Thursday, 17 June 2021

Your customers choose you

Back in the days, when I could sell my books at live events, I’d get into conversation with people at the museum, or bookshop, or school, or wherever it was. Some of these conversations were unexpectedly fascinating, and could have been the basis for new stories in their own right. Then every so often, a customer would say something - express an opinion - that I didn’t agree with. What was I to do? Snatch the book back, climb onto my high horse and proclaim that I didn’t want people of their sort buying my books? Of course not.

A couple of weeks ago, I saw a video entitled “Thank You, North Face”, which is part of a wider campaign from Liberty Energy to create provocation/put the facts straight (take your pick) about the oil and gas industry continually being cast as the villain in the climate change and sustainability story. In it, the CEO enthusiastically thanks The North Face for being such a great customer. I think this campaign pricks over-inflated corporate virtue-signalling puffery with a very sharp pin. It’s also a reminder that while you can choose your suppliers (although you may not want to shout to the rooftops about who those are), you have little choice in reality about who your customers are.

This all goes back to the arrogance of brands (or the people behind them) that I’ve written about before. However many idealised personas your marketing department draw up - clean-living, well-adjusted people who share your wonderful brand values of inclusion, diversity and wellness, and are passionate about making the world a better place - there will be countless numbers of people who’ll buy your brand who might smoke like chimneys, drink like fish and hold unfashionable, uneducated views. Some of them may even be Brexiteers.

I’m in the UK at the moment, and read about brands boycotting the new news channel, GB News . I haven’t watched the new station - I’m not particularly interested to be honest - but it would seem to be a rather bumbling post-Brexit channel for the sort of people who comment in the Daily Mail. Fair enough.

But advertisers boycotting it? Unless you’re a bijou boutique exclusive brand-thingy that maybe can hand-pick its customers to a certain extent, this seems to make little sense. Especially for a mainstream brand like IKEA that has always claimed to be “for the many people.”

As Batman might have said: “They may be GB News viewers, but they’re also human beings."

Wednesday, 2 June 2021

RETROWURST: Das Pfand June 2003


Goodness me, I had a bee in my bonnet (or Coke can) back in 2003 about the farce of deposits on cans. In another of my Retrowurst articles salvaged from the mists of the past, I describe the situation regarding Das Pfand, or deposits on bottles and so on in Germany. Did this really happen, or did I imagine it?


This month I’m going to be writing about something that started off with all good intentions here in Germany, but which has escalated beyond all reasonable proportions to become farcical - the Pfand.


My first (very positive) conscious experience of the all-pervading influence of the Pfand on daily life in Germany was on my first trip here in 1994. We were visiting Freiburg, a beautiful university town in the Black Forest. It was a warm evening in late May and we had climbed up a small hill to a beer garden overlooking the old town. In the beer garden were long wooden tables at which sat large numbers of people, mostly students, enjoying beer after beer without getting at all rowdy or out of order! It was all very civilized. It occurred to me that this was all very different to what I’d experienced in pubs outside in the summer in my student days where the over-riding memory was of lots of rather worse-for-wear people drinking lager out of plastic cups. And this was the big difference. The pfennig dropped. It was civilised because people were sitting down, drinking out of nice, solid beer glasses. ‘Don’t people ever start throwing the beer glasses around?’ I asked my friend. ‘Certainly not - they’d lose their Pfand’ was the answer. 


The Pfand is, of course, the deposit, that you pay on a glass when you drink outside, whether it’s at a fest or in a beer garden or on a nice pottery mug with Glühwein at the Christmas market. For a little bit of extra admin on the part of the serving staff, you get treated like an adult and enjoy the drink itself and the whole experience more - after all, everything tastes nasty out of a plastic cup. And it’s not just in bars and restaurants that one pays a Pfand, it’s also in the off-trade, which is the main subject of this piece.


The Germans have always been a step ahead when it comes to re-cycling compared to us Brits. That, coupled with their drinking habits, has meant that the whole way that one buys drinks for in-home consumption and the trade structure is a little different. Beer tends to be sold in re-usable bottles which one buys in crates, water is bought in re-usable glass (or increasingly PET) bottles, also by the crate and soft drinks are usually bought in re-usable PETs too. All of these bottles and crates have a Pfand on them and Germans tend to buy drinks on a separate shopping trip to the groceries from a separate Getränkemarkt, or drinks warehouse, which may be attached to a Supermarket chain but will invariably be in a different building.


