The british ceo who spoke to korean consumers—in korean
In November 2003, struggling Korean automaker GM Daewoo launched a series of television commercials aimed at boosting its sales in Korea. Among other challenges, the company was fighting a public perception problem. Its two main competitors in the Korean market, Hyundai Motor and Kia Motors, were homegrown Korean firms. GM Daewoo, on the other hand, was owned mostly by U.S. automaker General Motors. Polls revealed that the average Korean consumer viewed the company as an outsider with a questionable commitment to the Korean market. The company needed a publicity campaign to establish itself as a “real” Korean firm.
Nick Reilly, the company’s British-born CEO, took the GM Daewoo message to the Korean public. His appearance in Korean television commercials made national news in Korea, and reverberated throughout the global automotive industry. He was, of course, not the first automotive CEO to appear on TV. Jacques Nasser, Lee Iacocca, and several members of the Ford clan have also stepped down from the CEO’s pedestal to directly pitch their company’s wares to consumers.
Nick Reilly’s television appearances made news because the CEO addressed viewers in Korean. Using their own language, Reilly expressed the company’s commitment to Korea, and its desire to be accepted as a truly “Korean” automaker.
Japanese executives from Toyota and Honda regularly address American audiences in English (and Mexican audiences Spanish, etc.) –but this doesn’t make the news. Korean is an especially challenging language; but the reporters who showered so much attention on Reilly’s publicity campaign did not focus on the relative difficulty of the Korean language. The commercials made the news because a high-ranking manager from the English-speaking world was displaying real competency in a foreign language. The Korean-language commercials would likely have been deemed less newsworthy if the GM Daewoo CEO would have been a German or a Japanese national.
Nick Reilly’s Korean television commercials prove that a native English-speaker need not be a professional linguist in order to competently handle a foreign language. Moreover, there is clear evidence that the corporate world values foreign language skills. (Otherwise, U.S. multinationals would not hire so many of the foreign-born educated elite.) Therefore, the next logical question is: Why don’t more American businesspersons learn a foreign language?
“But a Language Isn’t A Business Skill.”
I recall from my undergraduate days a subtle sense of competition that existed between the liberal arts colleges and the business/technical schools. My friends who were liberal arts majors regarded subjects like accounting as hopelessly dry and uninspiring. Business and technical students, meanwhile, dismissed liberal arts courses as impractical annoyances—useful only for fulfilling general studies requirements.
American managers who resist learning languages often assert that “a foreign language isn’t really a business skill.” The irony is that they are right—and profoundly wrong—at the same time. A foreign language isn’t a technical business skill—like calculating present value or deciphering an income statement. A foreign language is a basic competence—more akin to literacy or arithmetic skills than to advanced financial analysis.
Here is another way to look at it: If your work involves the Mexican market and you don’t speak Spanish, then your inability to speak the language prevents you from performing basic tasks. Spanish proficiency, as a skill, is arguably distinct from the skills acquired in an MBA program. But this distinction is irrelevant in the real world. A person working at a professional level in the Mexican market should be able to speak Spanish. This is especially true if the job involves extensive communication and cooperation with others.
Hearts and Minds
Although Nick Reilly’s training in the Korean language might be a story in itself, the important question is: why did the company choose to have Reilly address the Korean public in Korean? From a purely utilitarian standpoint, this wasn’t necessary—and certainly not efficient. Nick Reilly could have appeared in the commercial speaking English, and they could have dubbed a voiceover by a native Korean-speaker. Subtitles could have been used. For that matter, the company could have allowed one of their Korean executives to appear in the commercial, thereby avoiding any tinge of “foreignness.”
Nick Reilly appeared in the commercial because a British CEO who speaks Korean symbolized the company’s commitment to the Korean market more effectively than Korean subtitles, voiceovers, or a Korean-born representative. As is often the case where language is concerned, it was much more than a simple matter of translation.
Foreign language skills allow you to identify more closely with others. The link between language and identity continues to be strong, even in the globalized 21st century. Polls in Russia indicate that businesspersons resent foreigners who want to do business in Russia but refuse to learn the language. (In Chapter 8, we read about a young American who refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance when it was delivered in a language other than English.) Two of the world’s main religions—Judaism and Islam—maintain a strong link between their faith and specific languages (Hebrew and Arabic, respectively).
While a language does not guarantee personal rapport, it can often be the first step to identifying with your audience. When we Americans meet a person abroad who speaks our language, we often assume that they have a knowledge of and appreciation for the United States. When we go to the trouble of learning another language, non-English-speakers give us the same benefit of the doubt.