De-Branding Revolution for Korea
Korea Times Columnist
``Branding Korea'' is the new catchphrase for bureaucratic busybodies, PR-hustlers and advertisers. The idea is to sell Korea as a brand, like Coca Cola. Every Korean city or province is trying to come up with a catchphrase or logo that sets it above others so that it can be remembered. Some are ridiculous, many dubious, and most ineffective. Still, compelled by competition and compulsion, the push to ``brand Korea'' goes on. Hey, why can't the city of Jinju be another Paris or Gyeonggi Province another South of France? The dream goes on too.
Countries are cultures whose histories stretch into decades, centuries or even millennia.
As Rome was not built overnight, no country's brand, or image, can be created with the magic wand of a public relations stunt or advertising campaign. Why can't a nation be branded or advertised or logo-ed like a commercial product?
The reason is in the very structural difference between a country and a product. The country's image is ``ideational,'' imagined in the mind, whereas that for a commercial product is ``sensory,'' mostly visually and aurally stimulating.
When a country's name is mentioned, we ``think'' about the country. That thinking has to do with many things, events, ideas, symbols, personalities and declarations.
If the country named is England, we think about the crown, the English language, the Queen, the Tower of London, history, social class, tradition, Henry the 8th, Elizabethan poetry, Shakespeare, Victorian morality, Charles Dickens, the Battle of Hastings, Magna Carta, and so on that define England as a whole.
As much as England is made up of things, like houses and land, we think of England as a ``thought,'' an idea, a combination of many such thoughts and ideas that come to us as the ``Brand of England.''
When a commercial product is mentioned, such as Coca Cola, we ``react'' to it. Our mind immediately turns to a specific-particularistic imagery, normally a combination of various sense effects, such as a jingle or tingling sense on our taste buds.
Generally the sense-product comes to us in a bottle, a glass or a paper cup, with carbonated liquid sparkling on the surface and ready to be swallowed. No abstract ideas or thoughts are connected to the product as there is no ``history'' and there is no abstract process connected to the product. It's just a ``thing'' that our senses recognize.
So here is the problem with the ``Branding Korea'' project. Korea needs ``DE-BRANDING'' as urgently as it needs branding.
Korea has too many images, thoughts and ideas connected to Korea already that are highly negative and critical.
In short, there are just too many negative, uncomplimentary previously-established items associated with the country called ``Korea.''
De-branding would, along with the branding campaign, eradicate or neutralize these negative symbolisms associated with Korea. Getting rid of an old negative is often more effective than trying to create a new positive.
As long as the old negative still exists, it is only magnified by the attempt at creating a new positive, which makes the whole affair laughable.
Like many other countries, Korea is cursed with certain fixed images. For a starter, Koreans are thought of as rude, pushy and dishonest. Long-standing impressions are that Japanese are polite, Filipinos are friendly, Thais smile, and Koreans frown. Let me give two extended examples.
Some years ago, National Geographic (NG) sent a reporter to Sri Lanka to write a feature article on the country. As the NG reporter was traveling through the countryside with a translator-guide, they noticed a car driving by them at dizzyingly great speed.
The NG reporter, quite surprised, asked his guide if all Sri Lankan motorists drove like that.
``Oh. No,'' the guide said, ``We don't drive like that. He must be a Korean!'' This exchange took place in Sri Lanka, thousands of miles away from Korea but Korea's reputation had preceded that far already. Is it likely that a little ``Branding Korea'' would erase this image of Korea in Sri Lanka or anywhere else where Koreans drive?
Another urgent issue for de-branding: The English-teaching enterprise in Korea centered on so-called ``hagwon'' that are by and large unregulated and in many cases corrupt.
Korea needs to completely revamp this sordid English-teaching business.
It is a national shame and sore that gives Korea about as big a black eye as anything. The ``hagwon'' mass-produce unhappy and bitter English teachers and they are some of the loudest sources of negative thoughts and ideas about Korea.
These English teachers spread stories of unethical business practices and personal injustices, all perpetrated by shady hagwon-owners, to other teachers and eventually all over the English-speaking world.
Hagwon are the hotbed of evil deeds and speculative swindlers, as English business tends to attract speculators and swindlers more than anything in Korea because of its very wild, unregulated nature.
There are countless tales of woes experienced and retold among English teachers all over the world and that alone is bad enough to kill off any goodwill generated by the so-called ``Branding Korea'' effort. One English teacher who has been victimized by a bad hagwon-owner can offset the effect of 100 feel-good logos and image-building commercials for Korea.
Unfortunately, Korea's image is not a positive one as there are too many time-created and world-wide negatives strongly embedded in the thoughts and ideas about it. Korea needs to ``de-brand'' all such negatives, large and small, easy and difficult, critical and light, before Korea can seriously think about branding itself as a viable international product.
Without this de-branding first, all such campaigns would not only be ineffective, but also create ridicule and more negatives among the community of nations.
Most immediately, Korea could mandate that all overseas-bound Korean travelers take an intensive class on international manners, rules and etiquette before they embark on their journey and embarrass Korea with their ``Korean'' behavior on the international stage.
What, then, are those negatives about Korea that Korea needs to de-brand urgently, to be taught in the pre-travel class (this should apply domestically too)? I will list them as follows:
1. Do not take Korean food on overseas vacations, especially kimchi and ramen, and do not cook in hotel rooms. Eat local food.
2. Do not take a conspicuous amount of cash; take travelers checks instead.
3. Don't be loud, especially when bunched up with other Koreans.
4. Don't break line, overseas or in Korea, and hold doors for others.
5. Do not litter in public places. Do not spit loudly in public.
6. Be punctual with foreigners and do not change plans at the last minute.
7. Maintain good workmanship in all things; have long-term views on all goods and services sold to foreigners.
8. Follow rules; drive carefully and slowly; park courteously.
9. Use English with foreigners as much as possible; do not speak to them in Korean. One word in English comprehended is worth 100 in Korean not comprehended.
10. Smile more, and slow down in all things; do not run at all if not necessary.
These are what individuals can do.
But for Korea as a nation, the individual efforts are not enough. It needs something resembling a Korean-version ``cultural revolution.'' What kind? The idea is so important for Korea's de-branding that I am going to capitalize it:
THE GOVERNMENT SHOULD HIRE THOUSANDS OF COLLEGE-GRADUATED ``INSPECTORS'' WHO WOULD CHECK FOR ILLEGAL DRIVING AND PARKING, BUILDING SAFETY VIOLATIONS, TRUCKS AND TRAINS SAFETY VIOLATIONS, FACTORIES AND SHOPS RULE VIOLATIONS, UNHYGIENIC RESTAURANTS AND STREET FOOD VIOLATIONS, ENVIRONMENTAL POLLUTION, AND OTHER COMMON RULE VIOLATIONS OF EVERY KIND ALL OVER KOREA, RESPONSIBLE FOR MAKING KOREA LOOK LIKE A THIRD-WORLD COUNTRY. THE INSPECTION SHOULD BE CONSISTENTLY, RELENTLESSLY ENFORCED, WITH NO EXCEPTIONS ALLOWED, AND UNDER THE DIRECT SUPERVISION OF THE PRESIDENT HIMSELF.
This action will create jobs for the college graduates, and will surely make Korea one of the most exemplary nations on Earth and Lee Myung-bak the most popular President in Korean history. This will also be the kind of spiritual awakening Korea needs, long to be remembered by posterity.
The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.