MANILA, Philippines — When I was in college, my roommates and I were driven out of our apartment because a group of Korean English students had rented out the entire building at a rate our landlady could not refuse.

It was quite the hassle finding a new place in such short notice that it spurred forth what I then predicted to be a long-standing grudge not just against my Korean housemates, but Korea in general—as the Avenue Q song goes: “everyone’s a little bit racist!” But then I discovered Kimchi and Bibimbap and Japchae, and even joined the bandwagon of koreanovela viewers at one point, and the grudge was no more.

When I attended a press conference organized by the Management Association of the Philippines (MAP) last week that tackled the Philippines’ need for a country brand, I learned that what I experienced in college was the early beginnings of South Korea’s efforts at country branding.

“South Korea established a presidential council on national branding in 2009,” shares Junie S. Del Mundo, MAP CSR Committee Chair and CEO of EON The Stakeholder Firm. “They wanted to push up the image of South Korea because they had the ulterior motive of increasing the value of their products. Back then, people were thinking that products made in South Korea were inferior to the electronics made in Japan,” he says. Part of South Korea’s country brand strategy was the Korean Wave program, which is responsible for the sudden popularity of Taekwondo, the sending of Koreans all over the world for scholarships and educational programs, and yes, you guessed it: the koreanovela craze.

“Do you think the airway invasion of koreanovelas happened by accident?” Del Mundo asks. “It was part of a strategic plan. Part of the approach of SK’s national branding council is to help South Koreans become global citizens, and this was a good way to promote that.”

The Call for A Philippine Country Brand
For a country that has experienced a series of unfortunate events (the now defunct “Pilipinas Kay Ganda!” fiasco, for one), the Philippines could learn a thing or two from South Korea’s efforts. “In the Corruption Perception Index and in the Global Competitiveness Report, the Philippines has always scored very low; and majority of these are perception-based,” shares Del Mundo.

He points out that developing a Philippine country brand is a crucial step to marketing the Philippines not just as a destination, but as a nation. In response to President Aquino’s clarion call for “Matuwid Na Daan,” the MAP issued a statement calling on the president to form a National Branding Council comprised of public and private sector representatives to make sure that the Philippine brand is defined and fleshed out. “Unless these two work together, the Philippine country brand will not achieve its full potential,” says Del Mundo.

So how exactly do we bridge the perception gap? Del Mundo shares that their consultations and talks with foreigners and friends all over the world revealed an association of the word “Philippines” with “danger, dirty, and disorderly.” “These three Ds are a result of consultations with some foreign businessmen operating in the Philippines,” he shares, adding, “through a country brand, we want to reverse this image. We want them to see the Philippines as a country having a world-class workforce, a hotspot for marine diversity, and a strategic commercial location.”

Going Beyond Tourism
One of the advantages of a strong national brand is that it shields the country from reputational risks. It’s exactly what is happening now in Thailand. “Thailand went through a tsunami, a coup d’état, red shirts, lahat na ng problema they encountered; but in 2010, they registered the highest tourist arrivals, 15.8 million, despite all the trouble they’ve been having,” informs Del Mundo.

Country branding is not just about developing a fancy tagline to serve a tourism purpose. It’s about highlighting the Philippines’ competitive advantage. If Egypt has “Where Civilization Started,” New Zealand has its pristine natural resources and Japan is known for its technology and leading brands, it is no longer sufficient to promote our long beaches because this will hardly differentiate us. It is exactly what went wrong with Pilipinas Kay Ganda (among other things), and we all know we do not want that happening again.

We do not need to look very far, says Del Mundo. “We know that we have a strategic location—we’re in the crossroads of commerce in Asia, and there is a very diverse cultural mix here. It’s the reason why Filipinos are able to adjust easily maski saan mo ilagay sa mundo. That’s the reason why 10 percent of our population are successful living out of the country,” he asserts.

According to MAP, the Filipinos are the brand. “Our competitive advantage is actually us,” he shares, “Filipinos are collaborative, colorful, creative and caring. And if you enhance and highlight these, the Filipinos will hopefully lead to an increase in the competitiveness of our country.” With the Filipino in mind, MAP came up with a visual brand and tagline that they have officially proposed to the government:

“You’ll Love It Here. Mabuhay Philippines!”

“It’s a sentiment shared by the stakeholders that despite the many challenges of living in the Philippines, there is an innate love that we eventually find in our country and the Filipino,” shares Del Mundo. And it goes beyond tourism: “Hopefully this tagline will indeed positively position the Philippines as a brand that can deliver on investments, tourism, export capabilities, credit worthiness, and international diplomacy,” ends Del Mundo.

The question now is: will PNoy listen? The upcoming State of the Nation Address should be interesting.

Published in the July 11, 2011 issue of Manila Bulletin Business Agenda.