Eric Kim

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[Seoul] Eric Kim has transformed Samsung Electronics from a dowdy marketer of microwave ovens into a sleek digital innovator that can take on global rivals like Japan's Sony Corp.

When Mr. Kim, 49, joined the South Korean conglomerate as exec VP-global marketing operations in 1999, Samsung made decent products but lacked a cool brand image and suffered from being fragmented across product lines and markets.

"Marketing was viewed as a distant activity" behind technology, says Mr. Kim. "I established a single brand strategy for the company with a long-term perspective."

He painstakingly trained colleagues about the importance of marketing, and redefined the company's structure to create products that matched its marketing strategy, such as high-end liquid-crystal displays and handheld devices. He also took control of the brand away from discount stores like Wal-Mart and Target, which positioned Samsung as a cheap alternative to Japanese and European products.

from 55 agencies to 1

On the ad side, Mr. Kim slashed Samsung's relationships from 55 agencies to one, Interpublic Group of Cos.' Foote Cone & Belding Worldwide. FCB works with Samsung's huge in-house agency, Cheil Communications, to handle the company's $400 million ad budget. He also focused spending on flagship products like flat-screen plasma TVs.

A new marketing platform called "Samsung DigitAll" positioned the brand as a leader across its four big divisions: home appliances, telecommunications, digital media and semiconductors.

It worked. Samsung's revenue rose 7.9% in 2003 to $36.7 billion. The company is the world's third-largest cellular phone marketer with a 13% market share, and is a leading player in fast-growing refrigerator sales.

Samsung's brand value, meanwhile, has risen 31% since 2002, according to Omnicom Group's Interbrand.

The brand is cool enough to make consumers willing to pay thousands of dollars for Samsung products such as flat-screen TVs.

Mr. Kim has further raised Samsung's profile by sponsoring the Olympics and connecting the Samsung brand with films like the "Matrix" trilogy.

"Global branding requires huge amounts of money, so I focused on key leverage points such as the Olympics," he says. "We were nobody on the global brand stage [before 1998], but being on the same platform as Coca-Cola and other Olympic brands helped us drive our message."

Amazingly, Mr. Kim had no previous marketing experience. Raised by Korean parents in southern California, he held high-tech software and finance jobs. But Mr. Kim says he "always viewed the software and high-tech industry as an integration between technology and marketing."

Making Samsung cool enough to compete with rivals like Sony in consumer electronics was tough enough, but now Mr. Kim faces an even bigger challenge. He's mapping Samsung's course in an age of interactive multimedia devices, digital content and networked homes in which appliances will trade wireless signals.

"Our vision is all about digital convergence of lifestyle enjoyment products as more and more innovative devices are designed to do amazing things," he says. "A few years ago, who would have imagined a camera built into a cell phone?"

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