Tina Kanagaratnam is the CEO of the Shanghai-based PR firm, Asia Media. At a Choson Exchange workshop in 2013 she was trying to explain to her students the relationship between PR and advertising and was struggling.
"I did it twice - once in the larger group, and the second time in the smaller group, because obviously it wasn’t coming through. I finally related it to propaganda, all the banners and signs that were around, and explained that PR was essentially propaganda for brands."
The lights came on. This was a concept they got, but Tina had also inadvertently touched upon a problem that North Korean businesspeople have. How do you communicate about your brand and get people to connect to your products when most spaces that we would consider fair game for advertising and PR are essentially monopolized by ads for one set of things? (Those things being the country, the system and the leadership.) After all, a very basic role for advertising is brand-recognition. If your company can't get into newspapers, on buildings, buses, apps and whatnot, how can you let people know you exist?
The spaces for this kind of branding are still small in the DPRK, compared to many places, but seem to be expanding.
Until this recent expansion, perhaps the only overt outdoor advertising that has been around for a decade or so, is for Pyonghwa Motors, which was originally a joint venture between South Korea’s Unification Church and Ryonbong General Corp., a North Korean state owned enterprise. It's now fully DPRK-owned, but still has a few billboards around the city. Those ads, interestingly, lean on slogans such as the one in this picture, exhorting Koreans to make efforts to go "to the world". These slogans are borrowed from popular phrases in state propaganda campaigns. Still, these four or five billboards are the only ones of their kind.
Billboards at events are a new space that's opened up in the last year or so, with advertisements at sporting events. We were extremely interested to see something totally new this year at the Pyongyang Marathon, in April. Not only were there advertisements on the perimeter boards around the track, there was also a main event sponsor. A ginseng company had their name on billboards both inside and outside the event as well as atop every runner's race number. They also - and this is essentially unprecedented in the DPRK - were giving out free samples. The product was of a sugary ginseng tonic, which was actually pretty delicious. (And it worked on this author: he bought one later in the week. And he normally hates ginseng stuff.)
Another relatively new avenue amounts to something like an television infomercial. On the weekends, the DPRK runs a second TV Channel, Mansudae, which broadcasts educational material. Think Discovery Channel, before it was 100% sharks, ghosts and aliens. This channel now appears to air occasional commercials. At the 55 minute mark of the video below, note how the Korean guiding a photographer at the Pyongyang Spring International Trade Fair grasps towards a description of this new concept: "it just came up...and disappears!"
The trade fairs themselves are are of course platforms to increase brand awareness. Indeed, the two annually in Pyongyang and one in Rason have become mainly consumer shows, where crowds flock to find out what's new. There may not be a more important event all year for newer companies and products to get exposure. If you have 75 minutes to watch the entire video, you can find out exactly what those products are this year. (For those of you without the time, they include canned beer, curve-screen TVs and Italian kitchens.)
Another new and unique venue for advertising is on video panels in the new Pyongyang subway trains, which were introduced just this year. The new rolling stock features screens in each car that in April ran ads for a type of heart medication. (You can catch a glimpse below at the 27-second mark.) Other videos appear to show a commercial involving a child, so perhaps the ads rotate and space is sold on a monthly basis.
Overall, much of Pyongyang has developed into a nascent consumer society. The choices people have for both imported and locally made goods is very high indeed when compared with just a few years ago. In Choson Exchange workshops we've often covered the need and means for differentiating yourself in a competitive marketplace.
Despite the challenges, this is the environment DPRK companies are simultaneously facing and creating. Getting their name out there is more important than ever.