

And, as columnist Mike Breen once asked: “What can we make of ‘Namwon, City of Love?’"

Though it was lifted from the Dynamic Korea campaign several years back, “Dynamic Busan,” has a nice enough ring to it and fits well with our fair city. But where was the brave soul needed in the meeting when it was decided that Busan Bank should change its name to “B.S. Bank?” Where was the junior Korean exec that studied in Australia when a sporting goods company, in an attempt to copy Northface, decided to call itself, “Blackface” or SBS went with the slogan, “Humanism through Digital?” 

The answer is more interesting than you might think.

Tom Coyner, president of Soft Landing Korea, says that prestigious and expensive international specialists are often brought in to consult, but they are usually overruled by bureacratic vanity.

"This may be done out of a desire by local bureaucrats to privately boast that they came up with the final slogan," said Coyner in an interview with the Times. 

That could explain, "Bravo Your Life." 

My favorites are the pro basketball mascots such as the "Black Slammers," "The Land Elephants," "The Clicker," the "Magic Wings," the "Gullivers" and the "Zeus." 

Mis-worded mascots and reputation indexes aside, Korea will climb the ranks of positive perception and establish itself in the eyes of the world beyond the brand names it exports. Part of it is researchers troubling to take a closer look at the country and part of it is Korea continuing to open up to the world more and more.

Ironically, it is oft times a fervent sense of "one-ness" which helps a country quickly grow in the economic ranks. And yet, it is the same mind-set that inevitibly alienates both business and cultural exchanges. Thus neglecting the long term needs of a country and its people and a world slowly coming together. 


 



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