This is all well and good for bulk buying for in-home consumption where it’s easy to pour yourself a glass of cola or open a bottle or two of beer then store the empties in the crate in the cellar to be taken back at a later date. However, where the Pfand idea is now getting out of hand is in the so-called Einweg sector of drinks cans and bottles - packaging forms that can probably be re-cycled but cannot be re-used. Typically, these tend to be the drinks that one buys for out-of-home consumption- the bottle of water for the train journey, the can of cola for lunch in the office and so on. Until the beginning of this year, one could buy drinks in these packaging forms without thinking.


The government in Germany is a red/green coalition and it was from this government that the thought came to put a Pfand on Einweg drinks in order to reduce the build-up of waste. Even though, many of the cans and plastic bottles can be re-cycled, this of course won’t happen unless people dispose of them in the right bin. So the solution was to put the responsibility for collecting these empty cans and bottles out of the hands of the consumer and into the hands of the retailer with the introduction of the Einweg Pfand. This where the whole story starts to get absurd. If you buy a can of cola from a shop, a kiosk or a sausage stand, you have to pay a deposit on the can and bring it back to the place that you bought it with the receipt as proof of purchase. Now, for a couple of Euro Cents, most of us wouldn’t bother. However, in some cases, the Pfand is not much less than the price of the drink- for example, a can of Pepsi in my local shop is 27 Euro Cents but then with 25 Euro Cents Pfand on top of this.


One does have to question, good intentions aside, whether all the extra hours involved on the part of the retailer for the admin involved and the extreme consumer annoyance is really worth the long-term environmental benefits. Canned drinks have almost disappeared from the shelves of the drinks markets as people are voting with their feet. The real issue is for manufacturers and the ever-expanding drinking-on-the-go segment. I know that my own response has been to buy drinks in tetrapacks or those foil pouches when I’m out and about and I know that many others do the same. Perhaps the real solution is for manufacturers, retailers and the government to work together to develop universal can-return stations where at least you can buy your can of drink at Frankfurt station and put it in a disposal unit in Düsseldorf station to get your money back. Unfortunately, this is something that should have been in place before the Pfand was introduced so that we wouldn’t have had to live through the chaos that now operates.


But at least, when you’re hot and sweaty from driving around to the six different places where you bought drinks last week to get your deposit back (and wasting God knows how much petrol in the process) you can sit down outside in a nice beer garden and enjoy a beer from a proper glass.


Maybe it’s digitalisation, maybe I’ve adapted and simply become more German. But these days, you can return your cans any old where, more or less. I’m still quite smug about how Germany was always one step ahead in this area, ditto cloth shopping bags.

Maybe the moral is that some things have to get worse before they get better.

Monday, 24 May 2021

Unlocking - it’s Opening Time!

 Around a year ago, advert-wise, we were at peak “we’re here for you” mode with all those interchangeable COVID commercials. One year on, and there’s a quite different mood on our screens, if not in real life yet, at least in my part of Germany.

KFC are back to licking fingers, while Wrigley’s Extra Gum has got birds, bees, dings and mojos buzzing all over the place.

Then there’s Lynx who have gone back to their roots and reinterpreted “The Lynx Effect” for the post Covid world, in a sensory celebration:

And my favourite, from Guinness - beautifully on-brand, with a strong insight that when you’re longing for something (or someone) you see it (them) everywhere you look:

I am sure there are plenty more, too, even if I must admit that I am still in the “confused” mindset, brilliantly portrayed by Burger King. Especially when it comes to the absurd and contradictory travel rules and regulations I’m going to have to navigate on my forthcoming trip to Blighty.

Wednesday, 12 May 2021

The continentalisation of the UK

When I was a small child, in the 1960s, people spoke about “The Continent”, meaning mainland Europe. A person, a foodstuff, an attitude, was described as “continental”, in a sligtly disapproving tone,  meaning unusual and a little racy on the one hand, but “not quite what we do around here” on the other.

From an early age, I was fascinated by “The Continent” and all the treasures it might hold, approved-of or not. I blame Caroline and her Friends. For those who’ve never had this delight, Caroline was a bossy little girl accompanied by a menagerie of dogs, cats (domestic and Big) and a lone bear. This motley crew got into all kinds of scrapes, going camping, on ski holidays, or touring around “The Continent” - stuffing themselves with spaghetti or Belgian Frites, hurling Dutch cheeses around or playing Alphorns. I have imitated much of this behaviour throughout the course of my life. 

Some of my earliest food-related memories relate to finding unusual brands and products in slightly obscure places. There was this cafe and health food shop just down the road from us, for example:

Deborah’s was a vegetarian cafe and sold Birchermüsli as well as breakfast products such as Frugrains - which I can still taste - datey.

