Winter Olympics: What New Zealand can teach South Korea about branding

This article is more than 12 months old

Olympics events have not guaranteed long-term economic and international success for host nations

The Winter Olympics started last Friday with a grand opening ceremony in Pyeongchang.

At a time of geopolitical turbulence in the peninsula, the Games offer an opportunity for South Korea to present a positive image to the world, enabling a brand makeover for the country.

A key goal will be to present a vision of a modern, vibrant and stable democracy that is a prime destination for future investment and tourism.

And with billions watching, the nation can capitalise on a first-class opportunity to showcase its credentials after a troubled 2017 that saw tensions with the North rise - sometimes dramatically.

While the nuclear stand-off on the peninsula remains, the Olympics have already brought about a highly unexpected geopolitical dividend.

That is, at least temporarily, relations between the North and South have improved and - remarkably - the two sides have entered a number of joint teams at the Games.

Two major questions arise.

Can a country's reputation be enhanced in the same way as a corporation's? Can this have a significant, sustainable national economic impact?

On the first issue, competition for the attention of stakeholders such as investors and tourists is intensifying, and national reputation can, therefore, be a prized asset or a big liability, with a direct effect on future political, economic and social fortunes.

Boosting a country's reputation is a common ambition in what is an overcrowded global information marketplace, and a number of countries have successfully used the Olympics to present themselves positively to the world, including Spain, post-Barcelona 1992 Olympics, and Australia, post-Sydney 2000 Olympics.

Yet the fact is many nations fail to fully capitalise on hosting the Olympics and other major sporting events like football's World Cup.

Moreover, on the economic front, numerous studies have indicated that "legacy-driven" Olympics growth is often overhyped.

In 2012, for instance, Citibank found that in nine of the last 10 Summer Games, gross domestic product tended to rise in host nations in the run-up to the event, but then receded in the two quarters afterwards.

To maximise prospects of Korea benefiting, it must pursue a concerted reputation and economic strategy that aligns all key national stakeholders (across the public, private and third sectors) around a single, coherent vision for its country brand.

This exercise should not just be the preserve of tourism agencies, let alone government, but must involve the private and third sectors, too.

A good example here is the "New Zealand Way" which helped transform global perceptions of the country in the 1980s and 1990s.

The initiative built it as a destination brand for outdoor sports and tourism, in part, by leveraging the hosting of events such as the 1987 Rugby World Cup and the 1990 Commonwealth Games.


The untapped potential of the country's natural environment was recognised and subsequently also showcased in films such as the Lord Of The Rings blockbuster trilogy.

Building on the growing international appreciation of the country's unspoiled natural environment, and in the face of its trade setbacks, New Zealand recognised that a strong country reputation for quality agriculture and produce would help it better compete in global markets.

The subsequent success of the country's agriculture sector, which has also became more competitive and efficient, is symbolised by the fact that it now accounts for around one third of global dairy exports - that is twice Saudi Arabia's share of world oil exports.

The New Zealand example underlines how even a relatively simple, unified country brand vision can be powerful. It has managed to capture the world's imagination with its consistent branding that put outdoor pursuits and natural values firmly at its core.

This is a lesson South Korea would do well to learn as it seeks to capitalise on the Olympics.

The writer is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics. This article appeared in The Business Times yesterday.