Monday, 25 October 2021

A lemming’s life on automatic


One of my favourite topics on Extrawurst is how human behaviour is changing in relation to the internet and due to digitalisation. There’s a progression from intrepid surfing to good-natured stumbling to passive feeding - although this current phase tends to be reframed by advertisers in terms of “being served”, conjuring up visions of waiters, bow ties and silver salvers, rather than geese with tubes down their necks. 

I recently read a presentation which looked at this progression with reference to one aspect of behaviour: driving and navigation. Back in the 1990s, this was an analogue process involving maps, atlases and route cards, with the co-driver fully in control - and probably responsible when anything went wrong. Although I still blame our 1995 off-road adventure in Bryce Canyon National Park, testing the hired saloon car to its limits, on a misleading map rather than navigational incompetence on my part.

Moving on to the 2000s and the first navigation systems - very much a digital support which the driver could attend to or not as they saw fit. The navigation system in my 2006 Audi was almost impossible to set up and involved a CD, which of course was rapidly out of date. Quite often, I didn’t bother and drew up a route card, especially if venturing outside Germany.

In the 2020s we’ve moved from the driver/navigator as pathfinder right through to being digitally led and following blindly. The presentation makes a lemming analogy, of which more later, but you get the point. Unquestioning, submissive to the machine, following the orders. And in the future, this won’t just be the navigating side of things but the driving too.

Now some of this is all well and good. Digitalisation makes life easy, so you can concentrate on other things (although I always wonder what other things those could be). But I do worry that each time I enter a new destination, the compass in my head becomes a little less on the ball. I still like to do stuff from first principles: get the old map out and see roughly where I’m heading for. In the last century, labour-saving devices reduced the drudgery of washing and cleaning by hand, but is mental labour-saving, where the cogs of the mind grow sluggish through lack of use really a positive development?

Can pandemic-acceerated digitalisation be seen - in some respects - as a kind of instituationalisation in which we get lazy, start seeing responsibility and independence as burdens, and stop making our own choices?

For brands, there seems to be value in creating mental and physical availability combined with the feeling that the customer has made a conscious choice for that brand, rather than “being served” what an algorithm computes that person might like. And with some brands/categories, the scarcity/discovery/unseamless/difficult to find route could also be of interest.

By the way, back to those furry creatures. The “mass suicide” is a not-so-urban myth. The observed behaviour is more to do with migration - dispersal to resolve population density - and a few accidental deaths in the process. Nature’s way. 

Thursday, 7 October 2021

Let the force be with you


Every couple of months, it seems, a must-read book about business as a force for good is launched. Although we’d discussed topics such as sustainability in relation to our clients’ business back in the 1990s at Saatchis, the real eye-opener for me came in the form of a book called, simply Good Business, which came out in May 2002. Maybe I paid attention to this one as I knew the authors. Or because I had a toddler at the time, and was thinking a little more deeply about what makes the world go round and, indeed, what kind of world he’d inherit. Or possibly because, post-9/11, my own career was in danger of toppling into the abyss.

That’s all history now, and one of the book’s authors now runs a remarkably successful and Good Business, under that very name. I looked back at the book’s write-up on amazon, and found this: In this radical manifesto for capitalism, the authors argue that it’s time for companies to start becoming the solution to the world’s problems and stop being seen as the cause ...

Fast-forward through 2013 and Who Cares Wins by David Jones, meaningful brands, responsible capitalism, doing well AND doing good. And on to the Brand Purpose era, led by Good is the New Cool: Market Like You Give a Damn by Afdhel Aziz and Bobby Jones (I have always wondered about the “Like” in that title).

And this week, a new book (or maybe not just a book, but a movement) has launched: netpositive by Paul Polman and Andrew Winston, with the subtitle how courageous companies thrive by giving more than they take. The website and publicity for the book, sorry, movement, talk about the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the urgency for businesses to step up and work with governments and NGOs to tackle worldwide problems. There’s a net positive readiness test (I particularly like the thorny issue/elephant in the room which asks: Do you seek to pay a fair share of taxes that contribute to collective prosperity in the communities you operate in?)

