Robert Sawatzky
Jun 22, 2017

Conglomerates and local brands maintain their grip

Local brands hold nine of the top 20 spots in the ranking of South Korea's top brands.

Conglomerates and local brands maintain their grip

Local brands hold nine of the top 20 spots in the ranking of South Korea's top brands.

Korea’s top local brands tend to be controlled by mega family conglomerates—or chaebol—and this year was not a great year for some of those companies. Lee Jae-yong, the vice chairman and heir apparent of electronics giant Samsung, was arrested and indicted on bribery and embezzlement charges earlier this year. He was preceeded by the chairman of food-to-finance conglomerate Lotte being indicted for corruption last fall along with 20 other executives.

Paired with Samsung’s disastrous battery fire flaw in its Note7 smartphones that prompted a worldwide recall, one might expect this past year to have been horffic for Korean brands.

But that wasn’t the case. Samsung not only held onto its top brand ranking in both Korea and Asia, but added to its strength, thanks to strong showings in new product categories like wearables and smart home networking.

Wain Choi, executive vice president and global creative director at Cheil, the Samsung-owned agency that also works on Samsung campaigns, says the leadership troubles didn’t really change anything for Korean consumers. The Note 7 had the potential for brand erosion, but “the way they handled it was very swift, so I don’t think we had any backlash moreso than anticipated,” he says, noting how stellar sales of Galaxy S8 helped to compensate.

Similarly other top 10 Korean chaebol brands held onto their rankings, with LG in second place, and Lotte in fifth. Local brands remain very strong in Korea, forming nine of the top 20 brands overall. It’s notable that every single one of those brands from food (Nongshim) to dairies (Namyang, Maeil) to banks (Kookmin, Shinhan) either held firm or moved higher.

Korean search portal Naver gets special mention. It moved up into 11th spot and continues to outrank Google (20). Naver is favoured by Koreans for looking up everything from gossip to politics to restaurant directions since it’s built around the Korean language and tends to serve up a wider variety of images and Korean search results. “It’s more focused on the Korean consumer,” says Kyunghee Lee, client services director at BBDO Korea.

Uber was the highest-ranking new entrant brand in this year’s survey, which is surprising given all the legal roadblocks that South Korean lawmakers have thrown its way in recent years. Uber has been fined and barred from using private vehicles for commercial transportation in Korea, but continues to legally operate its UberBLACK premium taxi service and uberASSIST service for those with disabilities and special needs.

With pro sports leagues making their debut in this survey, its not surprising that Major League Baseball is most favoured entering as Korea’s 68th place overall. “Baseball’s the hottest thing everyone follows” says Choi, noting the high the numbers of players Korea exports to the major leagues, adding that golf also generates high interest.

The top brands that suffered the worst drops in Korea tended to be those in disrupted industries like mail and couriers, where Korea Post tumbled (from 82 to 102). As in other markets, camera makers dropped significantly with Canon (from 10 to 19) and Nikon (from 48 to 156) losing favour. Providers of new technology services like e-payments, on the other hand, helped push out traditional names, with Samsung Pay making its debut in the Top 100, albeit at 92.

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