Study Abroad in South Korea: Observing Individualism in a Collectivist Culture

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Amanda Womack
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Last summer I studied abroad to Japan and South Korea with the Reed College of Media at West Virginia University. The first half of the trip was spent in Tokyo, exploring their culture and mass communication in the media. The second half of the trip was spent exploring Seoul and all of the cultural and communication in the media differences between the two vibrant cities. While exploring Seoul, I was introduced to cultural norms that I have not witnessed so drastically before. 

Individualism through fashion

As I walked past packed consumers in huge shopping districts, dripping in Gucci and Balenciaga, I quickly realized how important material items are for South Koreans. It was also evident that the young Koreans were aware of the latest fashion trends and wanted to show their peers that they were put together and always wearing what was in style. The young Koreans also practiced individualism through their style; they really expressed themselves through fashion. Since South Korea is normally a collectivist society, I found it interesting that the teenagers and young adults tried to break that societal norm through their fashion. 

Despite the lack of individualism in the older generation’s fashion, they were still up-to-date on the trends and always perceived to look professional and put together. It was very evident that physical appearance is an important aspect of their lives. 

E-commerce trends for marketers

After doing some research about South Korea and its marketing strategies, I came upon an article that went into more detail regarding Korean’s e-commerce presence in particular. I found this section intriguing because there were so many filled brick and mortar stores throughout the city. E-commerce sales make up over 20 percent of total retail sales in Korea. A lot of this is because of the fact that South Korea has the “highest internet penetration rate in that region.” With consumers constantly online and their smartphones being their number one rated device for online shopping, it is efficient for them to make their purchases there rather than in store. 

Marketers need to notice this and be proactive about it. One of the main ways they can go about this is through social media. In 2017, 84 percent of the Korean population was an active social media user and that number has gone up. Marketers can use social media influencers as opinion leaders and place advertisements on social media to market to the 84 percent of users. The main social media platform used among the consumers is Facebook; it is also the most used social media among companies in South Korea. With that being said, Facebook would be the best outlet for marketers to put advertisements. 

While studying abroad in Tokyo and Seoul, I immersed myself in the eastern culture and all of the differences it has from western culture. I learned how important physical image is to Koreans and how marketers can take that and use it to their advantage. Due to their access to such good internet infrastructure, Koreans are constantly on their mobile devices and purchasing products from them. South Korea is a great place for marketers to get involved in the consumer’s materialistic and tech savvy culture. 

Going abroad gave me a great look into another country and afforded me the chance to apply my academic studies to a specific industry. I highly recommend studying abroad to college students considering the opportunity. 



South Korea: Buying and Selling. Export Enterprise, 2016. Nordea. Accessed 30 May 2019.