I will read the book, which I hope goes into a bit more depth than the publicity material, which focuses rather on “runaway climate change and rampant inequality ravaging the world” when actually capitalism has made a huge contribution to the UN’s No. 1 goal “No Poverty” over the years. I am hoping for a reasoned argument of shareholder AND stakeholder responsibility. And why some of the tech companies who are hailed as shining examples still insist on building obsolesence into their products.

Hopefully, if we are talking about the world, the book will be translated into, for example, the Chinese languages and Russian, too.

I often wonder why, if we’ve been talking about reponsible capitalism for years, the same arguments are used by successive authors. Perhaps the clue is in the subtitle, and it’s about responsibility.

Companies aren’t courageous. People are

Monday, 4 October 2021

RETROWURST: Top Euro Brands October 2003


This month’s Retrowurst, from October 2003, is one of those lazy ones where I didn’t bother writing anything particularly original, but instead chose to rehash a report from someone else. In this case, Interbrand’s Best Global Brands.

Interbrand won’t be revealing their top of the pops until 20th October, so we’ll have to make do with last year’s ranking to see who’s still in and who’s definitely out. 

In 2003, 8 of the Top 10 brands were of US origin, and that’s now 7 out of 10. However, two of the three non-US brands are from Asia-Pacific, with only one European origin brand in the Top 10. Nokia is long gone, so this year it’s Germany which has that honour - with Mercedes at No. 8.

European-origin brands aren’t doing badly as far as the Top 50 goes. In 2003, there were 4 German-origin brands in the Top 50 and 2020, there are 7. The usual suspects from the auto branch, or mobility, or whatever it’s called these days, plus SAP, Allianz and adidas. 

France had 2 brands in the Top 50 in 2003, now there are 5 - from the luxury/fashion/beauty side of things (those old stereotypes live on) - oh, and AXA too. (Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Hermes, L’Oreal)

UK are no longer in the EU or the Top 50 brands, I’m sorry to say.


I thought I’d refrain from writing anything about the Oktoberfest this month and turn my attention to something of more general European interest. While looking through Interbrand’s League table of the Top 100 Global Brands for 2003, it struck me that, despite the trend to globalisation, we in ‘Old Europe’ are actually best at doing what might be expected from the old stereotypes. Indeed, glancing at the list reminds one of all those ‘heaven and hell jokes’ which preface every other newspaper article about Europe - ‘heaven is where the police are British, the cooks French, the engineers German, the lovers Italian and the Swiss keep the time. Hell is where the police are German, the cooks British, the engineers French, the lovers Swiss and the Italians keep the time’ - or however the thing goes.


Before I get onto what I mean, I’ll just preface this by giving a few provisos about the Interbrand Top 100 table- first, it’s about global brands, so to get onto it, your brand must be over $1 billion, it must be global (with at least a third of sales outside your home market and good distribution across all major continents) and you must have publicly available marketing and financial data (which excludes big players like Visa, the BBC and Mars). Secondly, the brands are listed in order of Brand Value- a complex calculation in which Interbrand take a large number of difference forces and influences into account to work out how much a brand is likely to earn in the future, discounted to a present value based on risk. So we are not talking anything simple like sales or awareness here.


Some general observations about the Top 100- it is dominated by US origin brands, as one might expect. Eight out of the Top 10 brands are US, covering categories as widespread as soft drinks (Coca Cola), software (Microsoft), entertainment (Disney) and tobacco (Marlboro). The Top 5 brands are all US (Coca Cola, Microsoft, IBM, GE and Intel), with Europe first making an entry at number 6 with Nokia. The Far East, in the form of Japan, makes its first entry at position 11 with Toyota. It’s actually surprising; perhaps, that the top brand from Europe should have the (relatively) obscure homeland (to us Brits) of Finland. In fact, without wanting to sound rather unpatriotic, Great Britain does not figure as prominently in this table as we would perhaps like. Maybe we’re not good at global brands but, as a country that prides itself on the quality of its marketing and advertising, particularly in relation to some of our European neighbours, we don’t seem to cut it in the global arena. The Germans, for example, have four brands in the Top 50, including Mercedes in the Top 10. The French have two brands in the Top 50. The only brand from GB in the Top 50 is HSBC at position 37- successful though HSBC undeniably is; it is hardly top of the wish list for ambitious marketers or advertising agencies hoping to produce stunning creative work.


