David Blecken
Sep 9, 2019

Tech and auto giants a source of unshakeable pride for South Koreans

Perhaps more than in most countries, the strongest local brands in South Korea are seen to represent national spirit and the nation’s capacity for future innovation.

Naver remains the market's top search engine.
Naver remains the market's top search engine.


Few will be surprised to learn that Samsung emerged as the strongest brand in its home market of South Korea, something that looks unlikely to change any time soon. The company and its brand are so big as to be representative of the country itself.

To be sure, not everyone at home is unequivocally proud of the company at a corporate level, where murky dealings seem an ever-present fact of life: two executives from Samsung Electronics were arrested earlier this year on suspicion of destroying evidence relating to accounting fraud. But at a consumer level, the brand looks simply too big to touch.

Its scale in the electronics sector combined with the reach of its product range mean it doesn’t feel too much pressure to be especially innovative in its communications at home, even if it does spend vast amounts on creative and media globally. More important is to innovate just enough to stay ahead of competitors such as LG (second in the ranking) and ensure product quality is upheld.

The brand nearly came a cropper in that regard in April when the launch of the much-hyped Galaxy Fold misfired: despite its price tag of nearly US$2,000, the foldable phone was found to have a fatally-flawed screen design. The setback is sure to have caused embarrassment at home given Samsung’s status as a national flag-bearer that competes closely with Apple on its home turf. However, it is now reportedly back on track, although a global re-release date has not been given.

Whether or not consumers in South Korea or anywhere else actually need or even want a foldable phone is questionable, but the device’s eventual availability, provided it works this time round, will surely serve as a useful bit of PR to keep the brand at the front of people’s minds. The less risky Galaxy Note 10 is also likely to help maintain brand strength over the coming year. Samsung claimed the product drew 1.3 million orders in the domestic market before going on sale in August.

LG is set to launch a competitor product this month, but is perhaps a stronger rival in the TV space where in January it unveiled a product that made reviewers look twice: the Signature Series OLED TV R, which features a rollable screen. Gimmicky it might be, but the feat of engineering behind it can be seen as a major contributing factor to the enduring strength of the brand and the pride South Koreans have in it.

Internet services companies Naver and Kakao ranked third and fourth respectively. Engaging with the startup world and small local businesses is one thing that has helped Naver remain relevant in the face of international competition. The brand is also closely linked to technology hardware companies, and indeed developed the browser for LG’s very own upcoming foldable smartphone. Kakao is buoyed by the success of Kakao Talk, the instant messaging service. That these companies remain prominent at all in a world (China excepted) that is increasingly dominated by Silicon Valley might indicate that where they exist, South Koreans still prefer homegrown products and services. It might also be attributed to government protectionism: Google services such as Maps, for example, have typically been hamstrung by regulations that weaken their usability, ostensibly in the interests of “national security”. 

Hyundai was the fifth-strongest local brand, well above its partner Kia at 19. Continued pride in a local carmaker that managed to crack the international market is understandable, but away from home, Hyundai’s success now seems to be in reverse. As a mass-market car brand (it is the world’s fifth-largest manufacturer), it has in recent years demonstrated significantly less innovation than the likes of Toyota and Nissan, and it is struggling in the key markets of China and the US. In both countries, its total share has fallen to around 4%, according to Reuters, which attributes this partly to mismatched products and generic design.

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