Sophistication of Korean culture
Forget hallyu and K-pop. Instead, culture branders should focus on what unique Korean cultural products have the potential for enduring appeal on the world stage. Hallyu and K-pop have done much, perhaps more than anything else, to stir interest in Korea, but they are essentially ephemeral. Trends change quickly, and what is popular today is not popular tomorrow.
Which Korean cultural products have the greatest potential for enduring appeal? Four come to mind: architecture, food (particularly ``namul"), music, and pottery. The first two are basic to human life; people need shelter to protect themselves from the elements and food for sustenance. The second two are reflections of the development of civilization beyond the basics; they meet higher aesthetic needs.
The recent boom in hanok, or traditional-style Korean houses, reflects the strong appeal of Korean architecture. Koreans and foreigners alike find hanok to be a welcome relief from the mundane forms of architecture that fill Korean cities. For foreigners who stay in a hanok guesthouse and who visit one or more of the royal palaces, Korean architecture is a dominant them of their visit. Buddhist temples, many of which are the best examples of Korean architecture, are also popular with tourists. Temples and royal palaces have long been popular with foreign tourists.
When people think of Korean food, they usually think of kimchi first. Culture branders often focus exclusively on cabbage kimchi at the expensive of other types of food. This is regrettable because kimchi is interesting for its diversity. Namul is unique to Korea; no other cuisine makes as wide use of greens and roots. The combination of namul with various types of kimchi creates a wonderfully diverse and healthy eating experience. When presented with such a wide assortment, foreigners gravitate to namul because it is usually not as spicy as kimchi.
With so much interest in K-pop, traditional music has received even less attention than in the past. To be sure, traditional music is an acquired taste, even for younger generations of Koreans. On first listen, it sounds alien, but the sounds appeal to a sense of exoticism, becoming addictive in the process. Instrumental music has more appeal than vocal music because there is not pressure to understand the lyrics. Like other forms of classical music, traditional Korean music is enduring and stable aesthetic that lasts.
Finally, there is Korean pottery. Goryeo celadon and Joseon buncheong ceramics have long been popular with foreigners; of all forms of Korean art, it remains the most known overseas. Almost all of the overseas collections of Korean art are centered on pottery, some exclusively so. Korean pottery has particular appeal in Japan because of the strong influence of Korean styles on Japanese pottery. Cultural products with a track record of existing appeal in variety of places are easiest to promote.
Korea has many other attractive cultural products. For example, literature, particularly poetry, has played an important role in the development of Korean civilization. To appreciate literature, people need to be able to read Korean or have access to excellent translations, both problematic issues. This "linguistic requirement" inherently limits the potential appeal of literature. The same applies to Hangeul, for only users can appreciate the mastery of the writing system in full.
The key issue in promoting cultural products is distinction; what is being promoted needs a niche. Individual cultural products together need to represent a theme and convey a clear image. They must cross cultural, linguistic, and other boundaries. If so, then what niche do architecture, food, music, and pottery occupy? And what image do they convey?
The answer is simple: rustic sophistication. It is an aesthetic that is natural and relaxing, exotic and simulating at the same time. Amid the furry of a networked life, this Korean aesthetic offers relief to tired senses and stands a reminder of natural forces in life that humans cannot overcome. Compared to this, hallyu and K-pop are painfully superficial, and in the world of cultural products, superficial equals short-lived.
Culture branders also need to address the issue of who does the marketing for a brand can only succeed when it has promoters and supporters. Promoters help the brand develop and supporters sustain the development. In recent years, the government has taken an interest in promoting a disparate collection of Korean cultural products, including K-pop.
Branding requires leadership, but the most effective way to promote the brand is enthusiastic consumers. Enthusiasm spreads through word of mouth (social networking services included) and the brand takes on life. To stir enthusiasm, culture branders should focus their efforts on the aesthetic of rustic sophistication.
The writer is a professor at the Department of Korean Language Education at Seoul National University. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.