South Korea: Samsung, patriots and the iPhone

[Global Voices authors occasionally submit articles to The Economist's Babbage blog about technology. This story was originally published on August 2, 2010. Read more about our partnership here.]

Global Voices and The EconomistSAMSUNG ELECTRONICS, the world's largest technology company, is based in a country sometimes called “The Samsung Republic”, but known to most as the Republic of Korea. South Koreans glow with pride when they introduce the company’s products to foreigners. The country teaches its schoolchildren that a local-brand purchase is an act of patriotism, and often criticisms to Samsung are understood as an insult to its creator, the South Korean government.

Enter the iPhone of Cupertino, California. Samsung is like a national technological language; Apple products often crash when connected to Korean laptops. iPhone users, as elsewhere in the world, are seen as smug. In an online forum sponsored by LG, another South Korean electronics firm, commenters describe iPhone users as “superior” and having “infinite pride”.

And in June of this year, Samsung launched its Galaxy S on the same day Apple launched its iPhone 4. The South Korean media set off a volley of criticism of the iPhone. The country’s biggest news agency, Yonhap, misquoted a Financial Times article to produce the headline “FT reported Galaxy S as the iPhone killer”. Other papers followed Yonhap's lead. The FT's headline reads, in fact, “Hopeful Samsung wheels out a would-be iPhone killer“, and concludes

Analysts say Samsung will be able to gain market share with the GalaxyS, especially as the delivery and teething problems of the iPhone 4 could prompt consumers to consider alternatives. However, they doubt the GalaxyS can become the iPhone killer, despite its strong hardware. They say Samsung should differentiate its phones in content and applications so as to steal share from rivals.

Other papers followed Yonhap’s lead. From Djhan, a blogger (KR),

Newspaper, magazines and power-bloggers are making hectic efforts to praise the Galaxy S as the ultimate iPhone killer. Galaxy S is a good product, but I am so sick of those ‘iPhone killer phones’ comments.

Maroniever, another tech blogger, was also pleasantly surprised by the Galaxy S and annoyed by the media’s biased reports (KR). He suspected that Samsung may have been behind them.

The older generation is quite loyal to local brands. The current generation, however, grew up exposed to global brands, and they came to develop a clear preference. This means that the patriotism card no longer works… Smart-phones and new technology require a different approach from the strategies used to sell other products.

Pity then poor Chung Yong-Jin, vice-chairman of Shinsegae Group and grandson of the founder of Samsung. In the week after the double launch Mr Chung told his nearly 30 thousand Twitter followers that his Galaxy S had crashed and left him, like a child, defenseless in a foreign land. A row followed. Samsung Electronics apologised publicly for the inconvenience and offered instructions for a fix, which included cleaning contacts with a cotton swab. Mr Chung explained, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, that his message had been between him and the country’s iPhone users, and that he had intended no aggression toward Samsung's phone.

On July 17th Apple decided to leave South Korea out of the iPhone 4’s second release, explaining that it had faced a delay in receiving government approval. And so the new iPhone, a “next-month phone”, became a “next-next-month phone” (KR). South Koreans are rational consumers. They don’t deny the quality of the Galaxy S, and are well aware of iPhone 4’s reception problems; they are just not thrilled at being pushed into buying Samsung. Patriotic guilt is more likely to drive them to the imperfect iPhone 4 like a teenager with daddy issues; after the next-next-month release, it won’t take long for young South Koreans to leave Samsung at the altar.

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