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Seoul’s terrible new slogan
By John Burton
Seoul is becoming hip. A city that when I first arrived nearly 25 years ago had all the greyness and charisma of an East European Communist capital is now seen as cutting-edge. It is the epicenter of Asian pop culture with K-Pop bands, television soap operas, films and video game tournaments, while the city’s citizens enjoy some of the fastest Internet speeds on earth. In short, Seoul has glamour and high-tech style.
So it is not surprising that the local government recently decided to come up with a new slogan for the city that would capture this excitement and replace the rather insipid “Hi! Seoul.”
No doubt they had in mind such successful campaigns as “I Love (heart) New York” and “Hong Kong: Asia’s World City,” which sums up in a few words the essence of a city’s appeal.
The New York and Hong Kong slogans were the product of advertising and public relations agencies that had long experience in these matters and subjected their ideas to focus group testing.
In the case of “Hi! Seoul” and its later accompanying “Soul of Asia,” they were chosen by the city’s previous two mayors, which showed that the politicians should never give up their day jobs.
The current city administration, however, had the brilliant concept of crowd-sourcing a new slogan, relying on popular wisdom. It launched a contest this summer asking both Koreans and foreigners around the world to submit their ideas for the slogan, with the winner being offered a 3 million won (about $2,700) prize.
The city stipulated the city’s new tagline should reflect passion, co-existence and relaxation (the latter attribute which I don’t normally associate with the frantic pace of Seoul, but I will let that pass).
The submissions poured in, totaling around 18,000 entries. A professional branding agency washired to shift through the voluminous pile and narrow the selections down to 200, which was then reviewed by an outside panel of Koreans and foreigners for a final cut of 20. The survivors were then examined by an expert panel appointed by the city to determine three finalist slogans, which were submitted to an online vote by citizens that is scheduled to end on Sunday.
The process was rather byzantine and may reflect the bureaucratic bent of the city government, but it was meant to ensure that the outcome would not be subject to the whims of political influence.
So what were the final slogans selected for your approval? Drum roll, please. First up: “I.SEOUL.YOU” to convey how two different individuals can co-exist. Next: “SEOULing” to highlight constant change and development. Finally: “Seoulmate” to suggest friendliness.
Really, this is the best you could do? Remember any one of these slogans (and Seoulmate is the most likely) will be plastered on everything from advertising posters to municipal garbage trucks to promote the city from next year. The heavy influence of Konglish will do nothing to suggest the sophisticated image that the city is striving to achieve with an international audience.
They even don’t make much sense in English. I.SEOUL.YOU sounds like a drunken challenge, while SEOULing is vaguely creepy and Seoulmate suggests that you want to make love to the city.
So what went wrong?
One problem appears to be the initial culling of the 18,000 entries where I expect much of the wheat was thrown out instead of the chaff. I can’t believe there were not some good slogans lurking underneath the pile of submissions but were ignored in the rush to whittle down the entries.
Moreover, most of the entries were submitted by Koreans rather than foreigners since the contest was not actively promoted overseas. This raises a cultural issue. Koreans prefer emotional-related slogans rather than the more utilitarian ones that appeal to Westerners.
Hence, the cuddly feeling of SEOULing or Seoulmate, while many other slogans playing on the word “Seoul” were also popular, such “Do re mi fa Seoul (shades of the Sound of Music).
I would have preferred to have seen something instead like “Swinging Seoul” or “Surprising Seoul,” the latter being one of the last 20 selected. Another final entry that I also thought might work was “Find Your Seoul,” which implied the exploration of the city leading to personal satisfaction. Alas, it wasn’t chosen as one of the final three.
So it appears that Seoul will be stuck a new slogan that might enjoy acceptance at home, but represents a missed opportunity to rebrand the city internationally.
The city could still do the honorable thing and admit the outcome fell short of expectations and start from scratch again to avoid attracting international ridicule. But I doubt that will happen. It almost makes “Hi! Seoul” not such a bad slogan after all.
John Burton, a former Korea correspondent for the Financial Times, is now a Seoul-based independent journalist and media consultant. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.