I Seoul U or I Seoul U not?

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I Seoul U or I Seoul U not?

Kim Dong-yule
The author is a professor at Sogang University Graduate School of Management of Technology.

“Something Special.” Older Koreans are certainly well aware of the local whisky brand in the 1980s and 90s. The liquor enjoyed unrivaled popularity among drinkers at a number of pubs in Gangnam thanks to its brand name. If you drink the whisky, something special might happen to you, or so the boozers hoped.

Market research conducted at the time showed that most consumers chose the brand thanks to its inviting name. In fact, whisky experts agreed there was no big difference in its taste. Even connoisseurs couldn’t distinguish the alleged differences of Scotch brands in a blind test. On top of that, this is a country notorious for an ever-evolving ingenious mix of liquors and beers, called “poktanju” here and generally known as “boilermakers” or “depth charges” in the U.S. Navy in the old days. Not much premium is placed on enjoying the genuine taste of whisky. Anyway, that local whisky brand successfully attracted a huge number of drinkers to room salons, bars, oblivion at home.

Mercedes-Benz’s impeccable slogan — “The Best or nothing” — does not need any explanation to understand it. With just a few words, it explicitly shows the identity of the German carmaker. Ice cream maker Häagen-Dazs is another case of successful branding. The name makes customers mistake it for a company from Denmark, a global powerhouse for dairy products.

But the ice cream has been produced in New Jersey since the founding of the company in Brooklyn, New York, in 1961. The company linked their products to Copenhagen by printing the map of Denmark on the side of containers. However, Häagen-Dazs is a brand name with an intentionally obscure nationality, as the name is a part of the company’s highly sophisticated marketing strategies to make its ice cream look “Danish.”

The case explicitly shows the importance of brand names in the market. The remarkable success of Haier, a Chinese home appliance and consumer electronics company, owes much to a brand name that sounds German. Customers are tempted to open their wallets out of the conviction that German products are relatively good and safe.

A brand name plays a great role in selling products. But it is not easy to create the best-possible one. First of all, it should be easy to remember and difficult to forget. Outdoor brand The North Face’s logo “Never stop exploring” or American fashion brand Abercrombie & Fitch’s catchphrase “Casual luxury” both strike chords immediately. Successful brand names are not only easy to comprehend and remember, but also carry meanings befitting their products.

However, some of the poorest branding attempts are scattered across the capital of this country. “I Seoul U,” arguably the most enigmatic city slogan in the world, is particularly hard to grasp. After living abroad to study for a while, I still cannot decipher the meaning of the phrase. Every student attending my class at a university in Seoul has exactly the same reaction.

I have been critical of the city slogan since it was concocted in 2015 during the administration led by mayor Park Won-soon. The biggest problem with the slogan comes from the unfathomability of the phrase. It could mean “Seoul links you and I,” as the designer probably hopes, but is still difficult to comprehend. Even explanations in city buses do not help. If a brand or slogan needs an explanation — whether attached to a bus window or not — it has already flunked.

Current Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon faces a plethora of challenges after setting the unprecedented record of winning his fourth victory in the mayoral race on June 1. But the most important job for him is defining the heart of his city precisely and concisely. The competitiveness of a country comes from the competitiveness of its cities. I hope Mayor Oh reinvents the mysterious slogan of Seoul and find a new one at least better than Something Special before it is too late.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
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