The Big Interview: LG's senior director of global comms Ken Hong

Helming comms for one of the biggest tech brands in the world isn't always smooth sailing. From better ROI, improving product lifecycle comms and navigating fragmented digital channels, Ken Hong explains why complacency is the fast track to irrelevance.

Ken Hong
Ken Hong

Ken Hong is never satisfied. At least not in his work.

Satisfaction breeds complacency, and when you’re senior director of global communications at one of Korea’s largest technology companies, complacency can be fatal.

"I don’t think anyone is 100 percent sure that this is a lasting or solid development," he admits frankly. "We could lose it at anytime; there’s nothing to tell us that this is going to last. In our business I think we’re always reinventing ourselves."

Reinvention has been key to LG’s success over the past decade or so and is now firmly established as a leading tech brand in numerous markets.

The company began as an appliances manufacturer and remains strong in that department, but it is the tech side of the business that is globally recognised by most consumers who know the name.

That might sound great to most, but as mentioned earlier, Hong doesn’t really do satisfied, even when things are on the up. He tells PRWeek Asia, very simply, that he’s had too much experience with the tech sector for that.

"You’ll read about LG making management and organisational changes even when we’re doing well, because we’re never satisfied with just being number two or even one in some product categories. That’s because we’ve seen other players in the industry fall very quickly," he says.

"You look at the mobile phone space and I don’t have to give you names, you can see right away that there are major players from five years ago that are a non-issue nowadays. I think history is very clear in that it repeats itself."

All that said, LG – along with other local brands including its main rival Samsung – is one of the standard bearers that has put Korean tech on the map, with a diverse portfolio of high-spec products.

And yet, for Hong, there is plenty of work to do from a branding standpoint.

"I mean, there are still pockets of the world where they still think LG is a Japanese company," he half-jokes. "So I think when it comes to branding, we’re still far behind some of the industry leaders.

"LG would not be top of mind if you were to ask someone in China, let’s say, to name the top five mobile phone brands. We would not be top three in Japan if you asked about TVs. So there’s still a lot of progress to be made and that gives us something to shoot for. We’re not complacent or satisfied with where we are in every part of the world."

There is a refreshing frankness and determination to remain grounded that permeates Hong’s comments and attitude when it comes to PR in the tech sector.

In a market where it’s all too easy to get carried away on the wave of new buzzwords, apps and products, he is altogether more cautious when discussing LG’s prospects for 2016.

"This is going to be a tough year, everyone’s battening down the hatches," he admits. "We’re being cautious about doing too many things that aren’t going to bring strong ROI.

"When times are good, you can do a lot of things off the cuff, but generally in a large company like LG, when the economic forecast is not that positive, everything’s got to account for something. That’s the phase I think we’re about to enter this year."

For the communications division, that translates to Hong carefully picking the strategies and projects LG is pursuing. The pursuit of the best ROI, he says, has meant a lot of investment in digital and measurement.

"We would love to have endless resources to do some of the stuff we’ve been planning on, but we’re going to have to choose our priorities," he explains.

"For this year I would love to see us move toward more of a total measurement type of strategy, where earned and paid and everything is kind of lumped into one formula so we don’t have to separate digital, social media, traditional PR metrics."

Integration is the topic of the moment across PR and Hong is keen to implement it across LG’s global communications team. However, after a long agency career working with lots of multinationals, and now a senior position inside a big corporate, he knows this is far easier said than done.

"I think with a lot of large companies, you have so many silos, people want their own systems, they want to be able to control their own metrics," he suggests. "So you end up having to negotiate a lot and sometimes the end product isn’t what you want; sometimes it’s close enough, sometimes it’s too far away.

"But that’s what I’m thinking of, trying to pull in different divisions of our organisation so we can pool all our resources and stop thinking traditional media versus online versus social. We’re at that point where we can have the discussion; whether or not we are ready to move in that direction is another question."

In fact, Hong says it is the PR agencies that are leading the way when it comes to integrated comms, with most brands playing catch up.

"I think agencies tend to be a lot further ahead than us in thinking that way. My experience has been that companies like us, I mean, LG is a tech company but it’s also a manufacturer, and manufacturers tend to be very conservative. So a lot of agencies may bring great ideas but it’s always the clients that need to change."

