Do you like having a fast mobile internet connection? All carriers in South Korea have offered long-term evolution (4G) connectivity since 2012. How about a strong signal? Since last year, the entire country has had LTE coverage. Wi-Fi is also widely available, so it’s common to find people watching TV on the subway, on a bus or while driving their cars (not recommended). South Korea’s carriers are currently working on 5G, which will drive further media landscape evolution.
How about contactless payments? The Oyster card was introduced in the UK in 2003. South Korea had already been operating a cashless payment system, called Upass, since 1996. These days, Apple Pay is fighting to gain acceptance and Samsung Pay is soon to launch, but consumers are already using their phones to pay in taxis, subways, convenience stores and coffee shops.
High-speed connectivity makes South Korea an ideal market to test digital activity
Ubiquitous high-speed connectivity makes South Korea an ideal market to test and observe consumer digital activity. Some brands have recognised the opportunity to develop and refine new concepts here before global roll-out. For example, Starbucks developed the Siren Order app in Korea, which enabled customers to order and pay in advance. After a successful pilot, Starbucks took the model to the US as Mobile Order & Pay. Tesco’s Homeplus piloted out-of-home shopping in the Seoul subway. Burberry’s first Beauty Box store outside London was opened in Seoul, containing a digital lip and nail bar as well as mobile checkout.
South Korea’s advanced technology infrastructure has enabled the rapid proliferation of the country’s culture beyond its borders. However, some idiosyncrasies remain. In 1999, the government mandated that all online transactions must utilise Microsoft’s ActiveX, a requirement that has only recently been dropped. Psy’s Gangnam Style, the most-viewed YouTube video of all time with more than 2.3 billion views, isn’t a celebration of local culture but a sarcastic criticism of its excess. And while a hyper-wired country might seem to be a great place to incubate the next "Facebook of this", "Uber of that" and "Airbnb of the other", government regulations on capital investment dampen the enthusiasm of would-be entrepreneurs.
Despite these challenges, the inherent optimism of Koreans continues to drive market innovation. So don’t be surprised if you are soon asked by a friend to KakaoTalk, invited to watch a Mok-Bang or find yourself surfing on a hallyu wave.
Peter Kim is the chief digital officer at Cheil Worldwide