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Korean firms polish image

OBSERVANT air travellers will have noticed that the names Samsung and Goldstar have supplanted those of Sony and Panasonic on airport luggage trolleys. Samsung and Goldstar, along with Hyundai and Daewoo, are the manufacturing conglomerates that are the cornerstone of Korean industry.

Just before Christmas the Samsung name went up in lights at Piccadilly Circus, and construction began on a £600m plant near Stockton, Cleveland, where the company will make microwave ovens and computer monitors.

Samsung, Korea's largest corporation, unveiled a new logo a couple of years ago. Next month, Goldstar - the third largest - will change its trading name to LG Electronics and unveil its new logo. Both moves are intended to portray a more sophisticated image to Western consumers.

These are just the most obvious signs of expansionism. The two giants of Korean electronics manufacturing are also following their Japanese role models in more significant ways as they seek to consolidate their position as global brands.

One key way in which Japanese manufacturers have been able to create products with character has been by learning more about the cultures of their target markets. Car-makers such as Nissan and Mazda injected creativity into their products when they set up design studios in California.

Their Korean counterparts have not been slow to copy the example. In 1991, Goldstar set up its Design-Tech Studio in Dublin with assistance from the Industrial Development Agency in Ireland. In addition to this European outpost, the company also has small design studios in the United States and Japan, thus covering the "Triad" of the world's three main economic regions as described by McKinsey's well-known management theorist Kenichi Ohmae.

The Goldstar Design-Tech Studio employs Irish designers who work alongside Koreans. The centre hosts occasional international workshops with visiting Korean and European designers and students. lt is the hub through which Goldstar employs leading European design consultancies to produce designs that are appropriate to regional markets. The management structure allows Goldstar to maintain close relations with its chosen consultancies, according to the general manager, Soon-In Lee. "I believe this is a very good way to relate designer and consultant."

Samsung, too, has recently devolved its design activity. The company works closely with the international product design consultancy IDEO, both in London and through a joint venture studio in the US. A key element of Samsung's design strategy is the planning of product ranges that reflect regional differences.