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[Robert J. Fouser] Some thoughts on ‘I.Seoul.U’

The unveiling of Seoul’s new English slogan “I.Seoul.U” at the end of October stirred a hearty round of laughter on social media as people made jokes and parodies of the phrase. Amid the laughter was worry that the city had made a huge mistake in choosing a slogan that is incomprehensible.  

The negative reaction is unfortunate because the city spent 500 million won ($436,000) on the project that had resulted in 16,000 suggestions from citizens. A committee of nine experts narrowed the choice to three slogans: “I.Seoul.U,” “Seoulmate,” and “Seouling.” With input from 1000 citizens, the committee chose “I.Seoul.U” over the other two choices. The city of Seoul should be complimented for opening up the project to citizen involvement.

The project also included the development of a new Korean slogan “Na-wa neo-ui Seoul,” which translates roughly as “Seoul, yours and mine.” None of the finalists for the English reflects the Korean slogan clearly, suggesting that the committee was looking for something that could stand on its own in English.

The issue raises interesting questions about how to brand and market Seoul internationally.  Branding is about producing images that attract attention and encourage positive feelings about a person, place, or thing. Developing a catchy slogan is an important part of the branding that also includes images, color, and graphic design. 

The “O” in “I.Seoul.U,” for example, has a small line above it to evoke the image of the Hangeul grapheme “ㅇ.” This allows for creative uses that include Korean and English together.  Graphic designs of important landmarks can also be used in place of “Seoul” to create interesting images on advertisements. The committee and citizens who chose “I.Seoul.U” were most likely impressed by its potential for creative play.

The problem, of course, is that “I.Seoul.U” is meaningless, which renders it helpless in supporting the development of a brand. To work well, various components of image creation need to come together to project the brand. They work best when the reality of what people experience backs up the images.

A good example is New York City, which goes by a number of nicknames and slogans. “The Big Apple” is backed up by the city’s size and the iconic Manhattan skyline, and “The City that Never Sleeps” is backed by the energy of nightlife associated with the theater and music that New York is so famous for.

Another interesting example is Kyoto. The official Japanese marketing slogan translates as “Japan is Fortunate to Have Kyoto,” and posters have photos of famous buildings and gardens that are associated with the city. Slogan and images draw on Kyoto’s unique role as a repository of traditional Japanese culture.

All of this leads to the question of what is special or unique about Seoul nationally and internationally. What does Seoul have that can be turned into a brand?

In Korea, Seoul is overwhelmingly dominant and has drawn generations of migrants from all corners of the country in search of a better life. Its size and wealth symbolize the Korea’s stunning rise as an economic power. More recently, Seoul has come to symbolize some of the negative side effects of economic growth, as the gap between Seoul and provincial cities has continued to widen.

Overseas, Seoul has recently become known as the “cool city” of Asia, much like Tokyo was in the 1980s. This image is draws on the success of Hallyu and K-Pop and on rapid diffusion of IT and daring street fashion in Seoul. This image conflicts with the images of royal palaces and “traditional culture” that the city has tried to promote in the past.

“I.Seoul.U” certainly fits the “cool city” image because it breaks convention to create something new and unexpected. The use of capital letters, periods, a Hangeul grapheme, and the retro 1990s use of the letter “u” for “you” all catch the eye.

Some have argued that the slogan is form of “Konglish” because it does not make sense in English. The problem with this argument is that Konglish is intelligible, but awkward. It creates cloying phrases such as “correct understanding of history” that irk native speakers.

“I.Seoul.U” is a neologism that captures the coolness of Seoul visually, but fails to enhance that image through meaning. By contrast, the other two final choices — “Seoulmate” and “Seouling”— convey meaning clearly, but do little to promote the image of cool. A simple, somewhat pedestrian, slogan such as “Find Your Seoul” would have been a safer choice because it creates a positive image of the city as a place of exploration and discovery.

By Robert J. Fouser

Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Ann Arbor, Michigan. -- Ed.