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It's Largely a Matter of Trust in Korea

By Tom Coyner

Korea Times

August 9, 2007


In Marketing 101, we studied the Four P's of Marketing: Product, Price, Promotion and Place (i.e., distribution). Later Ries & Trout added a fifth P -- Position; a concept anchoring the four aforementioned P's to a single point of the market. And yet, of course, there is much more to marketing-- there is also trust or credibility. Without it, the four or five P's of a marketing strategy crumble. This issue was surveyed by Edelman Public Relations' director, Steve Bowen, at a recent Seoul Rotary meeting.


Mr Bowen reviewed the importance of customer trust as a requirement in any market. He also focused on some of the unique aspects of doing business in Korea. As a public relations professional, he centered his discussion on the public's awareness and causes of attitudes toward companies and their products and services.


As one may expect in most markets, trust in Korea is vested more in a company's solid products and services along with effective management than within the softer social issues. Yet, Edelman has discovered that employee relationships and the public's perception of a company's employee relations can be a major driver of the company's reputation. Given that, Edelman recommends their clients' external communications be focused on business tangibles -- and social programs should be clearly linked to core competencies. For example, an international carrier may donate its shipping services to special disaster relief efforts, highlighting employee participation and volunteerism.


Today, traditional top-down media still retains highly credibility in Korea, but as one may expect, the Internet is now on a par with newspapers, television, etc. While hardly unique to Korea, UCC (User Created Content) is a hot trend. Koreans in their 20s and younger are very comfortable interacting in web- and cell phone-based, two-way dialogue-driven promotions. Many, in fact, prefer UCC promotions over traditional one-way communication.


While UCC may be a great way to go, credibility does not automatically accrue from the process. The wise marketer in Korea looks for ways to incorporate company positive, third party web content into feature-rich local Web sites. In so doing, one needs to recognize up front that there is a tradeoff between message control and message credibility. Therefore, one should be prepared to cede some control over the message in favor of dialogue-rich relationships with influential stakeholders.


It's important to remember that when we form an opinion about a product, service or company, we are likely to hear various messages from different sources. Some of these sources are ignored because we know nothing about them or we may have had negative experiences with those kinds of spokespeople or media. Traditionally, we have trusted word of mouth the most. Today, we are getting increasing volumes of personalized information from email, blogs, cell phones, etc. Often these messages are not literally personalized, but they are much more targeted to suggest that the messages are from a "person like me."




























According to Edelman, the top three characteristics most likely to increase Koreans' trust in someone sharing information about a specific company are "shares common interests" (61 percent of those surveyed), "is of the same profession" (46 percent), and "holds similar political beliefs" (45 percent). Perhaps surprising to many of us foreigners, commonality in nationality, race, religion, and community were substantially less important credibility factors in Korea. "A Person Like Me" is rapidly becoming a highly credible commentator on one's company -- aided by the rise of social media such as blogs and UCC promotions.


Still, to minimize the risk inherent in having highly credible third parties talking about the company, it is critical to find ways to build trust-based relations with multiple stakeholders, given the second tradeoff -- the balance between message reach and message credibility. In Korea, non-aligned commentators, such as NGOs, are becoming increasingly credible. This suggests that a good marketing program should build highly tailored communications channels aimed at different stakeholder groups using different third party spokespeople.


An interesting twist is for domestic communications campaigns to include international media as effective routes via which to reach key stakeholders in Korea. Sometimes international media coverage may come across as being more credible in Korea. Needless to say, outreach to international media needs to be based on a very different story angle from a Korean media campaign, but if done correctly, international media may offer a special kind of validation or credibility.


Getting back to employee relations, Edelman has noted increasingly the most important standout public perception characteristic of companies in Korea is the way companies treat their employees. This is partially because during the past decade there has been a restructuring of employee and labor laws as well as welfare and benefits systems. As a result, there is a new emphasis on employee rights.


Therefore, it is becoming more important to develop communications campaigns from the inside out, particularly in terms of buy-in from internal stakeholders. Corporate reputation starts with employee relationships. That means building strong relationships with employees, who are among a company's most credible commentators. Since one's employees are prone to talk and send messages over the Internet, it is more critical than ever to foster internal feedback processes. It's important to keep in mind that Koreans are the world's leaders in sharing negative, credible opinions of companies, products and services over the Internet.


While the National Tourism Organization now proclaims that "Korea, sparkling'' sums up this country, I maintain "Dynamic Korea'' is the better nomenclature. The rise in social media, such as blogs, UCC, cell phones, is being matched by increased credibility of third parties, such as NGOs. While it is certainly premature to disregard the importance of the traditional media with a focus on business tangibles, one needs to recognize that communications channels are becoming increasingly fragmented, with non-traditional media channels becoming more prevalent.


The days of "one size fits all'' are still not over, but in broadband Korea, the most competitive and capable companies are using messaging and channel strategies effectively as they gain better insights into their increasingly narrowly-defined target audiences.


And if it is not enough to appreciate the benefits of learning to surf Korea's cyber waves, consider the potential cost of getting it wrong. As I stated earlier, Koreans are more likely than any other nationality to complain online about companies they don't trust.


Tom Coyner is president of Soft Landing Korea, a consulting group focusing on sales and human resources issues. He is co-author of Mastering Business in Korea: A Practical Guide.


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