As those of you who've been paying special attention during my long bouts of blogging inactivity will know, I've been heavily involved with organizations and committees tasked with the job of promoting Korea as a tourist destination, or Korean culture itself. I do a bit of work here and there for government bodies, and am a member of the mostly-symbolic Presidential Commission on Nation Branding. And the closer I get to the core, the more clear it becomes that the promotion of "Brand Korea" is inherently crippled and continuously doomed to failure.
The main problem with the promotion of Korea, above several others, is that Korean ethnocentric myopia, or what I affectionately call the "Korean ethnocentrism reality distortion field," prevents an objective assessment of the basic, necessary assumptions that are required to even start thinking about the promotion of Brand Korea.
This ethnocentric myopia prevents even the most basic question that must be asked in the fields of advertising and marketing from even being asked, which is: What is Korea's unique selling proposition (USP)? This is basic freshman Marketing 101, but Koreans are remarkably bad at thinking about this question objectively, if at all, when planning a promotion or media campaign.
In other words, as a non-Korean sitting on my ass eating Cheetos in Iowa, nursing a cafe latte in NYC, eating muësli in Copenhagen, or fish & chips in London, why on God's green earth should I care a whit about Korea? The corollary question is: Why should I care about China or Japan any less, enough to think about Korea, about which I know next-to-nothing, nor have any reason to find out more? Japan has ninjas and samurai and geisha, as well as Godzilla, naughty schoolgirls, and cool animè. China has the Great Wall, kung fu, and Jackie Chan, not to mention sweet-n-sour chicken, huge buildings, and other things that only 1.4 billion people could both create and enjoy. China's China and Japan's Japan, man. To ape the words of the immortal Mel Brooks: "Branding? We don't need no fucking branding."
I know, I know. Koreans, at this point in the argument, are usually chomping at the bit to point out what they think we should all know about Korea's unique history, aesthetics, and other aspects of the culture. Korea's had a hard time, a difficult history, has generally been screwed over by bigger powers, Japan stole this and that cultural treasure, etc. Or that Korean temples are as defined by the empty space as much as the presence of objects; that Korean companies lead in the semi-conductor industry, Samsung makes superior cellphones, or that Koreans invented the movable-type printing press before Gutenberg.
The point is - no one cares. To a complete outsider, to the fanny pack-sporting tourist, this JUST DOESN'T MATTER. Korea, on a superficial level, is just not as exciting as the Great Wall of China, the Forbidden City, or Tiananmen Square. Hallasan ain't got nothing on Mt. Fuji, and Kyoto makes Kyeongju look like an empty parking lot by comparison. Sorry - it's true.
Back to the USP: Why would Joe Schmoe come to Korea? Not from the point of view of a proud Korean, but from the wallet-view of a breadwinner living in Florida with a hankering to take a trip to Asia WHO HAS NO PARTICULAR REASON TO KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT KOREA NOR CARE ABOUT ITS HISTORY OR PEOPLE beyond the latest news about North Korea, occasional Korean figure skater, or famous Korean actor who manages to become an overblown extra in a Hollywood movie or the main character in a B-rated genre flick - no one cares about Korea.
In the standard Korean way of presentation of the country's attributes, it's a losing proposition, not a winning, unique one. On the level of objects and monuments, dances and rituals, places to go, things to see, China and Japan have simply got it on lock. You just can't touch them. At all. Fugeddaboutit. Give up.
Proud Korean citizens and nationalists, please calm down and put your guns and knives away. I'm not saying that China and Japan ARE objectively better in any sense, but just that, at least on the level of big monuments and other touristy cultural ephemera, their shit is just bigger, brighter, or more famous. Period. This is an indisputable fact. YOU, as the Korean nationalist direct descendant of King Sejong himself, might think Kyeongbok Palace to be superior in some way to the Forbidden City, but 99.99% of non-Koreans don't. And that's mostly because most foreigners don't even know the Kyeongbok Palace exists.
So, on the level of superficial touristy shit, Korea has no USP over that of it's nearest and more famous neighbors. Similarly, in this situation, if you were a marketer or copywriter tasked with promoting a little-known, niche product that most people have scarcely heard of, against two monster ones that everyone knows and dominates the market, you'd have your work cut for you.
And you surely wouldn't start out by trying to compete in terms of the strengths of your competitors. Why on earth would you do that? Famously, Muhammed Ali wasn't dumb enough to start trading punches with George Foreman; he would have been shattered from the inside-out. So he fought according to his strengths, did the infamous "rope-a-dope" and egged Foreman on until he exhausted himself. Then Ali took his shot, and the much-beloved underdog knocked Foreman the fuck out.
Similarly, although less dramatically, Korea working her opponents on the level of their strengths is pretty silly. Sure, from the Korean point-of-view, Korea's cultural treasures are points of pride and demand proud attention; but on the international level, especially from the point-of-view of the more traveled tourist that would even consider coming to Korea in the first place, Korea just ain't that interesting. There's not even a recognizable cityscape. For interesting buildings, I'll go to Shanghai. Again, sorry.
So, we return to the question: What is Korea's USP?
Korean Tourism Organization (STO), Seoul Tourism Organization (STO), as well as pretty much every PR firm and marketing company contracted to do cultural promotion work to international audiences, I'm giving you the Million Dollar Answer.
Korea's USP is found in EXPERIENCES.
