Friday, 19 February 2010

The problem with branding Korea... (warning: devolves into a rant)

Bliss-out soundtrack: Cymbals Eat Guitars (pretty solid CD: Why There are Mountains - best played loud) - the song is Share. Let it build, play it loud.


A commentator in The Korea Times contributes an excellent, level-headed piece in response to a Japanese journalist talking smack about Bibimbap, and the huge, snitty reaction it drew. It reiterates some of the points I made in my post "In Which Roboseyo Advises Seoul City Not to Get in a Snit About Lonely Planet", and it discusses nationalism, patriotism, and the way that to many Koreans, those two words are one and the same. He zeroes in on one comment made by the Japanese journalist, even as he backed off, that Koreans "lacked the spirit of tolerating criticism" - now I talked about this before on my old "Why Are Koreans Hyper-sensitive to Criticsms from Non-Koreans? superpost (The Korean's take on it's worth a read, too). However, that's all retreads, and I don't like going there too often anymore, lest I become the "complaining expat guy"

However, he then looks at Korea's branding through the lens of Korean hyper-sensitivity, and that's interesting to me.

You see, something's been bugging me about all this branding talk, and it's been bubbling up for a while.

It is obvious to any observer that over the last few years, Korea has become increasingly concerned about the way the world views them. This is not limited to the country nationally, but also in other areas:


When the world university rankings come out, there's a great deal of celebration or hair-pulling on where Korea's top university lands -- now that Seoul National's cracked the top fifty, some people in important places are really, really happy, and it was commemorated by news articles and stuff. (Congrats, by the way, I guess)...

But it's starting to bug me, this focus on what other people say... there are these gaps, see, and they're starting to niggle. There are gaps between what is true about Korea, what the Kimcheerleaders say about Korea, what foreigners say about Korea, and, most distressingly to Korea, what Korea would have foreigners say about Korea.

Now, for the rest of this post, I'm going to use "Korea" as a noun meaning "Korean tourism and branding decision-makers, and those who wish Korea to be well thought-of worldwide" - here I would include the people I call Kimcheerleaders, VANK and the like-minded, and Korean tourism. I certainly don't mean all Koreans, or you, specifically, my dear Korean reader. Bear with me. So... back to these gaps.

Asadal Thought wrote something about improving Korea as a tourist destination that touches on this, and basically points out that any time people are told what to think, human nature being the contrary thing it is, we resist. Being told kimchi is good and healthy predisposes me to look for faults, like being told before a blind date, "You're gonna love this girl: she's PERFECT for you!" by someone who doesn't really know me. There are about three people on the planet I'd trust to make that judgement. The point Lee makes is this: the way that Koreans don't notice they come across as hyper-nationalists, is very off-putting to outsiders, and it undermines whatever good they're trying to do for Korea's image.

I got a link to a blog from an e-mail from VANK - they send me e-mails ever since I won that nifty MP3 player. Now I don't want to pick on VANK too much (one reason why I'm not linking the blog where I got this screenshot)... but the way they use the word "correctly" is a perfect example of the way Koreans don't realize their approach to national promotion (clumsy, heavy-handed, and worst of all: humorless) undermines what they're trying to accomplish.

Humorless. I said it. Would a Korean tourism ad ever make fun of its own image? (warning: this video has bad language and bikinis)


So that's the first thing about this whole branding mess. We don't like to be told. We just don't. If Korea wants to be known as a hub of something, the way to do it is to quietly go about becoming a hub of it, until people start noticing, and telling others about it. If Seoul proclaims itself the fashion hub of Asia, I immediately object: "What about Tokyo and Hong Kong?" in the same way I look for the bulges when somebody asks "does this skirt make my butt look fat?"
Instead, to be a world fashion hub, if Korea quietly goes about cultivating a more interesting fashion scene than Tokyo or Hong Kong, they won't NEED to tell people: other people will be saying it for them.


The next problem:

This is the thing that gets me. See, the inherent problem with the idea of branding is that it's superficial. It's a surface thing -- it's even more superficial than that, in fact -- it's not just the surface, it's what people say about the surface. If Korea really wants to be a world class country, I wish they'd STOP worrying about branding, and work on the systematic flaws that branding is attempting to cover up. Yah seriously. Branding is a short cut - a flashy substitute for real progress, like painting over cracks in a foundation.

Dear my family: bad language ahead. Skip this paragraph if it offends your sensibilities. I'm feeling crappy today.

