Kun Hee Lee
(ATR) Kun Hee Lee transformed his family’s manufacturing business into a global brand with
the help of the Olympics as a marketing strategy.
Lee, 78, died Oct. 25 in Seoul. Lee has been out of the public eye since a heart attack in 2014, but he remained chairman of Samsung Electronics up until his death.
He became the leader of the company in 1987, advancing the range and quality of Samsung products. Under his watch Samsung became a global brand for smartphones, televisions, computer chips and household appliances.
Lee’s son, Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Jae-Yong Lee, is set to take over from his father.
Lee recognized the role that sponsorship of sport could play in growing the business, says sports marketing consultant Ho Kim, who was part of the team working for the chairman’s office in the 1990s.
“He supported Samsung to own various sports teams including baseball, basketball, football, volleyball, table tennis and also supported various athletes as their sponsors. Thus, their contribution in the Korean Sports was tremendous,” says Kim.
“Whenever Korea hosted the major International events including the Olympic Games, World Cup, World Athletics, Asian Games, etc., Samsung always sponsored these games and supported them."
But it wasn’t until 1997 that Samsung had the opportunity to become a worldwide sponsor says Kim.
“When we received a call from [IOC marketing agency] Meridien in 1997 that IOC decided not to go ahead with [mobile phone sponsor] Motorola, Lee immediately approved pursuit of the Olympic Sponsorship and signed the agreement with IOC President Samaranch in three months, which was the shortest period to enter the agreement. Through this Olympic sponsorship, Samsung has stood up higher than any other companies in Korea in regard to the level of contribution for the Korean Sports. As an Olympic Sponsor, Samsung was involved in increasing the country's image via sports to the world,” Kim said.
Michael Payne was the marketing director at that time for the IOC.
was the key driver behind the TOP decision and the program was then run for at least two cycles directly from the chairman's office not the marketing department,” Payne tells Around the Rings
“The original deal for mobile phones surprised even the Korean press, as Samsung was nowhere near a global player at the time.
“Lee had the vision to understand how TOP could catapult Samsung onto the global stage. The rest, as they say, is history,” Payne says.
IOC doyen Richard Pound was chair of the IOC Marketing Commission as Lee and Samsung began the company's now three decade link to the Olympics.
"Lee was pretty good at keeping out of the limelight, but I am sure he had a good grip on any major policy issues and that nothing as important as a worldwide Olympic sponsorship would have happened without his interest and approval.
"I was getting near the end of my run as IOC Marketing Commission chairman as the Samsung sponsorship evolved and expanded to the worldwide level, but it was fun to see the development of both the sponsorship and the underlying technology," Pound tells Around the Rings.
Lee was elected to the IOC in 1996 but kept a low key presence, as Pound notes. Lee's main interest was the pursuit of a Winter Olympics for South Korea, a goal he helped attain in 2011 on the third try from Pyeongchang.
Lee found himself the object of criminal charges in 2006 over financial dealings with family members. He was found guilty but pardoned two years later so that he could campaign for the Pyeongchang Olympic bid. His pardon was made possible by a bribe for the President of Korea.
“I believe the Korean people appreciated what he has done for economic development in Korea. No matter what he had done in the past, we, the Koreans all have pure and great respect for him and his dedication to our country,” says Kim.
Lee’s legal problems also led to a suspension of his IOC membership, which was restored in 2009.
While his attendance at IOC Sessions was sporadic, Lee’s heart attack in 2014 kept him from those meetings for good until resigning in 2017. He was named an honorary IOC member after stepping down.
IOC President Thomas Bach praised Lee’s involvement in the Olympics in a statement from IOC headquarters.
“Lee Kun-hee made a great contribution to the Olympic Movement and the success of the Olympic Games by not only making Samsung a TOP Partner of the IOC, but also by promoting the Olympic Games worldwide and by fostering the bond between sport and culture. This Olympic legacy of Lee Kun-hee will continue to live on. To commemorate him, the IOC will fly the Olympic flag at half-mast in Lausanne,” said the IOC president.
Written by Ed Hula
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