Q&A: Joshua Peacock, Managing Director iris Seoul, on Brands Finding Balance in Korea


For more than a decade, Joshua Peacock has seemingly had one foot in Australia and the other in Korea –and sometimes in both.

From Brand Manager at British Tobacco in Sydney to Sr. Business director and GM at WPP in Gangnam; followed by management positions back in Australia with Korean firms, Innocean and Hyundai Motors, and now back again in Korea, where he recently took the reins as Managing Director at iris in Seoul.

Bottom line: If you’re wanting to talk to a seasoned hand on branding and marketing strategy in Korea, then Joshua Peacock is a good guy to talk to.


 

So, we did.


What have you been up to lately?

I recently moved back to Seoul for the second time in my career. What drew me back was the opportunity to join iris and create a truly different model to that of the big 4 agency networks. Korea is the geographical line between East and West, a bridge between two cultures.

Read More: Q&A: Hyundai Brand Strategy Director Minsoo Kim on Hyundai’s rise and the Road Ahead

For brands to work here they need to carefully balance both eastern and western sensibilities.


 

The vision is to put Seoul on the creative map and I believe it rightly deserves to sit alongside London, Paris and New York as a global leader in creativity.

It’s been fun… I’m busy building a team, seeking out new office space, and engaging clients with a kind of conversation they have never had before.

You’ve held management positions in both Australia and Korea. What advice would you give to a foreign manager stepping into run a Korean firm for the first time?

Throw your instincts out the window. A Korean workplace might seem chaotic at first but in fact it just needs a little extra guidance and strong leadership. The western style of leadership and too much autonomy isn’t necessarily the best working environment.

Korea is the geographical line between East and West, a bridge between two cultures. For brands to work here they need to carefully balance both eastern and western sensibilities.

Learn to integrate yourself and be open to cultural differences which can’t always be changed overnight. Korean workers are incredibly efficient and have a relentless determination –so much so that Hyundai has included this in their brand DNA. If you can harness all that energy and focus the task you will be surprised what you can achieve. Build a close intimate working environment and guide your team closely on a daily basis.

There was a recent ranking of the top 10 brands in Korea with Google at #9 being the only non-Korean brand on the list. Why such a small footprint for foreign brands and how do you view the trend for their presence in the future?

Korea has typically been a market where big brands come to die. Big players such as Google, Nokia, Walmart, HP & GE have all failed in the past. They have failed because they did not truly understand the cultural drivers of the market and tailor both their proposition and message towards local sensibilities.

For every failure however there has been a success story. Adidas for example far outperforms the category in comparison to other markets. Other big brands like Guinness also outperform the market, even being sold well above the global price index.

Moving ahead, the road is still tough but recently it has been more travelled. Korean society has opened up culturally and the young generation of millennials are global in their views and open more than ever to foreign brands. A lot of Koreans who have grown up overseas are now moving back and bringing with them more diverse cultural tastes and brand preferences. Now is the perfect time to enter the market.

Previously you remarked that international clients often have a misunderstanding in what shapes and influences Korean culture. What are some of the misunderstandings and how can they be resolved to strengthen brand resonance with Korean consumers?

Foreign brands typically haven’t employed enough local expertise or really truly understood the drivers of a culture that were largely shaped by war and a system rooted in Confucianism. Brands failed to understand the loyalty and sense of nationalism that eventually led to the rise of big conglomerates. Korea is now a buyers’ market and the game is played by a very different set of rules.

For every failure however there has been a success story. Adidas for example far outperforms the category in comparison to other markets. Other big brands like Guinness also outperform the market, even being sold well above the global price index.

Whilst Korea has the highest smartphone penetration in the world along with some of the fastest internet speeds, there are also polar opposite attitudes here when it comes to social media. Korean consumers are far less likely to talk about brands on social media nor are they likely to share anything private in an open forum. The importance of private networks and communities has led to enormous success for messaging platforms like Kakao and Line. There are far more popular than open-air social networks due to the differences in how Koreans interact with each other online and in their daily lives.

Another really important point is to understand local sensibilities and how that influences the way in which young Koreans express themselves. This has meant that new apps like Snow have been able to far outpace mega brands like Snapchat in terms of growth in the region. Whilst offering the same service, they have tapped into Asian sensibilities via unique and relative creation tools and filters.

Brands need to speak to local sensibilities and harness the power of communities and private networks in order to succeed.

Over the course of your career, what are some campaigns that you are you most proud of?

The campaigns that I have enjoyed the most have been the most challenging ones. It was incredibly difficult yet rewarding to launch a luxury car for Hyundai. The brand has historically been seen as a value proposition and the Genesis was designed to take on the likes of BMW and above. It meant that we had to disrupt the market, shift perceptions, prove ourselves credible and win over the haters.

I also thoroughly enjoyed working on the Guinness “TasteofBlack” campaign in Korea. The campaign effectively repositions the brand for millennials whilst also leveraging local sensibilities to overcome perceptions around taste.

I’ve also spent quite a bit of time working with startups. These are often the most open collaborators and the best kind of clients. They are willing to try something new and different to disrupt the market.

Can you share some of your favorite campaigns from other agencies you’ve seen lately in Seoul?

BMW produced a beautiful campaign whereby they let kids experience the joy of driving for the first time.

Adidas held an amazing cultural activation event at Dongdaemun Design Plaza called “Past Empowers Future”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nt0u9RTrEo0

Cheil created a compelling piece of content to showcase the durability of Samsung’s new notebooks

If you could no longer work in the industry anymore. What do you see yourself doing instead?

I’d pursue something creatively… Start a podcast, direct a film or even make a video game. Failing that, I’d start a microbrewery in my hometown in an untapped area.

Picture of Bobby McGill

Bobby McGill

Bobby is the founder and publisher of Branding in Asia.

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