So, onto the stereotypes. I’ll start with the Germans, as this is an Extrawurst. In the Top 100 for Germany are Mercedes, BMW, SAP, VW, Adidas and Nivea- so very heavy on the cars and technology with a bit of sport and wholesome body care in addition. Scandinavia boasts three brands in the Top 100; Nokia, Ikea and Ericsson- to be expected from thinly populated countries with huge pine forests! For France, we have the expected mixture of luxury goods, beauty, food and drink with the Louis Vuitton, L’Oreal, Chanel, Danone, Hermes, Hennessy and Moet & Chandon brands. Italy is fashion, fashion, fashion with Gucci and Prada. With Nescafe, Nestle and Rolex, the Swiss are heavy on chocolate and watches. The Netherlands have a rather mixed bag (but somehow appropriate) of electronics, oil/exploration and beer - Philips, Shell and Heineken are their brands in the Top 100. And, finally, the combination of banking, exploration/oil and journalism topped up with booze (HSBC, BP, Reuters, Shell, Smirnoff and Johnnie Walker) could only be British!


What is there to be learned from this? Firstly, I think it says that provenance is important, even in these days of globalisation. One way of looking at it is to use your national stereotype to your advantage in creating your brand- Lufthansa is one of the most preferred airlines in Europe for short-haul due to people’s perceptions of its absolute punctuality and reliability but loses out to the Far Eastern carriers on long haul, where service is a more important deciding factor. Or, alternately, cause disruption by creating a brand that is unexpected, given your national stereotype- who knows - maybe an Italian engineering giant or a Swiss range of ‘love toys’ could top the Top 100 yet!----------------------------------------------------

Of course, the big change is that the tech brands dominating the Top 50 were still in Kindergarten back in 2003. It’ll be interesting to see if and how the big German brands reinvent themselves over the next decade - or whether they’ll be history, like those Scandi mobile phone brands from the early days of the 21st century.

P.S. HSBC did feature in my last post with their advertising, so maybe I was a little hasty dismissing them as unlikely creative fodder - or maybe it’s a sign of the times

Wednesday, 29 September 2021

Borders, Boxes, Brexit and Bother


My recent visit to the UK as Summer fades into Autumn had its rather wonderful moments - heather against blue sky, for example. But there were more than enough moments of general botheration, summed up by this sort of thing:

 I did manage to get petrol for the drive back without getting knifed or the tyres of my German number-plated car slashed. But one incident which can be filed under “customer service - lack of” did rile me somewhat.

To cut a long story short, the phone and broadband in my UK house weren’t working. I rang the service provider from my German mobile phone to try and sort it out. They let me know that they wouldn’t deal with it directly, but would pass it on to Openreach. I wouldn’t be able to contact Openreach directly, but my provider would send me a text to let me know progress, when appointments were confirmed and suchlike.

- Oh, great - here’s my mobile number. It’s a German one. Hope that’s OK?

- No, sorry. We’re not allowed to take international numbers. Have you got another number we can call you on?

- Well, I have, but it’s not working if you remember. Can you make an exception?

- No, we can’t.

- Then how will you contact me?

- You’ll have to phone us.

- Right. You mean I have to call your helpline via my German phone, and possibly hang on for 20 minutes or so before I get a reply, in order to find out progress on repairing a fault with the service you supply?

- Yes. Is there anything else I can help you with today?

I bit my tongue at that point, but I will be writing a letter, for what good it will do.

I can’t help but wonder how many other people there must be in a similar situation with two homes in different countries through circumstance rather than choice. Banks, utility and service providers would do well to recognise these customers’ needs rather than treating them as an irritant to the system.

Globalism used to be the big dream, but it’s now become a dirty word. I do believe there is a place for both: roots/local and global, with all its advantages. It doesn’t necessarily mean Starbucks. HSBC UK have used this theme in their advertising for a few years now. Some of the ads are a touch cliched, but I do like Richard Ayoade as spokeperson for the brand.

