Stuart Wood, a founding partner of design agency Missouri Creative in London, points to Asia’s rising cultural influence—from K-pop to TikTok—as a soft yet powerful facet of its 21st century leadership.
Global Finance: Soft power is in part a country’s impact on others via culture. Why is it important?
Stuart Wood: When it comes to global leadership, facts and figures tell only part of the story. While the US was the undoubted economic powerhouse of the past century, it was as much its cultural cachet that rooted it in the world’s collective memory. Hollywood, US pop music (from Elvis to hip-hop), fashion, literature and brands such as Ford, Nike, Microsoft, Coca-Cola and McDonald’s—for better or worse—signposted America’s role in the world. The American Dream is not a replacement for US military or economic power but an addition to it. The ability to make friends and influence people can be a valuable strategic tool in achieving prosperity and security. Culture, brands, reputation and values are all crucial parts of that.
GF: Is Asia poised to play a similar cultural and creative role?
Wood: It’s important to recognize that Asia includes multiple cultures and countries at different stages of development. For instance, Japan emerged initially as a producer of generic, cheap manufactured goods before becoming admired worldwide for innovations such as the Walkman in the late 1970s. Now it is as much known for its culture and creative brands, such as Issey Miyake, as for the electronics that made its name.
Other countries will follow a similar pattern to Japan. In China, perfection is deemed to come from the ability to copy perfectly. That strategy has served the country well, enabling it to produce smartphones, TVs and electric cars that rival some of the best in the world. Now China is at a tipping point in terms of creativity. There is a critical mass of young, creative, domestically educated Chinese who, leveraging China’s ability to produce cheaply and rapidly, are potentially world beating. Digitization can act as a powerful catalyst of this process: China’s TikTok launched globally only in 2017 but by 2020 had 800 million users worldwide, including 90 million in the US. China recognizes at an official level the value of soft power: That’s why it supports Mandarin language learning programs at schools worldwide, for example.
GF: Which country is leading Asia’s soft power charge?
Wood: Korea is important. Just two decades ago, the idea that it would be a major global force in pop music, could win a Best Film Oscar (for Parasite) or be among the biggest innovators in consumer products was unlikely. But Korea’s success highlights two seemingly contradictory forces. The first is that today’s younger consumers have a borderless attitude: They don’t see K-pop—or China’s TikTok for that matter—as Asian. The second is that there is a strong global demand to tap into what is perceived as an Eastern culture of wellness, health and beauty, as the huge international success of Korean cosmetics brands shows.
GF: Asia’s economic growth is likely to continue to outpace Europe and the US. So why are Asian companies looking overseas?
Wood: China’s economy may soon match the US in size, but the people’s spending is just a third as large. It could take another half-century to reach equal spending [per capita]: The US and Europe remain lucrative markets. At the same time, brands—and the countries they come from—want acceptance, validation and the soft power that comes from being a big name on the world stage.