I won’t insult readers’ intelligence by starting this op-ed off by claiming to like Seoul’s new branding slogan, “I.Seoul.U.” No, I’m not especially happy with it, and it was definitely not my choice. In fact, I was rather surprised that all nine expert judges – including one native English speaker – and a solid majority of the 1,140 people who showed up on the bitterly cold evening of Oct. 28 voted for it. A good presentation goes a long way, I suppose.
Having said that, let’s give the new branding slogan some time. When the city’s previous branding slogan, “Hi Seoul,” was first unveiled on the public, it, too, was a source of much dissatisfaction, mockery and general head-scratching. Over time, however, Seoulites not only stoically resigned themselves to the quirky two-word slogan, but embrace it – so much so, in fact, that a good many residents are sorry to see it go.
Similar efforts worldwide have also met with early criticism – “Be Berlin,” for example, was criticized for being vague and dull and subjected to much satirical humor when it was first announced in 2008.
I expect “I.Seoul.U” will undergo the same stages of acceptance as did “Hi Seoul,” especially when one considers than unlike “Hi Seoul,” a slogan with no real meaning as far as I can tell, “I.Seoul.U” has a rather profound meaning that reflects the aspirations of city residents to make Seoul a space of connectivity, leisure, passion and coexistence. Admittedly, that meaning isn’t immediately apparent to many first-time viewers, both Korean and international, but over time and with a proper public relations campaign, public understanding should grow.
Greater public understanding of the meaning may not do much to help “I.Seoul.You” as an international marketing slogan. The brand’s primary audience, however, is not overseas, but Seoulites themselves. The branding process was conceived to allow city residents an opportunity to define the city as they see it, or at least would like it to be seen. The public was continuously involved throughout the year-long process to craft the new brand, which included, among other things, workshops, public lectures and, of course, voting. While I’d be inclined to agree with those who might argue that “I.Seoul.You” is the risk you take when entrusting non-English-speakers with choosing an English-language slogan, ultimately, it was largely the people’s choice – albeit not entirely – and its success will depend less on whether foreigner tourists understand it and more on whether Seoulites themselves come to accept it. Some of the early polling results aren’t cause for optimism in this regard, but I do believe that once the city begins to use and promote the slogan in earnest, the public will eventually come around.
Robert Koehler is the chief editor of Seoul Selection’s SEOUL Magazine and was the sole foreign member of the Seoul Brand Promotion Committee
The people have spoken. After a public contest, Seoul finds itself the proud possessor of a new promotional slogan, a strapline that will be branded across the city’s marketing campaigns for years to come. It is ― drum roll, please… “I.Seoul.U.”
And guess what? While it may be an improvement over its bland and meaningless predecessor (“Hi Seoul!”) everyone hates it.
Asian marketing magazines, Korean newspapers (including this one) ― and even the BBC have weighed in on the brouhaha. So have expatriates. By the truckload.
Judging from the Interweb chitchat, you could be forgiven for thinking that every English-speaking resident of this fair city holds an advanced degree in marketing communications, or has 20 years’ experience in a global advertising or PR agency under his or her belt.
One of the key messages emerging from this colossal group whine is, “I am a native speaker of English, by God! How dare Seoul come up with a new slogan without consulting me!” Another is, “I don’t like it. So it must be balderdash!”
The arrogance, the vitriol and the self-appointed expertise evident in this explosion of online bile is extraordinary.
So permit me to be a contrarian and make a shock announcement: The slogan was not created with the express aim of pleasing the expatriate community. Even though it is in English (well, sort of…) it will be used locally as well as globally.
And when it comes to global destination brands, most are not focused on export promotion or investment promotion, but are tourism-centric: Think “Malaysia: Truly Asia,” “Incredible India” “New Zealand: 100 Percent Pure,” and all the rest. (Hong Kong’s “Asia’s World City” is a rare exception.)
None of the naysayers have seen the new strapline in its context ― i.e., in place in an ad, or as part of a wider marketing campaign. Even so, in the tourism space, it does not take too much imagination to see how I.Seoul.U could be leveraged (“I.Visit.U, I.See.U, I.Play.U. I.Eat.U. I. Drink.U. I.Buy.U, I.Love.U ― I. Seoul.U…. etc, etc).
This wording format would work fine and be easily comprehensible across audio, audiovisual and/or print media platforms. Likewise, it would be an easy fit for merchandizing.