Does Korea really want to be a world class country? Who gives a good goddamn if it's "Korea Sparkling" "Korea, Be Inspired" or "Korea Plese Coming Here Spend Tourist Dolla Buddy OK?" or "Korea... Aww just fuck it." If Korea really wants to be a world class country, work on the people and the institutions that form the foundation of the society; the rest will follow, naturally enough. Take that branding money and give it to a taskforce dedicated to getting Korea out of the world's bottom twenty-five in the Gender Gap Index... I bet some of the women being held down in secretarial positions, or forced to quit their jobs after having a baby, have some great ideas about promoting Korea! Build a social safety net that takes care of seniors, rather than just shuffling around garbage collectors and street food vendors from place to place, so that they're out of tourists' way. Korea focusing on branding and foreigners' image of it is EXACTLY the same as the student who can't hold a conversation, but regularly tops 900 on his TOEIC test. EXACTLY the same problem. Brand Korea is the kid whose SAT got him a spot at Harvard University, but who dropped out because his education never prepared him to do anything EXCEPT nail the shit out of that SAT test. And it doesn't matter if Korea hosts the next three world cups, the next six olympics, the next twelve years of OECD, G-7, G-20 and whatever else summits, and relocates the UN Headquarters to Sejong City, if the people of Korea still work like ants through joyless workdays, and say nothing while foreigners and women and countryfolk and the poor and seniors and single mothers are systematically shat on, and big businesses go hand in pocket with the government to keep everyone feeling dehumanized, so that we think a new cellphone will fix that dull ache in our stomachs that we hate living as ants.

Build lifelong learners, not test aces! Build conversant English speakers, not TOEIC champions! Develop a great university with an awesome educational atmosphere, don't just pour money into the areas that are measured for the annual university rankings, Seoul National University! Take care of corruption, racism, gender discrimination, injustice, foster civic mindedness, and human dignity and respect, and enjoyment of life for KOREA's OWN PEOPLE, and the rest of that stuff will follow. THAT'S what this country needs.

Stupid.

I wrote more about the idea of metrics and measures as validation, to the expense of intrinsic qualities, in the "Five things I'd change" piece I wrote back when I was in a kinder mood, and nobody read my blog.

Don't like what I said? That's fine. I don't even agree with everything I said. Disagree with my points, but don't tell me I'm not allowed to have an opinion. Or go read this article, if you'd rather have your Roboseyo topped with sugar. Today, I can't be bothered. I'm tired and cranky and hungry. And think about this, the conclusion of Lee's original article:
Here, avoiding criticism is not an option. Joining globalization means Koreans now live in a goldfish bowl. People who live in a goldfish bowl cannot escape publicity, both good and bad. Bibimbap was on the spot because it gained publicity as well.

After all, Koreans don't have to view the ability of foreigners to criticize some aspects of Korea itself as inherently antithetical to the national interest.


and on that note, have a great weekend. :)



that was cathartic.

14 comments:

John from Daejeon said...

There’s the added problem that when people in other countries around the world hear, or see, the word, Korea, the first thing that pops into their mind isn’t South Korea or their LG branded TV or refrigerator. It’s a little dude who looks like he ought to be a movie villain instead of a real-life one.

Sadly, there are two Koreas, and it’s pretty hard for those here to get out of the shadow cast by gulag-riddled country to the North no matter how impressive and shiny the South’s cars, phones, TVs, and mp3 players are.

I think a lot of that “sensitivity” comes from having their “Koreaness” and identity being shared and then having to try and rise, and stay, well-above that preconceived notion that most of the world has about Korea. You’re here. You’ve been here for awhile. And you’ve seen the differences. But to the average person living in Kalamazoo or Perth or Lisbon or Rome or Calgary or Dublin or Buenos Aires, they pretty much only hear, or see, Korea in the news when it is something pretty bad concerning the northern part of the peninsula and couldn’t tell the difference between Daewoo and Toshiba if their lives depended on it.

It must be pretty rough on a nation’s collective psyche to have to now use a precursor word (South) when speaking about a country that was unified for so long and is now in two very separate pieces. For a while, the West Germans could probably have related, but they were able to reunite peacefully and in a relatively short time. Realistically, most here don’t see that actually happening…well, the peaceful part.

greg said...

We all need to rant sometimes...

Brian said...

The idea of "correctness" drives me crazy, too, and has driven me crazy ever since it became fashionable to "correct" foreigners' views about Korea.

"Correct" when used by stuffy Koreans or angry Korean-Americans isn't about demonstrating sophistication or understanding, it's about shutting up and toeing the company line. When I write something controversial or thought-provoking, I get two kinds of commenters "correcting" me. The first are knowledgable expats (sometimes Koreans) who give their opinions, provide links to further information, and try to foster a broader understanding of the topic at hand. The second simply call me bad names for making fun of bad English or tell me to go home because I don't like Crown J.

