City Brands: The New Seoul Brand
Seoul’s new brand identity
Seoul announced its new logo this past Wednesday. In contrast to the iconic “I Love NY” logo that Milton Glaser came up with riding in a taxi, the South Korean capital went through a considered, participatory process that stretched over the past year with input from diverse constituencies ranging from branding experts to students and senior citizens.
Having opened up an idea contest for a new Seoul brand mark, the city selected three finalists from all the submissions and decided on the winner based on a combination of an online vote open to all (50%), deliberation by 1000+ citizens in person (25%) and the opinion of a professional panel (25%). The slogan “I.SEOUL.U” beat out the other two, “SEOULMATE” and “SEOULing,” and will replace the old campaign “Hi Seoul” which has been in place since 2002.
The online poll highlighted the main features of each of the three slogan-based identities. I didn’t understand the aspect of leisure the city seemed to be pushing with the new Seoul brand, but perhaps it is aspirational and intended to attract tourists. Or it may just not be my personal, lived experience of this brand, an intensely busy city where my younger cousin spends weekends preparing for his college entrance exam at the ubiquitous hagwon and friends routinely stay late at the office finishing up work, even on Fridays.
My first instinct was to vote for “SEOULMATE” which required no explanation and is a play on the words “soul” and “Seoul,” a theme that has been used in many a CafePress-designed t-shirt in years past as well as in the old “Hi Seoul” campaign. It won the online poll but lost the vote of the expert panel and the citizens gathered in person. As I considered my own vote, I finally dismissed “SEOULMATE” as a bit stale and also limiting in the way it cast Seoul, potentially furthering the cute agenda already propagated by the aesthetic of adorable Korean stationery supplies, K-pop and such.
Of the three finalists, “SEOULing” with its progressive tense “ing” captured best the dynamism I sense in this city. My instructor for a Korean political science class used to say that if there’s one word to describe Korean politics, it’s “dynamic.” It’s a good word to describe many other aspects of Seoul and even the rest of Korea, a country that is constantly changing and seems foreign in a new way each time I visit.
As an example, I was surprised at how quickly I was able to complete the steps to apply for my visa at the immigration office, the kind of process that would surely have taken me all afternoon at an office like the dreaded New York DMV. I was also bewildered to learn that Korea had changed the mailing address format this past summer and also changed the law regulating the opening of bank accounts, effectively blocking me from opening one. Seoul is nimble and “always on the move” as the brand tagline says.
So what does the chosen logo “I.SEOUL.U” convey?
The subway posters advertising the polls for the rebrand cited “I Love NY,” “I amsterdam” and “be Berlin” as examples. But the winning “I.SEOUL.U” lacks what those other city brands possess—stickiness and immediate familiarity which makes you identify with the city. Though I was not aware of the “be Berlin” campaign prior to seeing it on the ad, the slogan clicked with me without effort and I found myself imagining what it would like to be a part of Berlin. Granted, I’ve already been dreaming of Berlin for a while, but the slogan stirred my desire to visit and experience that fabled city and the idea of its brand has stuck in my mind.
On the other hand, when I saw “I.SEOUL.U” my initial thought was, “What does that mean?” Once I skimmed the explanation my response was “Oh, I guess that makes sense.” As a Korean-American expat newly relocated to Seoul, it didn’t resonate with me the way it must have with many of the voters and all nine of the experts on the panel who chose the slogan. It left me slightly confused, if anything.
With its tagline “City of Me and You” the new Seoul brand does highlight the emerging coexistence in the city with multicultural families in public discourse and non-Korean foreigners conspicuous throughout the city. And it’s great that this one combines the Korean character ㅇ in the Korean spelling of Seoul with the English letter O. It’s admirable from a number of angles, but the logo does not feel intuitive and it requires an explanation. Maybe it’ll grow on me.
City brands as global ambassadors
The official website of Seoul metropolitan government says: “Without city branding, nation branding is an illusion. The way you brand a city can change the status of a city and highlights the differences between your city and others.” The city site conveys clearly that Seoul is South Korea, just as Paris is France and London is England. A city brand represents more than just the city proper and is a global ambassador that can define an entire nation to the rest of the world.
Seoul has already achieved its 2007 goal of becoming ranked as the world’s 10th most powerful city brand according to the 2014 global city brand survey by the Guardian in which it was ranked #5 ahead of major cities like San Francisco, Rome and Tokyo. If this new Seoul brand doesn’t prove effective, I’m confident that dynamic Seoul will devise a new way to propel its morphing brand into the minds of the world.
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Image credit: Logos from the Seoul brand poll web page; Photos by the author