Moreover, the target demographic for Seoul tourism promotion efforts is not the U.S., U.K., Canada or anywhere else in the Anglosphere. The obvious, natural focus for Seoul tourism promotion is China and Japan.
The stark simplicity of I.Seoul.U may well speak to tourists hailing from these high-potential target markets ― tourists who have, on the whole, a poor command of English.
And if I.Seoul.U has a whiff of Konglish about it ― so what? In the 21st century, English is an international medium of communication. It is no longer the exclusive property of the Anglosphere.
I grant you, I.Seoul.U is not a typical strapline. It is unconventional, it is offbeat, it is quirky. It raises not just blood pressure, but also eyebrows.
And that ain’t a bad thing. Because branding is no longer about rational messaging ― it is about triggering emotion.
When New York came up with “I heart shape NY” naysayers did not criticize it for being an infantile non-word. On the contrary, it was a bold new style of visual communication that ended up becoming iconic ― not to mention endlessly ripped off.
Marketing superpower Nike decided to do away with straplines altogether and just go with its “swoosh.” I doubt that when that concept was unveiled, some loudmouth yelled, “Bah! What the hell is a swoosh, man? Nobody’s gonna get it!”
On the contrary. These are now seen as classic exercises in branding.
But I must confess that there is one thing about I.Seoul.U that irks me. That is this: The entire process was carried out by amateurs ― the city bureaucrats who managed the process and the citizens who were asked to come up with the line itself.
Of course, it is a fine thing to give the average Kim, Park or Lee the chance to try their hand at creative copywriting. And there were a handful of qualified people involved on the periphery of this process.
But even so: Would City Hall consider employing a bunch of unqualified citizens the next time it needs to (say) build a new subway line, or renovate the sewer system? Of course not. It would go to the professionals: engineers and construction firms.
Yet when it comes to marketing communications, City Hall is not prepared to go to (and pay) the professionals in this space ― i.e., market research companies and ad or PR agencies. No: The immediate instinct is to work with amateurs. This indicates to me that despite all this waffle about a “creative economy,” Korea’s 21st century capital remains focused more on hardware than on software.
Andrew Salmon is a Seoul-based reporter and author.
Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
It was a privilege a couple of weeks ago to play a small part in helping to choose a new brand for this dynamic city, so wanted to give my thoughts on what is a really brave approach to branding:
‘I Seoul U’, the world’s first (mostly) crowd-sourced city brand.
It’s fair to say, that on first sight ‘I Seoul U’ is linguistically curious and grammatically maverick but once I saw it with the accompanying line ‘A city of me and you’, then it was pretty clear that it was saying ‘Me, Seoul and you’ together.
By distilling the enormity of Seoul down to a personal relationship between two people is a simple strategy that echoes my experience of the friendliness of Seoul.
One of the other three options ‘Seoulmate’ was based on the same thinking and would have made a good solid branding. Personally though, after having spent most of my advertising career trying to avoid puns, it was a little too familiar and had connotations with dating websites.
‘Seouling’ ticked the boxes when it came to being different and active. But it made me feel that Seoul was a very busy place that, perhaps, didn’t have time to stop to get to know me. So of three choices given to me, I chose ‘I Seoul U’, which also turned out be the unanimous choice of the eight other people on the panel.
Beyond its strategic friendly intent – I felt that it was a fresh, modern and flexible brand. Especially as you could put all the delights of Seoul in between the ‘I and you’ of the logo.
To me, Seoul (and Korea) represents a dynamic person that is not afraid to give things a go and the new positioning reflects that.
Since its adoption, I’ve noticed its received plenty of attention, both positive and negative, which is to be expected with a new city brand.
Words, symbols and pictures take on new meanings as you live with them and they develop their own personality. So, I’d like to think that this great experiment is rewarded by the world looking at Seoul as a friendly, vibrant and free-thinking city that is prepared to step away from the familiar city brands we see around the world – to deliver new ideas.
For what it’s worth, in the UK, the London 2012 Olympic logo more than polarised opinion when it was launched, with many people disliking the almost childlike design and typography.
But as everyone in London lived with it for a while and the logo was exploded into the graphic design across the marketing materials and the venues themselves – it really did look and feel fantastic, and most visitors from around the world were not even aware that it had been a controversial choice.
So, let’s all see in a few months time how it feels. After all, the two young designers who came up with the idea and the team who helped them bring it to life, deserve for their creation to be given some breathing space to grow in our hearts and minds.
Luke Ashton, Global Creative Director, Cheil Worldwide.
One of the nine people on the Seoul city branding panel.