The latest ad, about borders, is here   

As the ad industry becomes increasingly obsessed with identity and putting people in boxes, I hope one day the penny will drop that a box has multiple borders.  

Friday, 17 September 2021

Ragtag, motley and wayward

 My (slightly bedraggled) career has lurched more and more in the direction of writing in the last fifteen years or so. Yes, I’m still a strategist at heart, yet words never cease to fascinate and enthrall me.  

Every is a writer collective, which bundles together the best business writing from different perspectives. In one of those open letter thingies on their website, the question is posed: Why is great business writing rare? The authors suggest three answers:

1. Great business writing requires multiple skills

2. Writers are pressurised to publish too often

3. Most writing is chasing clout, not insight

I couldn’t agree more with this, and it’s the last of these that touched my writer heart. So many guides to writing business articles talk about SEO, hashtags and key words. And so many articles I read have those clickbait headlines, but turn out to be rehashes of other articles, or yet another take on whatever “narratives” (beginning to loathe that word) are trendy or trending. Everyone seems to be writing what everyone else is writing about, from purpose to diversity.

Dan and Nathan from Every call this “cotton candy” writing, in that it leaves readers unsatisfied, and doesn’t age well. They’re right. All those “likes" are something ephemeral. You only have to think about your own behaviour, liking an article because you agree with the headline, or because it’s a friend, or because everyone else seems to think it’s good. It takes a millisecond, then you move on.

Whether it’s business articles, news and opinion pieces, advertising, business books or fiction, it all starts to feel like homogenised, soulless, unoriginal pap. The output of today’s Smoothie Society  is easy to digest, with nothing to get stuck in your throat, your mind - or your heart. There’s a place for the wayward, the ragtag and motley - but it’s beyond the algorithmic boundaries, hiding somewhere on the fiftieth page of your search, out of the reach of the spotlikes. 

It’s ten years ago since I was preparing for the publication of my first novel, and I still thank my lucky stars that it was published by a small press, less motivated by clout than by insight and originality. It hasn’t sold or made me millions, but it’s still in print, which it certainly wouldn’t be if I’d been taken on by a major publisher. They would have found the sales figures somewhat pitiful and that would have been that. A couple of years after launch, I reflected on my status as a writer and concluded that I was a “happy amateur”. 

This is wot I wrote - and I think it still passes the test of time:




A year ago, the launch of my first book was imminent so I thought it was high time to have a chat with my tax advisor about my status. Now, in Germany, if you’re freelance, you have to register your freelancery from a finite list of German tax-office-approved jobs or professions. It’s rather like the terribly German system of only being allowed to give your child a name from the authority-approved list.


My tax advisor smiled benignly as I explained all to him and told me that I needn’t do anything. The tax authorities here would classify my writing as a hobby – rather as if I’d decided to take up collecting classic cars.


I must admit to a certain sense of relief. I rather like thinking of my authorial efforts in this way. Financially I’m going to lose a lot more than I gain, but it’s an indulgence I can allow myself. After over twenty-five years teetering around on one career ladder, I’m quite glad I don’t have to start climbing another. 


But every now and then, I read an article or hear a piece of advice goading me on to take a more professional approach. This pisses me off, big time.


Why? Well, the best answer is in an article I read a few years back in Intelligent Life (now defunct), by Ed Smith, cricketer-turned-journalist entitled ‘Are we too professional?’.


The gist of the article is that the concept of professionalism has taken over in every imaginable sphere, from sports to nursing to teaching to journalism. And in the relentless pursuit of professionalism, the word amateur has come to mean second-rate, shabby and slapdash.


Strange for a word that has its origins in amare, to love. Why, after all, am I writing? Why are any of us writing?


The idea of professionalism has snuck into the world of publishing, too. And, of course, agents and publishers have to be professional. That’s how they earn their living.


But authors?


If professionalism means a certain standard of presentation and a degree of common politeness and respect to people with whom you might be entering into a business agreement, then that’s right and proper.


But if it means writing what the market demands, what the industry expects or what the research says – and can a market demand? Can research speak? – then, no.


