Wednesday, March 14, 2012

National Branding

Yesterday was my first sick day in 3.5 years of teaching, and it definitely irks me to have to take two in a row. But thanks to a a massive stomach flu, I'm now in that really obnoxious phase of recovery in which you feel totally fine and ready to go, and then you try to stand up and have to spend the next hour taking a nap.

So to celebrate my immobility, I have researched a blog post on "national branding" for three places we have recently lived: Japan, Scotland, and South Korea.

What is national branding? Well, people argue about whether or not it's really a thing, or if it is a thing, whether or not it really needs a special term. But overall, it just means what you think of when you think of a country - or even if you think of the country at all. Would you stereotype it as friendly? Unstable? An interesting place to visit? This is a big topic of interest for Korea, and you can read two interesting articles about Korean national branding here (.pdf) and here.

One company makes a business out of attempting to quantify a national brand. The annual Anholt GFK-Roper National Brands Index  collects data from 50 countries about each of the other 50 countries on the list in six key areas: exports (do you like their products?) governance, culture, people, tourism, and immigration and investment. New Zealand has posted its full report online so you can see a sample here. (It's a .pdf, just so you're warned).

This website lets you play around with survey responses on individual questions, and if you're a geek like me, this can keep you entertained for a couple of hours on the sofa while you try to work up the nerve to walk to the bathroom. The data is out of date - I've put the 2009 numbers first and the 2008 numbers in parentheses - so it doesn't reflect recent movement, or for instance anything related to the 2011 Tohoku quake. Here are the indicator rankings for American perceptions of the countries where Justin and I have lived:

US Opinion OfKorea ScotlandJapan
People32 (41)9 (6)18 (12)
Products23 (26)16 (12)2 (2)
Government27 (34)8 (7)19 (16)
Tourism39 (45)11 (6)13 (13)
Culture36 (34)14 (14)7 (3)
Immigration and investment25 (34)12 (11)15 (9)

So what's going on with this?

First, Scotland has high rankings out of proportion to its size or economic impact. I'm going to chalk this one up to good old fashioned narcissism: many many Americans have Scottish heritage. Americans like Scottish accents (see Shrek, Sean Connery.) Americans all know about tartan, and whisky, and Braveheart (even though what they know is probably wrong). Plus, why not rank Scottish people and Scottish culture highly? Indirectly, it might be a pat on the back to yourself!

Second, Korea has low rankings out of proportion to its size or economic impact, although it is making some significant upward movements. I attribute this to the fact that Korea is still not well known internationally, and what it tends to be most famous for (the Korean War) isn't that great. Also, whenever North Korea messes around, the name blurs back onto South Korea.

The obvious thing for me to do next is to give you my own rankings for these countries, but that's quite hard. Please understand that my purpose in this blog is to give some information and to be funny. My experiences are mine and limited, and I don't intend to stereotype. Just to be fair, I'll throw in the US. (I can rank it for Tourism because there are questions like "The country is rich in natural beauty" and "The country is rich in historic buildings and monuments." Similarly, Immigration questions include things like "Good place to study for educational qualifications" and "Quality of life." For full questions see the New Zealand .pdf linked to above.)

Koreans: When you're in, you're so in that they will take you on vacation. When you're out, you're so out that they will run you over with a luggage cart.
Scots: The survey allows you to rank based on "fun." Scots are fun. Sometimes they are a bit too fun. It is the only place in the world where I have seen a businesswoman passed out drunk on the sidewalk at six PM on a Wednesday.
Japanese: Extremely polite but can be very bureaucratic. Whatever you do, do not sign a paper in blue ink.
Americans: Like golden retrievers, all Americans want is to be happy and to do good things. But sometimes we try so hard that we knock over your lamp and you kind of wish we hadn't tried to help in the first place.

On the whole, I think there are fewer things to see in Korea than in some smaller countries. Not necessarily Korea's fault (a civil war will really ruin your historical monuments) but still a fact. I am also biased by the fact that I have a pepper allergy and I just can't get by on Korean food. I enjoyed traveling in Scotland, but it does get pricey and can sometimes be kitschy. Overall, though, I really enjoyed traveling in Scotland, especially in the more unusual areas like Shetland and Orkney. I am still sorry I never made it over to Glasgow. I could travel in Japan for the rest of my time here and still not run out of things I want to do and see. America, like Japan, is so big that it would be hard to get bored. The US has a stronger showing in natural heritage than in historical stuff because of its youth.


Korea and Scotland both suffer from a bit of cultural schizophrenia: there is 19th century "traditional heritage" culture (Korean hanbok, Scottish tartans etc) and then there is today. I think both the Scots and the Koreans struggle with how to be both "modern" and "local." America doesn't have this problem because it doesn't have traditional culture (witness Miss America's struggle every year to come up with national dress) so it's just modern. Japan, on the other hand, fascinates me with its ability to abstract out traditions (proportion, texture, space, etc) and apply them to modern ideas (architecture, fashion, food, etc).

Lastly, immigration:
Korea was the hardest place for us to live, mostly due to health reasons (my pepper allergy and Justin's asthma). Korea is also still quite insular in many ways - there are more foreign food restaurants near us in Fukuoka (pop. 2.5 million) than in Seoul (pop. 10 million). Scotland was surprisingly frustrating. Lease structures are very weighted against foreigners, and the bureaucratic and government structure is willfully inefficient. (Witness the fact that while New Zealand just distributed the original National Brand Index reports, the Scots retyped the entire thing to create a minimally-annotated but much harder to read final version). On the other hand, we didn't have anybody to help us in Scotland (like the assistants provided by international schools) so maybe the other places look artificially easy. Japan is very easy to live in. It is expensive, but everything works. The language barrier is quite difficult and it has much less English-language support, but that may be related to being in a provincial city rather than Seoul. As for America, I'm out of ideas. I did just have a fever. I think I'm doing pretty well to get this far.

Just for fun, here is the self-perception data. Unfortunately, I couldn't separate out Scotland (I suppose the survey data didn't distinguish between UK and Scotland when surveying respondents) so I added the US instead. (According to the Scotland survey above, the Scots ranked themselves 1st in nearly all categories.)

Own opinion of USAKorea Japan
People1 (1)1 (1)1 (1)
Products1 (1)1 (1)1 (1)
Government1 (2)20 (24)5 (7)
Tourism1 (1)3 (5) (France #1)1 (1)
Culture1 (1)5 (5) (France #1)4 (5) (USA #1)
Immigration and investment1 (1)1 (1)1 (1)

Well. I don't think we need to worry about America's self-esteem any time soon, do we? But South Korea and Japan - stereotypically self-effacing - ranked themselves quite highly as well. Apparently all three countries have the best people, the best products, and are the best place to live!

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