Seoul’s Frustration With National Branding Initiatives
By Michael Breen
For several years now, government officials have been trying to improve Korea's international reputation with overseas investors and tourists by adopting branding strategies that we more commonly associate with companies and products.
But so far, they have failed to come up with anything that seems to work. We have seen slogans and logos attached to the Korea ``brand'' in the same way as taglines and imagery are linked to commercial products.
For example, the country is promoted to tourists as Sparkling Korea, in the same way as a precious stone or mineral water.
It is sold to investors as Dynamic Korea and the Hub of Asia, or a combined version, which could have been adapted from a health food ad (Dynamic Ginseng: Herb of Asia?). We've also had the less familiar Korea's IT.
These brands are not bad or wrong, but they do not appear to have lifted the country or made an impact in the way that was hoped.
Not that this disappointment has stopped provinces and cities from following suit. We've got: Hi Seoul: Soul of Asia; Dynamic Busan: City of Tomorrow; Fly Incheon; Colorful Daegu; Beautful Gyeongju; Happy Suwon; Jeonju City: City of Culture; Cheongju, the happy city worth living in; It's Daejeon; Green Land JeollaNamdo; and GyeongGi-Do: Global Inspiration.
It's easy to criticize these efforts from a number of perspectives. Busan's ``dynamic'' cancels out the ``city of tomorrow'' claim because it makes the city seem like it just copied Dynamic Korea, which was developed in the Kim Dae-jung administration.
A smaller city could get away with hitching its wagon to the national brand, but Busan is a very important place and, with four million people, is bigger than a lot of countries. It needs something original.
Is Daegu more ``colorful'' than any other city? Gyeongju and Naejangsan are, but is Daegu? I get the feeling with some cities that officials came up with an adjective and checked it with an English teacher.
As for Gyeonggi Province being or wanting to be a global inspiration, this is certainly a dynamic ambition that other provinces should take note of. But I would have recommended that, before launching the slogan, the province find a better way to spell itself in English.
The Seoul slogan tries to link ``soul,'' a deeply attractive word to English-speaking ears, to the city because they sound identical. But it doesn't work well because logos tend to be visual, not aural.
To my eyes, the visual fact that ``soul'' has an ``e'' missing strikes me more than its resonance with the city name. Maybe an edited down version, like ``Seoul of Asia,'' would work.
But then you hit the matter of truth. Does anyone, even in City Hall, let alone in Pakistan or Mongolia, really think that Seoul is, can be or even wants to be the soul of Asia?
I feel the logo creator just loved this one so much that he could not ``kill his darling,'' something that you have to do when something, however fantastic, just doesn't fit.
As a slogan, ``It's Daejeon'' does identify the city's distinguishing feature or aspiration to be an IT and research center, but I fear that few people would realize that ``it's'' has anything to do with Information Technology.
This is also the problem with the national brand for Korea's IT. You can't tell whether it's supposed to be pronounced ``Korea's it'' or ``Korea's eye-tea.''
South Cholla's Green Land slogan is also on the right track, but sounds Konglishy close to Greenland, which is a country with almost no greenery.
Of all of the above, the one that does work for me is ``Fly Incheon.'' Yes, it sounds like ``Fly United,'' but that's the point.
Whatever else Incheon wants to be, it is now identified with the airport. As such, the logo fits the brand.
As I say, it's easy to criticize. But all of the above examples represent an effort in the right direction, which is to find a way to boost the economy. I noted in digging out these examples that the cities and provinces which did have slogans are more easily found on the Internet and are better presented, in English at least, than those that don't, which suggests that the branding effort is part of a broader effort to promote and communicate.
The question now is how to build on the trend and make suggestions that help the country and its cities and provinces get it right.
Why is it, then, that we keep getting it wrong? Why do we keep coming up with taglines that do not fit?
I believe the main reason is that officials and executives are blind to both the need for branding and the process that gets us there.
To many officials, the explanation of why branding is important will sound like so much 21st-century-human-centered-technology-harmony-with-nature-city-of-the-future nonsensonomics.
What they know is that others are doing it and that they should too, preferably quickly and without spending any money.
Those who think this way are predisposed to copy others, which means that the subliminal message of their brand risks being, ``We copy.''
Even if they are more appreciative of the need, other bureaucrats may consider the process to be simpler than it really is. OK, they'll think, you need a designer to come up with a logo, but we can all use words and how difficult is that? Your promotion department may suggest three adjectives for your city, all checked with English teachers, and the mayor picks the one he likes.
These officials are not stupid. They're not going to come up with ``Mokpo: Freedom's Frontier.''
But they are amateurs when it comes to branding, which means they'll not quite get it right. And the chances are they'll never realize this because bad branding efforts don't fail. They just get quietly ignored. I don't think, for example, that mayors of Seoul in the '90s were ever told what was so wrong about the slogan, ``My Seoul, Our Seoul'' (you gotta say it out loud). What government needs to do is recognize that the design and the tagline should come at the end of a process of research and strategizing that may take some time and cost some money, especially if international opinion surveys are required. You can't brand your place with an online competition (which was how ``Hi Seoul'' was selected in 2002).
At the heart of the process is a decision as to how to ``position'' the country or city, in other words, exactly how we want investors, tourists and other audiences, including citizens themselves, to think about us.
When you have decision-makers who don't understand the process, working officials learn to baffle them with science. Thus in Suwon's use of ``Happy we are told that each letter of the word counts for something. ``H'' is for ``Harmony'' and so on. But what seems meaningful is actually meaningless.
Those in charge also need to guard against the Korean disease of boss-ism. If the people handling branding consider their main audience to be the president (or the governor or mayor), or their direct boss, rather than the tourist or the investor, their arrow will not even hit the target. They'll come up with something like ``Korea: 21st century hub.''
They also need to be extremely careful not to copy others because the whole point is to identify what is special and fitting about their place.
The elusive goal of making the logo fit the brand involves describing a place in a way that is acceptable and which highlights something distinct, or in a way that captures an aspiration, how the city or country would like to be. This can be done in more ways than one. Last week, driving north from Cambridge in England into the county of Norfolk,
I passed a road sign which said, ``Norfolk, Nelson's County'' after the British naval hero Horatio Nelson who was a local boy. (The county of Warwickshire similarly promotes its connection to Shakespeare). But Norfolk also promotes itself in other ways. The tourism site says ``Norfolk: Time to Explore,'' which suits because it's not a Norfolk-in-a-day place to visit, and the local government site says ``Norfolk County Council @ your service.''
Officials also need to make sure that their branding conclusions make sense to local residents. You can't have ``Korea: Open for Trade'' as a slogan in English when the prevailing local sentiment is ``Foreigners Out.'' What is needed instead, even when the audience is external, is something that inspires the internal audience. The Nelson signs, for example, which are placed on the border with neighboring Cambridgeshire, Suffolk and Lincolnshire, highlights something special about Norfolk.
This is welcome because the county is one of those places like Jeolla that suffers from prejudice. You could never be a presenter on the BBC if you had a Norfolk accent. ``Nelson's County'' both captures the interest of outsiders and makes locals feel proud. That is what Korea's national branding team should aim for. Just how they can do it, though, will not be easy.