Or if it means getting bogged down in process and management mumbo-jumbo from commercial hooks, to USPs, to author as brand, to positioning, to embracing social media, to engaging with the market…?


Or filing down all the rough edges, eccentricities, the bits that don’t fit to become some sort of management clone?

Or being obsessed with metrics and measures from sales to followers to Facebook ‘likes’?


Or being conned by the growing army of pseudo-coaches, mentors and consultants who are no more qualified to sell their advice than I am?


If being ‘more professional’ is any of this, then I’m happy to stay an amateur.


(Written in 2013)


Wednesday, 8 September 2021

RETROWURST: Seasonal Products September 2003

 The first visit to a supermarket on our recent return from holiday brought the inevitable groans of ‘No! Lebkuchen already?’ This makes this Retrowurst particularly topical in that it marvels over the German September delicacies of Federweißer, Zwiebelkuchen, Süßer and Pfifferlinge. It goes on as a culinary calendar and guide to German food and drink throughout the year.


September may well have been the ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ for Keats, but it is definitely the season of Federweißer und Zwiebelkuchen here in middle-Hessen. The subject of Extrawurst this month is seasonality, especially in relation to food and drink and how brands can use this notion to connect closer with people.


Since I have lived in Germany, it has always been apparent to me that nature’s cycle of months and seasons is somehow closer to Germans’ hearts and especially stomachs than for us Brits. At certain times of year, there are special products that one just can’t avoid; in fact, the whole year is punctuated with delicacies and if one were to throw away all calendars, you would have a pretty good idea of what month you were in by a glance at the restaurants’ blackboards and the supermarket shelves (given that the weather doesn’t seem to be such a reliable guide any more!)


As I said in the opening, in September we are in the midst of the Federweißer und Zwiebelkuchen season. Federweißer is a mildly alcoholic, cloudy grape juice from the first fermentation in winemaking. It is usually available direct from the vineyards and in wine bars but also from the supermarket where it is sold in (potentially messy for the unwary) bottles without a cork! It is usually served with Zwiebelkuchen, a very oniony flan which provides a nice contrast in taste to the rather sweet Federweißer. For those who prefer something non-alcoholic, another speciality of Hessen in September is Süßer, a strong, cloudy, sweet-tasting apple juice which is the first pressing that will eventually be made into Apfelwein. The beginning of Autumn is also mushroom time, especially Pfifferlinge or Chanterelles. Many families go mushroom picking in the forests and Apothekes provide a free ‘mushroom identification service’ to make sure that you’re not about to serve up a poisonous Ragout!


As the Autumn moves on through October and November, the Wild or game season gets underway, with fresh venison and wild boar available in the butcher’s (and deep frozen in Aldi!). Many restaurants have a special game menu. Goose is also widely available from November onwards, as this is traditionally eaten not just at Christmas but also around St Martin’s Day which is in mid-November.


By December, the Christmas goodies will have been in the supermarkets since September but now the Christmas baking season really intensifies with displays of the spices needed in Supermarkets and Apothekes. Competition for home-baking comes inevitably from the various Weihnachtsmärkte or Christmas markets that start around late November.


With February comes Karneval, with its own specialities, mainly Kreppeln or doughnuts and then, around the end of March, the first fresh Grüne Soß is available in restaurants or to make yourself from the pre-bundled fresh herb mixtures available from market stalls. This is a cold sauce made from seven different herbs and sour cream, which is eaten with potatoes, meat or hard-boiled eggs.


April sees the beginning of Spargelzeit where you just can’t escape from asparagus (the German asparagus is white as it grows underground). There are little roadside stalls selling the stuff in various sizes and qualities and a lot of restaurants serve only asparagus at this time. In May, a special woodland herb is available to make a delicious punch called Maibowle with schnapps, white wine and Sekt. In May, the first strawberries are available and many of the roadside asparagus stalls sell these too, along with the many ‘pick your own’ fields. Needless to say, you can make a very nice Bowle from strawberries, too.


