Q&A with American Businessperson about Gift-Giving in Korea

Having published my executive report “The Top Ten Gifts to Give in Korea to Make a Great Impression”, I get a steady flow of questions asking me for advice in specific gift-giving situations. Here’s a question I received recently:

“I am an American businessman meeting with a Korean company Chungbuk and want to bring appropriate gifts for the meeting. We are meeting to finalize the terms of a contract… hopefully. We have met before in the US. I was thinking about giving Godiva chocolate in a brown box with eight truffles. I was also thinking to have a brown ribbon around each box with customized gold printing on it with a personalized message of success. Is this a good idea? If it is, what should the message on the ribbon say? Can I use our company names together or would that be too presumptuous? If not, what would you suggest?

And my answer:

The gift of chocolates is a fine idea; I would encourage you to give those. But given alone, they may be more suitable for a future visit after business gets rolling. 

The reason is that this visit is a very special one, since it (hopefully) represents the beginning of business. The most effective gift would be something that remains as a reminder, not something that gets eaten or drunk. What we’d recommend is a gift that compels your Korean counterparts to remember you on a regular basis. A nicely framed photo of you and your team standing out in front of your US office, with a message written over the photo itself or onto a metal plate on the frame would be good. The message might say something like “[Your company] – Korea Visit 2013” on the first line and “We Wish You The Best of Business Success!” on the second line. (You don’t necessary want to include both company names here since that could look presumptuous.)

If you’re like me and work a bit more virtually so that you don’t have a big office with 25 employees, then the alternative could be a framed photo of something that would be worthy of hanging on the wall and that could be associated with you. As you’re out of Chicago, I like the idea of a nicely framed photo of the Chicago skyline, along with the metal plated message in the frame. This is the kind of thing that would definitely be hung on the wall, observed and remembered, which is exactly what you want.

You mentioned the ribbons; the concept in Korea may be a bit different than you’re thinking though. If your negotiations were completed and you were just coming over for the signing ceremony, then flowers with ribbons might be a part of the ceremony. These are also used for the opening of a new office or retail establishment. Here are a few examples – 

However, these types of flowers are generally given by others; not the actual parties to the transaction. Anyway, since you’re not done with the negotiations, it could look a bit odd to start acting like it’s a done deal.

On the other hand, if you were to wrap the gift (it should be wrapped) in extra nice ribbons on which you include an extra gold-lettered message, that would also be a nice touch. Perhaps this could have a slightly more assuming message, something like “We look forward to a long, successful business relationship with XX Company!”

And BTW, there’s nothing wrong with bringing a few chocolates too; I just wouldn’t make that the main gift at this point. In the future though, you won’t need to upstage consumable gifts with something permanent like I’ve described above.

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