Strategic branding

A Korean Genius on Branding

Sam Frentzel-Beyme Follow Managing Partner & Strategy Director

The Short of It

  • Learning from genius can provide unique insights.
  • Organizations would do better to focus on who they are first.
  • Once they are clear on this, they can focus on what they do.


In addition to stopping at every used book table I can find to see what I might stumble upon, I’m also a big fan of old magazines. Apart from some of the amazing art and photography work in some of the bigger publications, I like the fact that they are usually about contemporary topics of the day and are thus prone in tone towards that certain sense of urgency that defines periodicals.

One interesting article was in a February 1967 issue of Look magazine, which was known as the “also-ran” to Life magazine, and ran from 1937 to 1971 (it also happened to be the place that Stanley Kubrick got his start as a photographer). The article was titled, “Korea’s 2 ½ Year-old Genius”. We’ve all heard similar “Good Will Hunting” stories, but by a lot of standards Ung Yong was in a pretty unique league – he was listed in the Guiness Book of World Records under “Highest IQ”.

At three months Ung was greeting his parents in the Korean versions of mama and dada. By five months he was walking and talking. By seven months he began writing and picked up Oriental chess just by watching. Now at two and a half (in 1967), he speaks Korean, Chinese, German and English, writes poetry and paints. He has also published his first book, Ask a Star, which was a collection of poems, essays and letters. On intelligence tests for seven year olds, Ung scores over 200.

But what really piqued my curiosity, in addition to his thoughts on reuniting Korea, putting Vietnam back together and moon control as a means of obtaining world power (a point that actually has been addressed in George Friedman’s The Next 100 Years published in 2009) was his quote: “I want to be President in future.” This was at two and half years old.

After reading about such a gifted individual, I was eager to see what he had become some forty years later. A great politician, possibly. Or maybe a teacher like his father who was a physics professor at Hang Yang University or mother who was a professor of hygiene at Seoul National University. Whatever it was, surely it would be monumental. I was surprised by what I found.

According an October 10 article in Hanopolis, a Korea and East Asia related news and discussion site, Kim was invited at age eight by NASA and conducted research work there for about 10 years eventually getting a PhD in physics from Colorado State University.

However, by 1978 he decided to return to Korea. Eventually switching from physics to civil engineering, he began working in a planning department at a local company. Burnout seemed pretty clear. The Korean media called him a “failed genius”.

The interesting part is that according to Kim, that with his new life he was never happier. Of his early NASA career, he said, “At that time, I led my life like a machine -- I woke up, solved the daily assigned equation, ate, slept, and so forth. I really didn’t know what I was doing, and I was lonely and had no friends.”

What he really wanted was the normal experiences that we probably all take very much for granted. About his education process up to that point, he went on to say, “At school, I lived my freshmen year as an elementary school kid, my sophomore year as a middle schooler, my junior year as a high school student, and spent my senior year like a normal college kid.”

So after getting back to Korea, and having to redo all of his exams from elementary school onwards, he decided to go back to a university just outside Seoul saying, “...I wanted to attend a university, rather than get a job right away. I wanted to attend school with friends my age, and outside of Seoul, where I thought I would receive less attention.” Basically, he wanted a life that was of his own choosing.

And that’s one of the things that really stood out for me. Taking the time, regardless of the initial pain to define your own reality. It is very easy for the groups around us to subconsciously dictate what we should do and at some point it can become simply easier to just follow along based on everyone's expectations - even when we really don't want to. But according to Kim, happiness is really about making your own decisions – about personal choice. Kim says, “I consider my life a success -- there aren’t many people who do what they really want to do, but I do. That is what you call success, what else do you call a happy life?”

As I will be prone to do throughout a lot of these post, I can’t help but relate this to branding. So often I see companies that are afraid to make a hard decision about what they do or what they offer because they don’t want to “limit” themselves. The reality is that this is really just doing what everyone else thinks you should be doing rather than doing what you really believe. Based on what I see, I think that business success is the organizational version of personal happiness. It starts from the inside.

If Kim’s take is any hint, it means that organizations would do best to first focus on who they are before they get too far into what they do.

There are some other interesting things about this post related to education, that I'll come back in another post.

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