A Lesson in Culture from K-Pop and the South Korean Ministry of Culture

South Korea has been in the news a lot lately for many different reasons: the MERS outbreak, its high standards for beauty, a South Korean NYU student’s release from North Korea… When I googled “South Korea,” its official page appeared first in my search (which is not the case for the US or some other major countries – trust me, I tested it). South Korea has been slowly infiltrating our news feeds, radios, and TVs. And I don’t think it’s by mistake. 

Believe it or not, in the 1990’s, South Korea created the Ministry of Culture (now the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism) as a result of the financial crisis that hit Asia during that time. South Korean leadership wanted “to improve its image and build its cultural influence.” 

According to its website, the goals of the ministry are:

  • To educate Korean people to be cultured and creative citizens
  • To create a society in which leisure and work are in harmony
  • To create a dynamic nation in which various local cultures are represented
  • To enhance public awareness of the national agenda (e.g. green growth) through public relations activities
  • To improve quality of life for citizens by supporting cultural events and activities, sports, tourism, and religious activities

The ministry’s strategy focused on using music to achieve these goals. Decades later, the world is starting to take notice, particularly in the United States who served as the inspiration for the country. Its music culture is known as K-pop. The U.S. has Hollywood, India has Bollywood, and South Korea has K-pop. Do you remember Gangham Style? It has over 2 Billion views on youtube. 

Nickelodeon is even hopping on the bandwagon and launched a show called, “Make it Pop,” which is about three girls attending boarding school who form a K-pop band. The show follows the antics of these three girls as they pursue a musical career. 

According to Wikipedia, since the mid-2000s, the K-pop music market has experienced double digit growth rates. In the first half of 2012, it grossed nearly US$3.4 billion and was recognized by Time magazine as "South Korea's Greatest Export."

HOLD ON. A country created a strategy around culture? Yes, and what’s even more fascinating is witnessing the effects on the entertainment world and influencing South Korea’s reputation in the global market. I would argue that the country’s dedication to its culture and the strategy it implemented is working. It took some time, but with the advent of social media and more connected world, it’s becoming much more prevalent outside its own country.

Some people brush off culture as fluff. It’s not tangible like Finance, and it’s harder to connect to the bottom line. But so many companies have failed because of a toxic culture. Even those who acknowledge its importance fail to spend the time necessary to cultivate it. 

So what can we learn from South Korea that we can apply to our own businesses? Here are my takeaways:

  1. Commit to a culture strategy: South Korea saw the value in investing in their culture and committed the resources necessary to bring it to the global stage.
  2. Gain leadership backing: No one will adhere to desired behaviors if leadership isn’t behind it. The South Korea government created a ministry with a mission, showing the leadership backing for this initiative.
  3. Focus: South Korea could have focused on a number of things to implement its strategy, but it focused on one thing that would have the biggest impact.
  4. Stick with it: Culture doesn’t happen overnight. It’s cultivated and needs to be nurtured, which takes time. Understand that a change won’t happen overnight. South Korea started a concerted effort in the 1990’s and didn’t see returns for a few decades, but it quickly caught on in today’s every connected world.
  5. Balance: Remember, culture is a balance of what exists and what’s desired. South Korea selected a strategy that incorporated an existing talent, but applied resources to bring it to a whole new level. 

Lexi Gordon is a Lead Consultant for exaqueo, a workforce consultancy that helps organizations build their cultures, employer brands and talent strategies. Contact exaqueo to learn more about our employer brand innovation, workforce research, and recruiting strategy offerings.

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