Sounds simple, don't it? I've told this to countless suits working in these orgs, but they don't listen. They don't bother to think about the factors behind the rising numbers of foreigners coming here and even choosing to live here, who then have friends visit them, and of this group, many more people fall in love with Korea. Many people who otherwise had nothing to do with Korea ended up coming on a trip, a stopover, a visit to a friend, a stint in the military, and ended up coming back - to STAY. Of course, the only way to do this is to whore oneself out by teaching English, but hey, it's work. And it's not that bad a life, at least, for a time.
So wait - Korean culture is actually pretty sticky, once you get introduced to it. So, one might assume that if you can communicate what is sticky about it, get the word out there, then more foreigners might be interested in coming to check it out. But this is where the problem begins:
1) Koreans have no idea, because of ethnocentric myopia, what it is about Korea that foreigners tend to like. They're too busy asking us if we know what kimchi is. or worrying about some fantasy of having to present a certain national image of Korea.
2) Koreans also have no idea that they indeed DON'T KNOW that they have no idea why foreigners come here. In other words, they don't even know there's a fundamental problem with this cognitive disconnect. Put yet another way, Koreans in these fields don't even know how unable to see the big picture they really are.
3) Koreans are, by extension of the same problem created by the "ethnocentric myopia reality distortion field" that surrounds everything related to the catchphrase "culture," that they spend all their energy promoting things that THEY THINK NON-KOREANS SHOULD KNOW ABOUT without thinking about WHAT NON-KOREANS MIGHT ACTUALLY WANT TO KNOW ABOUT.
4) And even with what Koreans think they do know about foreigners, it is usually based on flawed, untrue assumptions. That's why Koreans always ask if we know what kimchi is (it's like common knowledge, yo), or that Americans don't eat fish (we have coastlines and fishermen, too, and seafood restaurants, duh), or that we don't eat spicy foods (salsa sells more than ketchup in the US and all peppers come from the Americas, what up?).
Back to the $1,000,000 answer, seen through these 4 major problems: Koreans are too busy underestimating what foreigners DO KNOW and CAN KNOW about Korea, even as there is a knee-jerk response to engage in the simplest possible conversation about "culture," as defined in palaces, temples, foods, and dances. And Koreans continue to draw a line not-to-be-crossed around the culture, because Koreans are generally still uncomfortable about thinking of non-Koreans as insiders. The idea of the foreigner centers around the idea of them as "perpetual guests" and not 2% of the population. Or even as tourists, they cannot really know anything about Korea, so just show them some palaces, walk them around a museum, and take their money.
But Korea's strength is in EXPERIENCES. Even the Korean food that has become popular overseas, from kimchi to kalbi, Korean chicken-n-beer houses, taekwondo, tv dramas, and on and on - these are EXPERIENCES.
When foreigners come to Korea accidentally, but then end up falling in love with the culture, it's about EXPERIENCES. Drinking soju while roasting meat in a back-alley meat joint, staying out all night in the clubs of Hongdae that never close, going to bars where there's no "last call," sitting outside a convenience store, eating dried squid and sipping a beer - these and a million other aspects of "life in the big city," which is hip and fun, but much cheaper than Tokyo, while being much more cosmopolitan and compelling than Beijing - define Korea's USP.
Back in the day, Seoul was not a place to live for foreigners, even 20 years ago. Koreans had never heard of nachos or email, wine tasted like cough syrup, internationally famous DJ's didn't include Seoul on their tours, and things were general rustic and rough around the edges. Tokyo was a beacon of light by comparison, and China was still China, however you cut it, even back then.
But Korea's got something now, with a mix of the rough and rustic, but elements of a culture flyng headlong into the far-flung future. And as many aspects of that mix, remix, and otherwise come together, many, many points in the culture just become COOL.
And that's part of the problem.
the abstract coolness of Korean culture is a tough thing for cultural nationalist-style Koreans to wrap their minds around, as they fumble about bragging about monuments, sites, and such, thinking only in terms of superlatives and flattering statistics. This, even as Koreans generally only think about Korea AS KOREANS, without even bothering to consult foreigners about it, or even try to think in terms of their possible point-of-view. A telling point: no foreigners sit in positions of editorial or budgetary power in these organizations, if there are any foreigners involved AT ALL. Often, promotions aimed at the international audience aren't even proofread by a native speaker of English, let alone have anyone international involved in the actual planning or content.
And this practice really drives the nails into the coffin of Korean promotional planning. If you were an ad agency tasked with selling a new form of brassiere to women, would you proceed without any women in creative? If you were marketing a product to African-Americans, would you not try to have African-Americans involved in the process? Or me, as an owner or a PR agency in say, New York City, wouldn't I be insane to take a huge account (and money) to reach the Korean community WITH NO KOREANS INVOLVED IN THE PROJECT AT ALL, EVEN AS PROOFREADERS?
Of course that would be crazy. But this is exactly what happens every single day in Korean creative agencies, involving millions of dollars in operating budgets, all over Korea, ALL THE TIME. And the government wonders why still, more tourists go visit Vietnam each year than come to Seoul. And the numbers don't improve, even as the government dumps more money into the process.
Yeeeeah. Umm, DUH.
The old story of the frog in the well applies here, on so many levels. Or, to use another metaphor, it's an actual case of the blind leading the blind. And this is just the beginning of the problem...