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Neon signs give way to no-sign trend in Korea

Oct 23, 2020 (Gmt+09:00)

Flashy, glittery neon signs used to be one of the signature sights of Seoul, a city that never sleeps. But these signs are slowly becoming a thing of the past with new businesses opting either for no signs or modest, small logos. The trend of the nameless store lures customers by sparking their curiosity or tapping into their FOMO (fear-of-missing out) through social media platforms, or through word of mouth. 

In 2007, Crif Dogs immediately became New York's favorite hot dog joint with its generous choice of 17 different hot dog offerings. But for insiders, it wasn't just a tasty hot dog restaurant. Inside the restaurant is a red, vintage phone that leads customers to the speakeasy PDT (Please Don't Tell) bar hidden underground – like Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

Dialing the red phone at Crif Dogs gives access to PDT bar

This undercover theme is becoming a common trend among emerging businesses in South Korea, even if they're not underground. There's a rise in stores that hang signs that are irrelevant to their actual business. For example, Haenghwatang – haenghwa meaning apricot flowers and tang meaning bathhouse – is a public bathhouse-turned-art house that holds performances and exhibitions. It still uses the sign from its former bathhouse days. 

Another example is Central Reducer, a fusion Chinese restaurant run by top chef and TV personality Choi Hyun-seok who kept the sign from when the space was used as a reducer factory. The oxymoronic placement of the sign and its actual business adds an unexpected twist and charm to the restaurant. These types of run-down buildings converted into new stores are frequently spotted in other areas of Seoul such as Euljiro and Sungsudong.

Haenghwatang maintains its old public bathhouse sign 

Establishments without signs were common in major commercial districts such as Itaewon, Hannamdong, and Ikseondong, areas that offered a wide selection of restaurants and bars. But recently, these undercover spaces have been springing up along the narrow alleys of still non-trendy neighborhoods due to the recent coronavirus crisis, which has fueled interest in residents who are curious about "the store without a sign."

Signs date back much further than we think – to the days of ancient Egypt, Greek, and Rome. Back then signs were usually paintings on the wall, with more drawings than letters. It was in these historic days that the barbershop pole with its signature white and red stripes was created. The sign, inspired by blood and bandages, was created by a barber who also worked as a doctor. This barbershop pole is still used around the world.

Signs evolved through the invention of printing and electricity, leading to neon signs, which when met with cutting-edge technology became the face of the cityscape in many cities. Neon signs became bigger and flashier to grab the attention of customers until social media platforms began to replace them.

Social media platforms have played a huge role in prompting customers to voluntarily seek out establishments. People who see enticing photos on Facebook or Instagram are driven to look up the location and visit. In particular, elusive spaces such as speakeasy bars and stores without signs trigger the psychological desire to be an insider, among others who share a unique and private experience.

Jonah Berger, a professor at the Wharton School explains this as the law of social currency – someone's influence on social media and its impact on both online and offline activities. Everyone is inclined to share their experience and thoughts, and social media platforms serve as the perfect channel to do this.

From large corporates to small mom-and-pop stores, if social currency is well used in social media platforms then it will automatically transpire into buzz and generate successful business. Instead of boasting swanky signs, establishments without signs deliver the cool, composed message that they are committed to high-quality service.

"Good wine needs no bush," Shakespeare wrote in his comedy As You Like It in 1623. He knew early on that there is no need for neon signs or ritzy advertisements if you're confident you're offering a valuable experience.

Write to Bora Kim at destinybr@hankyung.com

Danbee Lee edited this article.

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