A lesson from South Korea

As a Korean drama commodifies the country, Thailand must also turn to exporting its culture as a brand, says Boongsong Ksotichotethana

Bangkok Post
Wednesday, January 11, 2006

By Boonsong Kositchotethana

The unqualified success of Dae Jang Geum (or, Jewel in the Palace), a South Korean television series being aired in Thailand, is an excellent lesson in how one country has used a form of entertainment to promote itself in the widest possible sense.

The popularity of the series, produced by Korea's MBC, has fuelled a South Korean cultural fever that has gripped Thailand and Asia since the start of the millennium.

Ask any keen media monitor, marketing executive or ordinary television viewer, and they will agree that the drama about Dae Jang Geum, a kitchen apprentice who rose to become the first female royal physician in the Joseon Dynasty some 500 years ago, has created a significant positive impact on how they view Korea and things Korean.

For marketing gurus, Dae Jang Geum is the latest, and perhaps the most successful tool so far in South Korea's strategy to link its culture to the international market in what is called cultural marketing.

The so-called pop culture exports, including Korean movies, television series and music, is a branding exercise by South Korea which has been actively pursued by both the government and the private sector.

The Seoul government has given plenty of support to promote the campaign known as "Korea Wave", providing substantially reduced taxes and credit guarantee facilities for South Korean film production projects.

Blue-chip South Korean companies like Samsung have engaged in supporting the country's film production industry, which ranks high on the national agenda.

The impact of Korean cultural exports like Dae Jang Geum -- the title role of which is played by Lee Young Ae -- has been tangible on the perception of the Thai public towards the land of kimchi.

People who thought modern-day South Koreans were rough, tough and uncultured, now view them in a different light.

Greater understanding about the country's cultural heritage aside, South Korea has reaped massive commercial success.

More than before, Thais are now more prepared to buy Korean-made goods and services, visit the country and go to Korean restaurants.

The sets built by Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) in Yangjoo City, Gyunggi province, for the shooting of this historical series in 2003, have been purchased by the South Korean government and turned into a Dae Jang Geum theme park, which has now become a major tourist attraction.

A tour of the theme park and other locations featured in the series is highlighted in package tours being sold in Thailand, Japan, China, Taiwan, Canada, Hong Kong, Singapore, the Philippines and Chicago -- all of which are within the footprint of the drama.

Korean industrial goods, including audio-visual and electronic products, are reaping benefits from the enhanced Korean brand value brought about indirectly by the success of this cultural export.

The massive popularity of the Dae Jang Guem series has even encouraged the South Korean electronic giant LG to substitute Caucasian presenters who normally grace its global commercials, with the lead actress of the hit series, Lee Young Ae.

With the help of the Korean pop culture that has improved the image of Korea and Koreans, South Korean firms are, increasingly, no longer shy to the tell the world about their roots and identity.

This does not only have an impact on the businesses of existing Korean brands, but paves the way for the successful entry of new ones.  Nearly 10 brands of Korean cosmetics, including the leader Laneige, are securing a foothold in Thailand.

Korean restaurants in Thailand, numbering 30-40 now, are likely to mushroom due to the extensive introduction of Korean royal court cuisine featured in the Dae Jang Geum series.

The success of South Korea's pop culture export is a valuable lesson for us in Thailand on how to create new values by projecting the right image of heritage and culture in such a way as to promote the country as a good brand.

Perhaps we should seriously explore this option.

Boonsong Kositchotethana is Deputy Assignment Editor (Business), Bangkok Post