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[Viewpoint] Demolishing Korea’s national brand

A good brand is not made but discovered - and Seoul has only to look to the traditional neighborhoods its builders are now destroying.

Nov 06,2009
At times it seems the enormous effort Korea spends on some kind of effective branding is met with equal amounts of derision from the international public. While some of the recent slogans have been better received than those of the past, none has been truly successful.

Having attended some of the recent conferences devoted to location branding, I’m starting to understand why nation and city branding has been so difficult for this country. Koreans by their very nature are highly competitive, and it stokes their competitive juices when they see countries such as Malaysia and India doing so much better with branding. The natural human inclination is to see what others are doing and then try to do something similar, if not better.

Location branding is important as it is the cornerstone of marketing. Branding serves as a lens through which various promotional efforts may be viewed, while upholding discipline through which various marketing messages may be made consistent and credible. However, we need remember that one can market a lie but once. Once the consumer concludes he or she has been had, it is almost impossible to win back that customer. So once a brand is initiated, it had better be good. In fact, a bad brand is worse than none at all.

But I digress. A nation’s or city’s reputation is a consequence of its achievements. Korean government planners have been determined to come up with various firsts or bests for its places. And that has been very, very good - but also very, very bad.

While special monuments or events can be spectacular and wonderful, what really builds a place’s reputation is its ongoing culture - the environment it cultivates for citizens and visitors alike. Like a fragrance, culture drifts around the world, catching the attention of people, including individuals and nations initially disinterested in relatively remote places such as Korea.

And as every student knows, there is culture with a capital C and culture with a lowercase C. “Capital C culture” consists of museums, concert halls, sports stadiums and internationally recognized events that attract artists and their admirers from around the world. In these cases, the national and Seoul Metropolitan governments have done an admirable job, including truly showcase architectural projects ranging from the Cheonggye Stream to the recently opened Gwanghwamun Plaza. And there is, of course, much more to come, including the massive Han River renovation project.

But as truly wonderful as these Capital C projects may be, whether we like it or not, a branding effort truly rests on the bedrock of “lowercase C culture. ” “Lowercase C culture” is the traditional folk culture of the common citizen, manifesting itself in music, dance, food and other aspects of simple everyday life. Some of this folk culture is now being revered, as in talchum traditional mask dances. But we should be aware that during the Japanese occupation, and later under post-liberation military rule, much of this culture was demolished as part of ambitious top-down plans aimed at modernization.

One of the key lessons offered by branding gurus such as Simon Anholt is that genuine brands in a fundamental sense are pre-existing, waiting to be discovered. Phony brands are placed on top of locations, and their lack of integrity at best provokes jokes made at the marketers’ expense. Genuine brands are undeniably authentic. They almost bloom out of their foundations.

As I see it, the problems that are plaguing modern Korea and Seoul are similar to the problems I witnessed in the 1970s as a Peace Corps volunteer. At that time, many “sophisticated” Koreans thought their native culture would be viewed by foreigners as something out of National Geographic magazine (and not in a good way). As such, traditional folk culture was viewed with shame and harshly suppressed. Later when Korean studies departments began being established at prestigious universities abroad, Korean authorities belatedly tried to reverse some of the damage they had done. But, of course, much was irretrievably lost.

Today, the situation has greatly improved from the 1960s and ’70s. And yet, while some government officials devote their time to trying to develop successful Korean brands, others are working with construction companies to destroy traditional communities almost systemically. Centuries-old neighborhoods are being bulldozed away to create space for high-rise apartments, living spaces for isolated households that often displace the original inhabitants of the area.

A prime example of this kind of community can be found around Jongno 5-ga subway station. The community has been there for over a century, and many of the homes and restaurants were built 100 years ago or earlier. The community is vibrant and the proprietors own their properties. Nightly, hundreds of Seoulites visit the many neighborhood restaurants and traditional drinking establishments. Traditional hanok buildings still dominate much of the community’s architecture.

In other words, by any global-class city’s standards, Seoul’s unique lure is preserved in these traditional neighborhoods. But alas - the land has become increasingly valuable, thereby making these northern Seoul communities tempting targets for demolition by development companies.

When I need to entertain out-of-town Koreans or foreigners, I often take them to Jongno 5-ga. Consistently they are charmed and delighted by the experience - and aghast when they learn that in the not too distant future the community will be destroyed.

So while Gwanghwamun Plaza and Cheonggye Stream are truly wonderful, these modern architectural creations will never serve as world-class markers for branding. They are new and in some ways very artificial, in spite of their architectural merits.

Rather, the humble and yet enchanting traditional communities like Jongno 5-ga are more likely, at least in part, to be the foundation of genuinely successful branding - that is, of course, if government officials realize in time what they have before they allow these authentic Korean places to disappear.


*Tom Coyner is president of Soft Landing Consulting and senior commercial adviser to Joowon Attorneys at Law.

by Tom Coyner



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