The first Samsung product that Richard Craig, a 37-year-old American living in Tianjin, China, owned was a 42-inch flat screen TV he bought in 2009 in the US. Ten years later, the longtime iPhone user switched to a Galaxy smartphone, saying “phones made by Samsung were some of the best Android phones available.”
For Lim Eun-soo, a 63-year-old Korea-born US resident, a Samsung TV in 2000 was her first electronic device that was made by a company from her home country.
“Back then (in 2000) it was pretty hard to find Korean electronic appliances in the US, as people barely knew Samsung and headed for Sony products instead,” she said.
But now, she sees her new neighbors fill their homes with Samsung appliances, for which as a Korean she feels proud.
Though entering the global market with a perception as a value brand, 72 percent of US homes today have one or more Samsung products, the tech giant said. One in every 5 smartphones in the world is also made by Samsung.
Samsung, which started from being a grocery store, jumped in relatively late into the electronics industry in 1969, compared to its neighbor Japan who established Sony in 1946. But now it has become an icon of technology innovation.
Back in 2001, Samsung was ranked 42nd with a brand value of $6.37 billion, according to US-based global management consulting firm Interbrand. Last year, Samsung was the fifth most valuable global brand in the world, right behind Google, with its brand value estimated at $74.6 billion.
The same goes for Korean auto giants. Hyundai Motor, which was often mistaken for Honda, sells more cars than its Japanese rival around the world. Now the fifth-largest automaker in the world, it even has a luxury brand -- the Genesis lineup -- that many traditional carmakers looked down on in the beginning, saying that the reputation of an auto brand would take 100 years to build. Hyundai Motor was ranked 35th last year with a brand value of $15.16 billion, up from 84th with a brand value of $3.48 billion in 2005.
The Genesis lineup in particular has since cemented its status as a high-quality and safe brand, experts said.
Genesis GV80, an SUV, was thrust into the spotlight after Tiger Woods crashed the car in February 2021 in Los Angeles, resulting in severe leg injuries for the golfing legend.
Lee Ho-geun, an automotive engineering professor at Daeduk University, credited the car’s safety features that might have helped save Woods’ life.
The most important of which were the GV80’s 10 airbags. With at least two more than other cars, Lee pointed out that the strategic placement of the front center airbag between the driver’s seat and the center console prevents the driver from colliding with other vehicle components.
Woods resumed his golfing career a year and half after the accident. The car also scored high on an assessment of crashworthiness and crash prevention capability by Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a US-based independent car safety organization.
Lee added that before 2019, the average price of Hyundai cars exported abroad was $35,000 and that increased to an average of $50,000 in 2020.
Not only Samsung and Hyundai, Korea is now known as the home to multibillion-dollar industries spanning gaming, health care, K-beauty and food.
Food giant Daesang Group is making forays into the global market with its kimchi products, catering for the fast-growing appetite for Korean food.
The company built the very first kimchi factory in LA, an overseas base to enter Europe and Oceania as well as the US. The factory can produce 2,000 metric tons of kimchi annually.
Piggybacking on the growing interest for Korean food, Daesang’s overseas kimchi shipment accounts for over 40 percent of entire exports by Korean food makers as of last year. The company’s overall kimchi exports surged by 131 percent to $67 million, an all-time high figure, in the cited period. It currently exports kimchi to over 40 countries including the US, China, Japan and Singapore.
Others are expanding into the global market by putting a Korean twist on foreign delicacy. Myungrang Hotdog is creating buzz overseas with its take on the US corn dog. These Korean-style corn dogs come with unique toppings including crispy ramen, cube-shaped potatoes or sweet potato fries and mozzarella cheese that coat the exterior for a unique flavor.
Compared to Western corn dogs, Myungrang makes a crispier and stickier dough using rice flour and their products are commonly featured in “mukbang,” or online eating shows.
The corn dog chain currently operates 24 global branches in nine countries such as the US, UK, Canada and Malaysia, and plans to open an additional 15 stores in Philippines, the Czech Republic and other regions.
South Korean’s obsession with beauty has also raised the profile of the cosmetic and fashion industries, setting K-beauty as a brand name in the global cosmetic market long dominated by European and US companies.
Samsung C&T’s fashion brand 8 Seconds has challenged Japan’s Uniqlo and Sweden’s H&M since 2012 in offering affordable and casual everyday wear. Most of the brand’s clothes are priced between 10,000 won ($7.6) and 30,000 won, providing a handful of options to price-conscious consumers.
Premium eyewear brand Gentle Monster, which is known for its bold cat-eye frames, has become a rising fashion trendsetter. The brand’s motto is to sell captivating experiences to consumers. The eyewear brand sets itself apart by filling their stores with over-the-top installations such as 2-meter-high robots and a herd of robotic sheep.
Celebrities including Gianna Jun, Rihanna, Billie Eilish, Kendall Jenner and Jennie from the K-pop group Blackpink have all been spotted sporting Gentle Monster eyewear.
The company has 28 directly operated stores in seven regions -- China, the US, Hong Kong, Singapore, the United Arab Emirates, the UK and Taiwan.
Ranging from nature-based healthy ingredients for skin care to eye-catching makeup colors, K-beauty brands such as Sulwhasoo, Laneige and Innisfree under the cosmetics giant Amorepacific Group have been targeting both the high- and low-end markets. In the second quarter, the company’s sales in the US and Europe surged by 66 percent and 15 percent, respectively.
Korea‘s soft power strength stems from its movies, TV shows and pop music that hit the global market. But those “Made in Korea” products by companies -- both small and big -- have also strengthened Korea‘s national brand.
“South Korean conglomerates such as Samsung, LG, and Hyundai contributed in enhancing the country’s soft power with their advanced technology that gave competitiveness to their products and made the country be recognized or renowned as a ‘high-tech’ country,” said Kim Heung-chong, president of Korea Institute for International Economic Policy.
And the nation’s soft power, in turn, has helped enhance corporates’ brand power, added Kim Moon-sun, a researcher at the Korea International Trade Association, calling it a “win-win” relationship.
According to KITA, 70 percent of foreign buyers think Korea’s global reputation positively influences purchase decisions.
Among the 213 overseas buyers the association surveyed, 25.4 percent said Korean products are high quality, 16.9 percent said they are reasonably priced and 15 percent said they are unique.
“To enhance Korean brand power, the government must support private companies to venture into new businesses so they can continue to take the lead in the global market. Infusing K-content and culture into the brand will also help companies utilize the advantage of the country’s image and reputation it has in the global market,” said Kim Moon-sun.
To further enhance South Korean brands’ power, experts say brands need more than just effort to make good quality products.
“Quality is not what differentiates a powerful brand from a weak brand as technology these days has advanced to a point where all brands are capable of making a good product,” said Kim Kyung-ja, a professor of consumer studies at the Catholic University of Korea. “Brands need something new, something unique. And at the same time, South Korea as a country must enhance its reputation in the global community.”
)Cub reporter Lee Yoon-seo and intern reporter Lee Seung-ku contributed to this article. -- Ed.
In commemoration of The Korea Herald’s 69th anniversary on Aug. 15, The Korea Herald has prepared a series of features delving into the phenomenon of Korean-made content influencing global contemporary culture and trends. Is it a one-off occurrence or is it here to stay? Can South Korea claim pride in the works of its creative minds as a nation? The Korea Herald expounds on the past and present of the Korean Wave and its prospects for the future. – Ed.