Samsung, Hyundai: Next Sony, Honda?

South Korean Brands Want to Be Loved but Need to Stand for Something More Than Value

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South Korean brands are on the rise and have a well-earned reputation for quality: Samsung, LG, Kia, Hyundai and others have all earned their way into homes. But will consumers ever feel the type of bond with them that they have felt, at various points, with uber-brands such as Apple, Sony, VW or BMW?

At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in 2010, Samsung's head of U.S. marketing told Ad Age that the electronic giant's central challenge was to transcend a reputation for value alone.

"The next opportunity for us is to become a brand of strong preference, to have an emotional connection to consumers who go to stores with the sole intention of buying a Samsung because they've already had a great experience with us," said VP David Steel. At Ad Age 's Digital Conference in 2011, Samsung CMO Ralph Santana said its goal as a brand is to become "an indispensable part of consumers' lives."

Of all the Korean brands, Samsung can probably make the strongest claim to have succeeded. Just this fall, it ousted Apple as the world's-largest maker of smartphones, based largely on its excellent Android devices. But volume is a poor proxy for brand value, and while Samsung makes Millward Brown's top 100 most-valuable brands list (at No. 67), it's well behind, say, Apple (No. 1), not to mention Google (No. 2), IBM (No. 3) and Microsoft (No. 5).

The difference between a brand that signifies great value and one that has an emotional connection with consumers is meaning. "The brand needs to stand for something larger than itself," said Simon Mainwaring, former creative director for Nike at Wieden & Kennedy and now founder of the brand consultancy We First. "Sometimes the product can only take you so far but the brand needs to be elevated above the perception of the product to take it to the next level."

The obvious analogy is that South Korea is set to one day replace Japan in terms of makers of high-quality brands, meaning Samsung in 2012 is on a trajectory to be Sony in 1995 and Hyundai will one day have as loyal a following as Honda.

One difference: Since brands are more global than ever before, it's getting harder to identify a global brand with a single country. That could help ascendant brands as they gain a global presence.

But if South Korean companies are to do it, they probably need to move fast. Japan had several decades to build those brands while U.S. manufacturing declined, but South Korea is already being stalked by newcomers from China and India, fueled by fast-growing middle classes eager to display their newfound wealth through luxury goods and premium brands.

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