The Makgeolli/Makkoli Debate by Andrew Salmon

ZenKimchi note:
This is in response to the article and corresponding video written and produced by Daniel Gray of Seoul Eats regarding the promotion of 막걸리 overseas.  I appeared at the beginning of the video, which was taken at Dan’s 30th birthday party and during the taping of SeoulPodcast #82.

Written by Andrew Salmon

I’ll state my colours at the outset.

I am not involved, in any paid capacity, in official communications for any Korean government body, so I have no financial vested interest in this issue other than an affection for the bevvie under discussion. I am a journalist contributing an article on something of national interest. If the article has started a debate, so much the better. Perhaps I should mention that I do, however, have a background in international PR (three years with Burson-Marsteller) so can speak on marketing with at least a modicum of authority.

I take issue with the video clip. Here’s why.

The interviewer asks the right question  – i.e., “How do you pronounce the various romanizations?” – but does so to the wrong subjects – i.e., those who already know, and understand, Seoul’s official system of Korean romanization.

The problem with the methodology is glaring. He is posing the question to whose who already understand the government’s romanization system. However, the overwhelming percentage of the world’s non-Korean population is NOT familiar with this system, which, naturally, has certain quirks.

Take the word in question. Therein, the “-kg” and the “-eo” are problematic. I continue to maintain that English speakers unfamiliar with the official Korean romanization (i.e., the vast majority of the global population of English speakers) will pronounce the word “Mak-Ge-Olly” (hard g) or possibly “Mak-Jee-Olly” (soft g).

I am not suggesting that the entire system of romanization of Korea be changed yet again.

I am suggesting that interested stakeholders (e.g., producers and promoters) come up with a better romanization for the word in question, one that accurately reflects the Korean pronunciation.

(Of course there is the wider issue of whether it should be marketed globally using the word makgeolli at all; it might be wiser to use an English descriptor, e.g., Korean Rice Ale. For e.g., Taekwondo has been well marketing under the Korean name – albeit, it is usually mispronounced by non-Koreans. On the other hand, the marketing of the palaces as tourist attractions, I would guess, has not been helped by the lack of an English brand. Compare the way Chinese sites such as The Great Wall of China or The Forbidden City have attained international brand visibility due to their common English, not Chinese names, as opposed to Gyeongbokgung or Suwon Hwaseong. But this is a different issue that requires research and thinking.)

To return to the clip. Frankly, this is a prime example of how much market research on Korea is flawed. When testing perceptions of the international community, it needs to be done – as a general rule – on subjects outside Korea, rather than those who already here, who have in-built knowledge that the wider world will not. The latter approach results in misleading findings, and sets marketing strategies off on the wrong foot from day one.

International market research should be exactly that: international. Doing it the cheap and easy way (i.e., roping in resident foreigners) misses the point, yet I see this approach used again and again and again. More worryingly, it is often used as a tactic to justify bureaucrats’ or staffers’ own ideas to their superiors. (e.g., “We asked such and such Ambassador/Businessman/English Teacher; he agreed with us; he is a foreigner; ergo we are correct. Let’s execute!”)

FWIW, I agree with most comments about the best descriptor being rice beer, rice ale or rice brew, not rice wine (for reasons stated in the piece) but that is by-the-by.

The broader point is that if Korea needs to communicate an unfamiliar product to global audience, it needs to:

(a) Make the English reflective of the Korean original and/or

(b) Provide a realistic /accurate – and differentiated – descriptor of what the product actually is.

Andrew Salmon is a Seoul-based reporter and author. His works include the restaurant guide Seoul Food Finder (Seoul, 2001) and the military history To The Last Round: The Epic British Stand on the Imjin River, Korea, 1951 (London, 2009).



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2 thoughts on “The Makgeolli/Makkoli Debate by Andrew Salmon”

  1. Dear Andrew Salmon,

    First of all, I am an independent consultant and the opinions expressed in my article are my own. I have nothing to gain from the change in spelling. I was brought into do research on the issue and present my findings.

    The reporter that I mention from the Chosun is not you, but another reporter that quoted (but didn’t cite) your previous article on the topic of Makgeolli.

    Your article on how to market Makgeolli and Korean food that was published and translated in 2008 had a huge impact. It started a firestorm of debates and there was discussion on revamping the entire Korean Romanization system. This became a bigger issue when the Chosun reporter published another article on how the current spelling of Makgeolli could cause confusion.

    My stance on the entire issue is that changing the spelling would not have any impact at all. Koreans are approaching the issue from their point of view. They believe that a new name will magically make the product widespread and popular. We have already seen this in action. I mean, seriously, how many slogans does the city of Seoul need?

    Tobokki is a prime example. They changed the name and they built an entire institute to promote this one dish. Has it become an international hit…yet? No, but there is a big building and a number of people working on promoting Tobokki. I feel that Korea’s zeal should be channeled in better ways.

    The Internet is a leveling field and the current spelling of Makgeolli is what is accepted. Trying to change that will take years and tens of millions of dollars and it will only confuse people.

    As for the video, yes, I know that my methodology could have been better. I should have gone to another country to do the research, but due to the time and budget constraints (one weekend and…what budget) that was the best I could do. My apologies and I accept your criticism. I will do better next time.

    I agree that Korea should do more market research overseas and I hope this year they will.

    Finally, thank you so much for responding to my story. I am honored that a reporter of your stature would respond. I respect and admire the work that you have done and continue to do.


    Daniel Gray


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