There are numerous examples of food brands in Germany who introduce seasonal variants and flavours. Mövenpick Ice Cream, for example have featured ‘Our Ice of the year’ for many years- a flavour that is available for one year only. More recently, Mövenpick have started introducing two such flavours, one for the summer (usually lighter and fruity) and one for the winter (usually more nutty/chocolatey). This idea has been picked up on by many other brands, including Schwartau jams who have a ‘jam of the year’. Other examples of seasonal flavours and variants can be seen in the chocolate confectionery market, where Ritter Sport and Milka are both very active with this kind of thing- summer flavours are usually yoghurt and fruit-orientated while in the winter, flavours based on some of the traditional German Christmas goodies, such as Lebkuchen and Stollen can be seen.


Hochland cheese is another brand who has introduced seasonal varieties into its Almette cream cheese range- this Spring they introduced Almette with asparagus and we will not be surprised to see Almette with mushrooms this Autumn!


There are various important advantages that seasonal variants and flavours can imbue on a brand: firstly, in these days of so many new product flops, there is a certain amount of honesty admitting that a new flavour will only be available for a limited time and, of course, it makes an excellent testing platform. It can make a brand seem less ‘processed’, impersonal and distant especially if the variants are in tune with local tastes or recent trends. It provides a good antidote to the fear of globalisation and faceless, distant corporations. People are given a reason to look at the brand again and it gives the impression of a brand that is ‘fresh’ and always on the pulse. Finally, at a deeper level, in these days of short time cycles and cheating time with technology, ideas that are based on the yearly cycle of nature give people a feeling of being ‘rooted’ again and in touch with nature.


Well, all I can say is that in the eighteen years since I wrote that, there has been a proliferation from food and drink brands in terms of both seasonal and regional - the human need to be in tune with nature has been emphasised through greater awareness of sustainability. And of course brands are keen to present themselves as human, in touch with local needs and desires rather than faceless global corporates. It’s push and pull, as new technology enables speedier development and distribution of variants with a mayfly lifespan.

In other news, I’m pleased to say I’ve addressed the proliferation of exclamation marks in my writing.

Wednesday, 25 August 2021

Tutti Frutti Tonality


In this post from five years ago, I bemoaned the homogenisation of logos, films, language, pretty much everything, in an increasingly formulaic “smoothie society”. So it’s a little ironic that a brand that's ruffling a few feathers at the moment with its tone of voice just happens to be the original German smoothie brand and market leader - True Fruits. 

The current hoohah is between True Fruits and supermarket Edeka. True Fruits had the bright idea, with the election coming up, of a topical brand campaign entitled Die Qual der Wahl (“The agony of choice” or thereabouts). Smoothie bottles are decorated with the names of the six biggest parties in the Bundestag with nine points from the party manifesto printed on the bottles - but two of these aren’t genuine. Can you guess which?

This alone would probably not have caused too mainly raised eyebrows had the company not decided to actually produce the bottles and deliver them to supermarkets. Edeka, for one, were unamused at the idea of displaying an AfD bottle on their shelves, so sent these back. A lively discussion has ensued between the two brands: what is democracy? Is information more important than virtue signalling?

True Fruits was Germany’s first smoothie brand, founded in 2006 by three student friends from Bonn. From the outset, they never wanted to ape Innocent with its goody-goody image and rather twee brand voice, or try and push out-and-out healthiness. So instead they have always emphasised their quality credentials, combined with a provocative tonality in their communication, more reminiscent of Oatly or BrewDog.

In the last few years, brand communication has sailed fairly close to the wind, with smutty humour eliciting complaints of sexism as well as making light of racism (“Our token Black”). Much of this is below the radar (as is the current debate) of those outside the ad/marketing community, and the brand continues to enjoy moderate growth.

What’s interesting is that True Fruit’s brand communication is done in-house - they don’t have an ad or PR agency. This is similar to the Oatly model. In-house communication and agencies used to be rather sneered at by creative agencies - typically it would be something like a Korean car brand who’d take this approach.

But these days the tables are turned. Now it’s the in-house communication that’s often more edgy, more provocative, braver - and more distinctive. The big agencies have had their wings clipped in the interests of diversity, inclusivity and equality - or someone’s interpretation of what those values imply. It’s unlikely that we’ll be seeing the likes of this again: 

Poster for Club 18-30, Saatchi & Saatchi London