Realising that the Hallyu may not last for ever, and recognising that the best marketers do not stake the financial health of the company on just one product, the Culture and Tourism ministry earlier this year decided to diversify their product portfolio. Recognising that some of the key differentiating features of Korean culture are designated by words which start with “Han”, they started the “Han Style” campaign.
One minor problem with this initiative is that “Han” has Chinese as well as Korean connotations. To a typical educated westerner, “Han” is a Chinese dynasty or the name of the dominant ethnicity in China, and not the river running through Seoul or anything to do with things Korean. And if you search “Han Style” in google, only two out of the first 10 hits relate to Korea, while the first page results for “Han Culture” is exclusively Chinese. While marketing can achieve a number of things, it surely will face an uphill struggle to push Han as a word associated with a nation of 40 or 60 million souls, when there’s a population of 1.3 billion across the border with equal or greater association with the word.
Others might quibble at the choice of strapline. If you think “Korea, Sparkling” is a little odd, you may also think “Korea the Sense” is similarly awkward.
This slogan symbolizes the Korean sentiment in overall Korean culture, emphasizing HanStyle as a brand appealing to the five senses
It’s nevertheless a smart move to be pushing “style”. The gadgets produced by LG and Samsung surely qualify for that label, while Korean fashion is maybe also becoming better known in the outside world — thought the somewhat intimidating sight of Venus Williams wearing hanbok (left), or Britney Spears in a shapeless marshmallow pink creation (right), does not necessarily bring the word “style” to mind.
So what are the elements of the Han Style campaign? How are they stylish? How can they earn export dollars or tourists for Korea, Inc? And how much Han Style can we expect to see in the UK? Well, it’s not all plain sailing.
Hanbok — traditional Korean clothing. I have to confess that while traditional male Korean costume can be very stylish, I find female hanbok profoundly unflattering to the figure, generally flattening the chest and fattening the stomach. The fabrics can be lovely, but if the hanbok is to make it in 21st century style it needs a fundamental design overhaul. I look forward to seeing the contemporary takes on it which will be shown in London in early November.
Hanok — traditional Korean housing. Not necessarily something that’s easy to export. Stylish? I’ve never been in one of the shi-shi new hanok-style houses in Bukchon favoured by millionaire thugs, but as for the real thing… it undoubtedly has a style all of its own, beloved of Kim Ki-duk in 3-Iron. But it’s not contemporary, so if you’re looking to earn export dollars as opposed to attracting tourists to a Korean hanok village, much better to push the type of architectural style and internal design evidenced in the book “Korea Style”, which has not much to do with hanoks.
Hansik — traditional Korean food. Possibly becoming more stylish outside of Korea. Kimchi is, of course, the miracle cure for all known diseases, while Hollywood actresses now swear by bibimbap, according to the Chosun. And there’s plenty of choice for Korean restaurants in London and elsewhere.
Hanji — Korean paper. While those Japanese across the East Sea were making flapping birds from their paper, Koreans were making armour. Here’s the Korean Overseas Information Service on the merits of Korean paper.
During the early period of Joseon, the royal court supplied troops guarding the remote northern frontiers with jigap, armor made of specially treated paper. This armor was not only waterproof, but also effectively protected the soldiers from the severe cold during winter. More importantly, this armor was sturdy enough to serve as a protective covering against arrows, spears, swords, or other weapons. During the period of King Injo, jigap was steadily improved, often using scraps of paper and waste paper as raw materials. Jigap also inspired the invention of civilian attire made of treated paper.
Hanji in London? Well, we had some paper lantern making at the Chuseok events which people seemed to enjoy. But somehow when traditional paper shops such as Faulkners are few and far between, it suggests that there’s not much money to be made out of quality paper. Maybe the new Cultural Centre will think of ways to promote it.
Hangeul — The Han Style site promises overseas Hangeul education in the future via Korean Cultural Centres – presumably this refers to classes in the language as well as the alphabet. But there’s also planned to be more of a push to get Hangeul onto products such as ties and T-shirts.
Care needs to be exercised here. Many will have seen the grotesque green creation by Dolce & Gabbana featuring some meaningless gibberish which apparently means “new assembly of people from the Cholla provinces”. No doubt an extremely expensive garment, but which when modeled by Britney Spears has all the style of a cast-off bought in a charity shop. But in the hands of a competent designer, you can get decent results. My favourite tie in my own wardrobe is by Lee Gun Maan, while what can be seen of the Lie Sang-bong’s design below has some style to it.
Eumak — Traditional Korean Music. Oops. That word doesn’t start with Han, so we’d better call it Hanguk Eumak. Here there seems to be two strands to the strategy: to promote the genuine traditional music, but also to push fusion music and more modern styles. And inevitably B-boys form a part of the strategy – and why not, when Korean B-boys seem to be among the best in the world? We’ve been fairly lucky with a wide variety of Korean music old and new over the past couple of years, with more to come later this year.
So what does it all amount to? More than anything else, it’s an attempt to show that Korea is more than Winter Sonata, Dae Jang Geum and Rain. If not all of the elements are directly exportable, at least maybe the campaign will persuade some more foreign tourists to make the journey to sample them in situ.