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Selling your Seoul: Why city slogans keep changing

New mayors bring new mottos, but experts warn of side effects of politically motivated rebranding

By Son Ji-hyoung

Published : Feb. 14, 2023 - 18:18

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"I.Seoul.U" is installed along the Han River in Seoul. (123rf)

Seoul city is moving to replace its eight-year-old slogan, "I.Seoul.U," by putting two new candidates, "Seoul, My Soul" and "Seoul for You," to an online vote for the next 30 days starting Wednesday.

The city government under Oh Se-hoon has stated that a new slogan is needed as the current one lacks popularity and does not make sense.

In calling time on the slogan, Oh is erasing one of the legacies of the late Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon, who died amid a sexual harassment scandal two years ago.

But the city government felt differently under the previous mayor. When it chose the "I.Seoul.U" slogan in 2015, the city said it was designed to showcase how South Korea's most populous city can bring individuals together.

The slogan faced criticism and mockery at the time. Critics said it did not effectively communicate information about Seoul, in addition to its abstractness and grammatical errors.

The city government under Park had sought to justify the slogan by citing the public vote as evidence of its popularity, though the other two options "Seouling" and "Seoulmate" faced similar criticisms.

Seoul is not the only municipality in Korea where elected mayors bring forward new slogans -- often done poorly and without reflecting a city's unique characteristics.

Like the Seoul mayor who was reelected last year, other cities that have opted to change their slogans have seen recent changes in leadership. For example, the industrial city of Daegu saw conservative politician Hong Joon-pyo take office last year; and Busan, the country’s largest port city saw Park Heong-joon of the conservative ruling People Power Party also became mayor in 2021.

In January, Busan introduced a new slogan “Busan is Good,” replacing its previous slogan of 20 years, "Dynamic Busan." Daegu also ditched its 19-year-old "Colorful Daegu" and switched to "Powerful Daegu” last year.

Experts have pointed out the inconsistency in Korean cities' branding strategies, noting that changes in slogans often coincide with new leaderships looking to make their mark.

"It happens in many places where as soon as the mayor or tourism minister or any other government changes, the first thing they do is to abandon the previous logo or slogan and start a process to create a new one," said Mihalis Kavaratzis, professor of Place Marketing at Manchester Metropolitan University.

"That is very often unnecessary. It is a potential waste of taxpayer money and a waste of effort. It also signifies an inconsistency that is not welcome."

None of the English slogans used in Korea's six most populous cities have survived for longer than 20 years. Daejeon's "It's Daejeon," created in 2004, gave way to "Daejeon Is U" in 2020, and Incheon got its new slogan of "All Ways Incheon" in 2017, after "Fly Incheon," which survived for about a decade. In 2008, Gwangju came up with "Clean Gwangju,” replacing "Your Partner Gwangju," which lasted for three years.

“Most of the studies in academia find that logos and slogans are not working. The reasons: politics, change of power of governments, low budgets, no knowledge,” said Erik Braun, associate professor of marketing and tourism at Copenhagen Business School.

Given that any branding strategy should involve years of effort and patience, politically motivated city rebranding through slogans, however, could undermine "internal cohesion within the local community," said Hong Fan, member of the board at the International Place Branding Association.

"A change of slogan might not bring new positive effects to the city and might not bring pride (the city's) residents," added Hong, who is also a professor of corporate communication studies at Tsinghua University.

Kavaratzis also warned that frequent changes could be counterproductive. "If the stakeholders know that the strategy and the slogan will change in a few years, they are less likely to trust it and believe in it," he said.

Seoul has been among the cities to adopt new slogans most frequently.

The city, home to a population of nearly 10 million, has seen its English slogans change often. Beginning with "Hi Seoul" in 2002, Oh, who was then Seoul mayor, created an accompanying "sub-slogan," giving way to "Hi Seoul: Soul of Asia" in 2006.

"Infinitely Yours, Seoul" was created in 2009 in response to China blasting Seoul for using "Soul of Asia" as its slogan. Seoul also promoted the slogan "City of Design" after it was designated by UNESCO as a city of design in 2012.

Three years later, the city of Seoul put the decision on the English city slogan to a public vote for the first time, resulting in the creation of "I.Seoul.U."

While initiating a move to change its slogan last year, the city government said it had conducted a survey of 200 foreign visitors in June and found that only 18 percent were aware of the current slogan, "I.Seoul.U," and that 73 percent believed it should be replaced. Meanwhile, a separate study of 1,000 Seoul residents showed that 69.3 percent had a positive opinion of "I.Seoul.U" in 2022, down from 88.3 percent in 2020, according to Oh’s office, indicating a decline in the slogan's popularity.

To some foreign residents in Seoul, the ongoing slogan-changing plan sounds unnecessary.

Colin Marshall, a Seoul-based writer and broadcaster, said he hopes that non-English-speaking cities would not bother with any kind of English-language slogans, which are often reduced to generic products for marketing abroad.

"Of all the Westerners who've visited Tokyo, for example, I'd be surprised if one in a hundred thousand knows its English slogan, or even whether it has one at all," he said, referring to “&Tokyo.”

Dean Comeau, a copywriter based in Seoul, commented "Have you ever visited a city, in Korea or globally, because of its slogan? I was shocked to find almost every Korean city has a page on its site dedicated to the city symbols.”

"There appears to be a lot of time that goes into branding, but I wonder if anyone outside of each city's marketing team knows or cares about them," he added.