The term "We-me" culture was popularized by the author of the book Mastering Noon Nopi, professor Dae Ryun Chang. It explains the changes in Korean society and the effect it has on the business world. Since, understanding it might be helpful for organizations doing business in South Korea or the once planning to enter Korean market, I decided to briefly explain it. To fully understand the phenomenon and its origin, we will first take a look at Korean history.
Traditional Korean ethics originates from Confucianism, which influenced the emotional and intellectual homogenization of Koreans to the point where group consciousness (chuung) virtually replaced their individual awareness.
In Choson dynasty (from 1392 to 1897) the Confucian-dominated court equated group consciousness with morality and made it a law of the land. Throughout the years, the concept of group consciousness became so deeply embedded in psyche of Koreans that we can still sense it.
Although, it is visible within Korean families and in the workplace, it is no longer foundation for all South Korean action. Values and believes of young Koreans are changing. This gave birth to phenomena of We-me culture, culture that is not traditionally collectivistic, nor is it western oriented individualistic culture. It does not fall into ether category, it seems to be both simultaneously.
As a result, we can still see Korean people ordering same dish in a restaurant, no matter their social status, gender and age. Koreans also love sharing food. In South Korea, it is still very common to eat from just one plate/bowl or pass around the cups of soju (Korea's most popular alcoholic beverage).
Koreans also don’t mind wearing same clothes. Not just friends, in South Korea, even a couples do that. This gave birth to a huge market of unisex clothing. Couple t-shirts, hoodies, shoes and even underwear. In South Korea, you can find it all ;)
On the other hand, Koreans are not afraid to show their personal side and express themselves. It is a recent phenomenon. Until not too long ago, if you told someone that he has strong individualism, he wouldn’t be happy to hear it. There used to be a very thin line between the Korean meaning of individualism and selfishness. Therefore, saying this to slightly intoxicated guy on a Friday night, might even get you into some real trouble. Luckily this isn’t the case anymore. Nowadays it’s perceived as a compliment, it means that a person is creative and self-initiative.
Consequently, there are more and more people, who want to be unique and stand out. They want to express themselves and show what they stand for. All those changes are making Korean a unique market place.
Since the We-me culture is something western managers are not familiar with, it represents them a big challenge. They have extremely hard time distinguishing between the old morality of chung and the new morality based on the rights and welfare of individual. They face those problems when dealing with employees, suppliers and most importantly, customers.
In order to successfully operate in Korean market, you really need to dig deep inside the mind of your customers and get to know them. One of the crucial things you need to figure out, is their classification of the product you’re selling. You need to know if you are selling a product which can be considered as “We” oriented, “Me” oriented or a product which is a combination of “We” and “Me”.
An Example of “We” oriented product would be soju or ramyun noodles, something that all the people consume. When it comes to “Me” oriented products, fashion items like Chanel bag would be good example. With those, Koreans want to be different and stand out.
The last category are “We-me” oriented products. A great example of “We-me” product would be university jacket. In South Korea that’s a big thing, almost every student has one. Despite of the fact that they all look the same and everyone wears them, there is a “me” side to it. On every jacket, there is a name of the university as well as department where they are studying, sometimes even a name of the student. This perfectly, shows how they all want to wear those jackets and be different at the same time.
So how do we deal with this phenomena?
Firstly, we need to get into the minds of our customers, analyze their behavior and classify our product. Once you figure that out, it’s time to adjust the product we’re selling, in some cases even a business model.
Be warned that the strategies used in the west won’t directly apply to unique Korean market. In South Korea, adaptation isn’t an options, it’s an oxygen! In other words, it’s the crucial factors for your success. Therefore, tailor the product to your customer’s needs. Match their expectations and accordingly determine the marketing channel, price as well as promotion techniques.
More about South Korea, cultural differences, business etiquette and the way Koreans do business will be covered in the following articles. Stay tuned ;)
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