Gangnam Style? Korea Style!

South Korea has spent billions promoting its "nation brand," projecting its technology, soap operas and music. But what has driven up the country's soft power across the world as much as anything is "Gangnam Style." The Korean rapper PSY's galloping horse dance, hipster wannabe clothes and tongue-in-cheek attitude, offset by an irresistible and simple hook that even a three year old could mimic, became a sensation that made K-pop - and Korea itself - a global sensation.

The irony is that the billions that Korea spends to promote the "Korean Wave" in the media played no role in the production of the most popular cultural export the country has produced, with more than 1 billion views on YouTube.

"Korea ranked 13th in overall substance and 17th in overall image in SERI's 2012 survey of nation brands. Both were improvements from 2011," according to a January report on national brands by the Samsung Economic Institute. (South Korea's) image was particularly noteworthy after being flat the previous two years. It was propelled in part to rapper PSY's "Gangnam Style," which became the most watched video in the world."

Like everything else South Korea does, going after an improvement in its national brand has become pretty much an obsession. A concept adopted from marketing, "nation brand" involves how a nation is perceived by people from other countries, and constitutes the degree of favorable sentiment and trust regarding a country.

SERI has been measuring national brands of 50 countries for four years, surveying 13,500 opinion leaders in 26 countries to analyze the statistics. Despite the fact that the US economy remains mired in deep trouble and the country is enmeshed in a seemingly unwinnable war in Afghanistan, among other troubles, the United States brand remains number one in the world overall and on top in six of eight separate criteria, including its economy and corporations, science and technology, policy and institutions, heritage, modern culture and celebrities, losing out only on infrastructure (to Singapore) and people (to Norway).

Among the top 10 nations in image, Japan fell from first place in 2011 to fourth due to its continuing economic slump and territorial disputes with neighboring countries while Switzerland (from 9th to 5th) and the United Kingdom (from 4th to 3rd) advanced. The report found. The UK likely benefited from its air of modernity and refinement as projected through the London Olympics and its status as a leading European country at the Olympics.

The benchmark of the survey is the OECD countries' average of 100. Korea's substance and image indices were 103 and 101, respectively, maintaining an uninterrupted climb since the survey began.

As Korean popular culture, known as the Korean Wave, has spread across the world in television dramas, movies, popular music (K-pop), dance (B-boys), and to a lesser extent video games, food, fashion, tourism, and language, the government has sought to take advantage as a policy tool to improve its image, which to many in the United States remains frozen in the M.A.S.H. television sitcom, which ran from 1972 to 1983 and fixed an indelible and, to South Korean officials, seemingly ineradicable image of the country as war-torn, backward and poverty-stricken.

Under the presidency of Lee Myung-Bak, "the Korean government has placed 'complex diplomacy' and "value diplomacy' the main policy objectives to improve cultural and public diplomacy along with enhancing national image and national brand, wrote academics Gunjoo Jang and Wong K. Paik in a September 2012 research paper, Korean Wave as Tool for Korea's New Cultural Diplomacy. In particular, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Presidential Council on Nation Branding have been seeking to take advantage of the popularity of the Korean Wave to promote Korean national interest and to enhance Korean images in the world."

In image, the 2012 advance was most influenced by "Gangnam Style," surging sales of Samsung Electronics' Galaxy S smartphone series, which became a market leader; and Korea's successful hosting of the Nuclear Security Summit. Modern culture and infrastructure become new pillars of Korea's nation brand, the SERI report notes. "Since the inception of the brand survey, economy/corporations and science/technology have exceeded the OECD average of 100 points in both substance and image and celebrities and modern culture have topped the average in substance only. Meanwhile, policies and institutions, heritage and people have scored below the OECD average."

Meanwhile, modern culture, principally K-pop music and TV drama series that often display Korea's infrastructure as backdrops is steadily attracting new international fans. Exports of culture content have been reaping an annual KRW5 trillion (US$4.6 billion) and have helped elevate awareness of other key Korean exports such as cosmetics and automobiles.

Despite that, policies/institutions, heritage and people have stubbornly remained below the OECD average in both substance and image throughout the survey's lifetime although their overall substance and image scores have improved.

"Just as celebrities and modern culture succeeded in raising image based on strong substance, the improved substance in these three categories is expected to boost image," the report notes.

While celebrities and culture have recovered, "in particular, the science/technology category, which had been the pillar of Korea's nation brand, retreated to the 2010 level, from 142 in 2010 to 139 in 2012. People, another pillar, dropped from its 2011 ranking. Meanwhile, there has been a steady uptrend in celebrities and heritage during the past three years, while modern culture strongly rebounded in 2012 after a drop in 2011."

The key brand drivers were "Gangam Style," and other K-pop stars acting as global celebrities who have promoted Korea's modern culture. The improvement was due to efforts to register cultural assets at UNESCO and recovery of cultural assets, including regaining ownership of the former Korean legation building in the US, the cradle of the Korean independence movement in the early 20th century.

The economy and corporations have steadily risen in esteem since 2009, and made a relatively big jump in 2012 compared with 2011, from 121 to 125. The outcome is seen to have reflected the confidence in the Korean economy as Korea was the only country to be assigned a credit rating upgrade by Moody's and Fitch last year among G20 countries.

"The efforts of the government and the private sector appear to have produced results," SERI noted, "and in the future more strategic nation branding efforts will be needed. The gap between Korea's substance and image has diminished in the past four years, from 8 to 6 to 4 to 2 points. This suggests that the strategies to promote the national brand are having a meaningful impact."