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Sunday, June 9, 2013

Excellence in Flight?

Our trip to Beijing was fun: the Great Wall, delicious food, marvelous parks and gardens. But the air pollution was stunning. Particles of soot mixed with pollen smacked our faces. The toxic air put a blanket over our time there. Showering off the experience, I wondered about tourism here in Korea.

They tell me it's all about branding. BMW apparently has the most recognizable and valuable brand in the world. It's taken decades, consistent high quality, a measure of magical cache, and tons of dollars to make that blue and white logo a ubiquitous icon of prestige.
BMW-The most recognizable brand
in the world

In the travel world, branding has become essential for ensuring tourists, their pockets filled with cash, flock to your shores. India (Incredible India), Malaysia (Malaysia, Truly Asia), the Maldives, Bermuda, Japan, Costa Rica and Iceland, are all examples of successful destination branding.

Korean Airlines' recent branding campaign, Excellence in Flight, has impressed me. Their TV commercials have blanketed the airwaves in the U.S. I've found the imagery, music, and dream-like feel of the commercials, intoxicating ( But have they influenced my travel purchasing decisions? Well, yes.
A poorly conceived ad marketing
Korea in a New York

Though I had already begun avoiding the tired, stodge, service-starved U.S. airlines, such as American and United, KAL's marketing campaign pushed me over the top. More importantly however, is the fact that you actually get great service on KAL. Branding is more than having a cool image.

Next up, I hope, will be a national Korean campaign to get tourism off the ground in a big way here. In my experience most tried and true travel-oriented folks from the west don't include Korea in their travel plans. When I recently posted the following question on facebook the responses were fascinating.

“Folks, I welcome your opinions on this: Why is Korea usually not on people's radar screens when thinking about visiting Asia? Japan and Tokyo are. Hong Kong and Beijing are too. Even Taiwan is. What is behind the lack of actionable interest in Korea?”

A number of people said that CNN was to blame. It left the average viewer thinking, they said, that in light of North Korea's regular provocations, South Korea simply was not safe. A few stated out-right that "there is nothing to bring people here." Another post referred me to an interesting article, "Why Korea Sucks at Marketing Itself."

Candidly, I have met a number of expats who have been here too long. They may have had their fill of Korean food, frustrations with the language and the accumulating strain that living in another culture can layer onto your soul. Through that prism, Korea can seem lackluster, redundant, ordinary.

I left Korea largely feeling that way in 1975 after living here for two years. I felt exhausted and bitter. Interestingly, back home over the years I grew to miss Korea. It looked better and better in the rear-view mirror of the passing years. I returned to Korea for the 1988 Olympics, then a number of other times on various business trips. I have found, as my friend John said recently, that "Korea is about second impressions." It's a place that I have fallen in love with again and again over time.

For the record, Korea's tourist numbers are increasing. And yes, the K-Pop and Psy phenomena have placed Korea somewhat more prominently on the world's traveling stage. For me, there are many destinations well worth seeing in Korea. While some may say critically that Seoul is like any other major city in the world, I think the palaces, the walks through Insa-dong and along the Han River, Seoul Tower, the museums, the theater, the magical food, and a world-class subway to get you around, will place Seoul pleasingly on more and more tourist itineraries. Gyeongju, the capital of the Silla Kingdom, will engage and fascinate almost any curious traveler. Jeju Island and the countless other cities and towns that dot Korea offer uniquely fresh experiences and the wisdom of the ages.

Yes, I'll leave the branding of Korea for better tourism minds than mine. In the meantime, if Korea remains a best-kept secret I'll just savor the absence of the tourist hordes and keep the nooks and crannies for myself...and a few of my friends.