It is his agency background that Hong says drives his approach at LG. Having spent over a decade at the likes of MSLGroup and Weber Shandwick, working in China, Thailand, Hong Kong and the US, Hong has pooled his experience and brought it to LG, a brand close to his heart as it is from his native Korea.

"At the time I was thinking I’d love to take everything I’ve gathered and bring it to one organisation that I have a particular affinity for," he explains. "With LG being a Korean company with products that I had already owned, it was kind of a no-brainer to move back to Korea."

Joining the PR industry was no accident either, Hong states. Coming out of college, he knew he liked arguing – "I love to sell" – and writing, so the two paths he considered were law or communications. He chose the latter and hasn’t looked back since.

"My very first objective out of college was either go to law school, or get a job at an agency. Luckily one of those two things happened. One was cheaper than the other too!" he says with a smile.

While Hong is clearly progressive in his outlook for LG’s comms outfit, he’s not about change for change’s sake.

That can seep in when brands are looking to fully embrace digital without sufficient planning, particularly in Asia, with its ‘mobile first’ status and myriad channels and platforms. These can sometimes leads to businesses going all out to chase the millennial dollar without due consideration.

For Hong, it’s about targeting the right platforms with the right messages at the right time.

"Of course, I’m not saying we do all of it that well. There are some areas like Snapchat or Instagram where we’re still way behind some of our competitors. But again, we know where we need to be, we don’t forget the target, it’s just a matter of how long it’s going to take us to get there," he says frankly.

"Even myself, and I consider myself pretty open-minded when it comes to all things digital, I’m still not sure how we would promote ourselves on Snapchat. I’ve no idea how to use Pinterest for our benefit. So even though I use these platforms, I’m not convinced all of them are right for us. They’re there, they’re free, but I’m just not sure we need to be putting resources towards them on a global scale."

Moreover, while digital is inevitable, Hong says putting it ahead of everything else could be unwise.

"Everyone’s going to have to go digital. But then you look at some of the other reports coming out of Madison Avenue, you know, and TV ads right now are more expensive than ever," he says.

"So you have to think: what’s actually happened? And I think that as much as things change, they remain the same. Even though everyone is on digital, it’s not that they’ve abandoned the traditional."

As such, resources must be deployed with nigh-on surgical precision in the tech space, Hong says, and spreading your comms strategy thinly across multiple platforms is a risky business. Why the precision? Simple, he says: a lack of brand loyalty.

"The lack of loyalty in the consumer tech space is a big thing. I don’t know, beyond let’s say Apple, that consumers have a loyalty to brands; they just want the best technology," Hong says. "I think companies like Apple are the exception, not the rule, so for tech companies to look to them as a kind of template is wrong.

"They had many, many decades of difficult times to get to where they are. We did not. It’s just not the same model to emulate, and beyond one or two exceptions, the rest of us are all in the same category. We have to win every single customer over and over again with every product."

The only way to do this, states Hong, is to "innovate your way to the top".

"A lot of the stuff that we’re communicating nowadays is about being first, or best, or fastest, or biggest," he says. "In our early days, there were a lot of products that you could say we were fast followers. We can’t live on that formula now, that won’t work for us anymore."

While product launches are among the most fundamental parts of LG’s brand-building and comms strategy, Hong says the picture is more complicated when it comes to staying in touch with consumers.

"We don’t just want to rely on new product launches as our only source of content. We have to look at products that have been out there for a while," he explains. "TVs are not something you’re going to buy every year. So how do we communicate TV technology over the lifecycle of that product?

"Having that appliance DNA as part of LG makes us want to focus on things beyond new product launches, and I think that’s good for us. It makes us very diverse and a little bit more open-minded on how we communicate."

For now, Hong and LG are looking at growth in the Middle East, Africa and parts of Southeast Asia, while also focusing on their core revenue-generating markets.

The key for growth, he says, is finding "local solutions to global problems" and then implementing a targeted comms strategy, whether it’s traditional, digital, or both.

"There is no one answer to the digital versus traditional versus broadcast question. You just have to be very flexible," he says. "You can’t take your eye off the global objective but you’ve got to let the local experts lead the way when it comes to implementation."

For all the progress LG has made in core markets in a relatively short space of time, there is still plenty for Hong and his global comms team to sink their teeth into.

In fact, given his aversion to complacency, there probably always will be.

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