I wonder if this desire to "correct" will soon pass. On the one hand, bloggers are getting more visibility and attention. We're in the local papers, in guidebooks *cough*, invited to various functions, and connected to more Korean readers than ever before. No doubt some have a problem with what some of us write, but there seems to be an interest in what we're saying. But on the other hand, based on conversations I've had and guesses I've made, there still seems a lack of interest among policymakers in what foreigners actually think about Korea, and this is most troubling when they're designing things geared toward foreigners and based on what they want to think foreigners think about Korea.

Only two comments so far? Everybody must still be on vacation.

DrugstoreCowgirl said...

This was a great article! Everything was so well said and I agree with everything you wrote. It's just too bad change is so slow in Korea. It will be a long time, if ever, before these things change.

Yos said...

Speaking from my own experience (2 years) I can relate to your rant as a depiction of reality as I experienced it, too. However, ranting is fine, even cathartic, but that reality is bigger than you and me ...

My experience with human beings world wide told me that people don't want to hear criticism, they prefer compliments ... so, don't expect cheers and/or applause for your article, just live with that reality ...

and enjoy Kimchee!

Maria said...

I think this 'ranting' was a good piece of constructive criticism - it made a few good points - I am also wondering about the (shiny) surfaces thing - not only do they crack so soon, (not to speak of the dust covering it even sooner), but they have a very COLD EFFECT. I especially agree with the following(my italics):
“Build lifelong learners, not test aces! Build conversant English speakers, not TOEIC champions! Develop a great university with an awesome educational atmosphere, don't just pour money into the areas that are measured for the annual university rankings, Seoul National University!”
SNU especially made a very cold impression on me, I was quite shocked, very disappointed – no visible English, it did not feel welcoming, it did not feel global.
Surfaces are not everything – things have vibes, humans are sensitive to vibes, so you can’t fool them in the end. Another way to put it – humans can read between the lines, especially when they're hard drawn lines.

Maria said...

I think this 'ranting' was a good piece of constructive criticism - it made a few good points - I am also wondering about the (shiny) surfaces thing - not only do they crack so soon, (not to speak of the dust covering it even sooner), but they have a very COLD EFFECT. I especially agree with the following(my italics):
“Build lifelong learners, not test aces! Build conversant English speakers, not TOEIC champions! Develop a great university with an awesome educational atmosphere, don't just pour money into the areas that are measured for the annual university rankings, Seoul National University!”
SNU especially made a very cold impression on me, I was quite shocked, very disappointed – no visible English, it did not feel welcoming, it did not feel global.
Surfaces are not everything – things have vibes, humans are sensitive to vibes, so you can’t fool them in the end. Another way to put it – humans can read between the lines, especially when they're hard drawn lines.

Ooo - and that Israel promo vid was just a joy - ^^ - an excellent example of self-humoring!

James said...

There are plenty of ways to look at Korea, for sure.

Over the 30 years or so I've lived and traveled there (and, yes, I speak Korean well), I've waited for my fellow westerners to begin to develop a more balanced appreciation for the Korea that I know and love dearly (albeit sometimes with more than a tinge of exasperation). To some extent that has happened, but there the overriding set of memes are negative, and often depressingly and unfairly so. And if it irritates me to have, say, Samsung identified as a Japanese brand or (as happened to me yesterday here in Michigan) a trendy 20-something gush on about how her favorite suburban "Chinese" restaurant serves Bibimbap, I can certainly understand how it really rankles Koreans to have Korea instinctively dismissed as somehow a lesser entity than China or Japan.

In short, the Cargo Cult (aka Field of Dreams, build it and they will come) technique you extol hasn't really worked that well in the case of luring westerners.

But it has, I believe, for Asians, at least the Chinese. I travel much there and although I have run into a fair share of angry muttering about those "damned Korean thugs" (Gaoli bangzi), the overwhelming trend across the country is to see South Korea and especially Seoul a cool, modern, attractive and a great place to visit, and Korean drama as riveting. One women I ran into in Hangzhou had been to Seoul 5 times, for the shopping, and the sense of trendiness generally.

In short, while Korea is one of my very favorite places, I do not expect in my lifetime that westerners will come to embrace the place as a tourist destination or give it its fair cultural due. The "xenophobic", "rude", "ugly", "selfish", "derivative" etc. etc. memes are just too entrenched and getting stronger, in my opinion, due to the plethora of blogs written by well-intentioned, but mostly clueless short-term residents.

Chris in South Korea said...

@James: I hope my blog wasn't one of those that came to mind. I want to enjoy Korea - and I've traveled it every weekend for the past 2 years - and without much help from the official information sources I've managed pretty well.

The point is made, however: words seem to matter more than actual change. Feeling there's been change seems to matter more than actually making change. Having a given score, ranking, or number seems to matter more than being the person that actually deserves that ranking.

Not including foreigners (not necessarily ones that live here) in discussions regarding foreigners only perpetuates the stereotypes Koreans have about us. It also keeps them in the dark of anything they're missing out on during their discussions. I'm sure any of the serious bloggers (myself included) would jump at the chance to have our opinions sincerely listened to by someone with the ability to change things.

The Korean said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
asadalthought said...

Thanks for the link Rob, I'm glad to see at least one person read that post!

I've been coming back to this post every day since you first wrote it, always thinking this will be the time I actually write a comment on it. This post has really stirred a lot of thought in me, and I think there's a lot I want to say on the subject, I just have no idea exactly what it is, and that's why I've never been able to put together a whole comment yet.

Basically, I think you're right. This whole branding thing is a waste of time. And it's counter productive. The reason it's counter productive is because it so often comes across as nationalism. There's just something slightly odd with Korean branding/promotion. I'd say it's a generally held notion that countries will advertise themselves to people in other countries, and nobody has a problem with this, right? If I see an advert for Singapore on tv, I don't immediately think "nationalism." And that's not always the first thing I think of when I see similar Korean promotion, but then again...

I really can't explain this very well, my apologies. Korean promotion often seems to me to have a different... vibe. It feels different. It just seems more self-serving, perhaps. That sounds harsh, and I'm not sure I mean it quite as harshly as it sounds; after all, I do accept that all advertising is self-serving. But it strikes me that those whose job it is to promote Korea don't really know what things would be best received, so they want to tell people what they should like about Korea.

somehow this idea seems to be held by Korean society in general, the idea that Koreans should construct an image of Korea for foreigners that will then be beneficial to Korea itself, regardless of what the reality of Korea is, or what foreigners actually think of Korea or want from Korea.

asadalthought said...

I do feel that there are some Koreans who genuinely believe that it is within their capability - either as individuals or as a people - to shape the way non-Koreans view Korea, even when that does not match up with the reality. As an example, I've met people who flatly and outright denied the existence of the Korean prostitution industry. Of course, I've met others who are much more honest, and there honesty revealed to me that they would say this because I'm a foreigner, and if I knew the truth, I might think badly about Korea. Of course it seems so obvious to us that no matter how much something is denied, or hidden, people in Korea will see it, Korean or not. This is also related to that idea of understanding "Korean culture." It seems that some Koreans think it's almost a genetic trait: Koreans understand Korean culture because of their ethnicity. Non-Koreans can't understand Korean culture. That's an indisputable fact to some people. Clearly, these people have never considered at what point a Korean baby fully understands Korean culture. Does a 1 year old Korean baby understand why he will have to stay in the office 'til the boss leaves? No? Then surely he goes through a process of learning Korean culture: proof that Korean culture can be learned, and understood, and therefore non-Koreans can do this too.

What I think is the biggest failure, therefore, of this whole branding thing, is that it's so easy and simple to see what's reality and what's not. Everyone wants to be viewed well, nobody likes criticism, and Koreans have every right to advertise their country, tourism is an industry, and we happily accept advertising from every other industry. But, if it appears that Korea's promoters want to create an unrealistic impression of Korea for their own benefits, and other people believe the same can and more importantly should be done, this will be taken as nationalism, as aggressive marketing, and very self-serving. We wan to know what Korean can give to us, not the other way round. We never want to be told that our opinions are incorrect: they're opinions, by their very nature they take whatever form we want.

There are issues that can be solved in Korea - the cracks which are papered over by "branding" - that require the acceptance of criticism and making the most of it to solve.

PAKA said...

that was so awesome and so true.

Charles Montgomery said...

To focus narrowly, because I am ill and jet-lagged..

Your point that focusing merely on the "brand" misses underlying issues is a good one. Korea has NO organic image in English speaking countries beyond Kim Jong-il and M*A*SH. But even in terms of simple branding?

Those two clips point out a massive flaw in the Korean approach. The Korean ad shows a bunch of Koreans doing Korean things (I mean "Super Junior?" WTF!?) like taking silly photos and decorating latte-froth.

What is this supposed to mean to a potential tourist? It is all an internally generated and internal gaze.

Contrast that to the Israeli advert which IMMEDIATELY establishes its gaze as that of the potential tourist and focuses on a general interest (beauty, or something like it) that many people can identify with.

The Korean ad is more like an extremely well videographed social studies project. The Israeli one is an advertisement.