It wasn’t long, of course, before muesli became big business in the UK, with the launch of Alpen in 1971. Ski yoghurt - another “continental idea” which took a while to catch on, had been launched in the 1960s.

As well as the quirky Deborah’s, I remember the glorious smell of coffee roasting in a shop called Brimson’s in Camberley, and the first time I tried a croissant (from a “Continental” bake shop in Reading) - all very Proustian. Then there were the expeditions to a “delicatessen” in Ascot, mainly so my mum could buy the products she remembered from Canada - Betty Crocker and Aunt Jemima. This wonderful emporium sold exotic cocktail snacks, such as ROKA cheese biscuits. I see the packaging design has hardly changed, although I think they used to come in a tin.

All this continentalisation culminated in a coach trip around Europe, maybe following in Caroline & Co.’s foot- and pawprints. Here, I got to know even more continental culinary delights (and some not so delightful) as well as duvets, dirndls and dobra veče (yes, the tour ventured into what was then Yugoslavia).

I’ve now finally booked a trip back to the UK, the first since we became properly Brexitted. 

I’m hoping that Britain won’t have become decontinentalised as far as food and drink goes, anyway.


Sunday, 2 May 2021

RETROWURST: Children May 2003


Some of what I find while rummaging through my Retrowurst archive from the early 2000s could have been written yesterday. This month’s article, orginally written in May 2003, definitely couldn’t have been. They say that nothing throws the passage of time into sharper relief than having children and boy, that shows here. At the original time of writing, my son was 2, and not yet in Kindergarten. He’s now a chunky, beared six-foot-plus 20-year-old. There is precious little mention of technology here, and it’s worth bearing in mind that I had only purchased a mobile phone one year previously - a Nokia 6310. My son wouldn’t be getting his first for another 10 years.

Read on for a glimpse into a quaint, vanished world of childhood:


I have just come back to Germany after a week in the UK and have been struck by the difference between the UK and Germany when it comes to Marketing to children, which is the theme of this month’s Extrawurst. 


Kindermarketing is a term that is almost unheard of here - in fact, when spoken, it is in very hushed terms and the American-English euphemism of ‘Marketing to Kids’ (normally seen in Comic Sans typeface, often with a ‘z’ replacing the ‘s’) is used. Of course, we do this in the UK too, and I’ve often wondered whether the usage of this term calms our conscience a little - ‘Kids’, especially with a ‘z’ conjures up cartoony figures with skateboards and baseball caps worn at odd angles who certainly seem streetwise enough to be marketed to, while ‘children’ evokes visions of Janet & John in Startrite shoes.


Whatever we choose to call it, markets and marketing with the under 12s in mind are simply less developed here in Germany. The most obvious manifestation is maybe clothes. In the UK, you can walk into Mothercare, Woolworths or M&S and it is impossible to find a pair of pyjamas or a T-Shirt without Bob the Builder or Barbie on it. ‘Traditional’ means Mickey Mouse. In Germany, it is the exception to find such things. Right up to the age of about 8, sweatshirts (if they have a design at all) may have a picture of a Teddy Bear (NOT the Disney Winnie the Pooh or even Paddington, but an unknown, unbranded Teddy) or a pony (no, not one of those pink, lilac and turquoise horrors, but a real, brown pony). In the supermarkets in the UK, the shelves are full of child-orientated products, be it breakfast cereals with marshmallows in, special small bananas branded Blue Parrot Café or similar by the retailer, bubble-baths in every imaginable fruit flavour or birthday cakes representing every TV character you’ve heard of. And this is on top of everything to be found in the traditional child categories such as sweets and toys. In Germany, these things barely exist. In a quick scout round the supermarket today, I found only a modest display of cereals (mostly Kellogg’s), certainly no fruit specially packed at all (let alone for children), one rather unimaginative children’s shower gel and only one cake (a deep frozen thing) that was child-orientated.


Children’s television does exist - indeed, there are whole channels devoted to it, but there are very few original German programmes. Most of it is imported from the US and UK, with such series as Sesame Street, Tweenies or Teletubbies dubbed into German (although with the latter, it’s questionable whether this is worth the production costs!) for the younger ones and then the usual cartoon offerings for school-age children. However, especially for pre-school children, there simply isn’t the structure and (dare I say it?) educational value that you get in the UK. The programmes are thrown together, with no link with a relatively educational programme for under-5’s followed by a loud action cartoon for over-7’s.


It does seem rather a shame that the country that produced such children’s classics as Struwelpeter and Grimm’s Fairy tales is now rather pedestrian in terms of children’s books. While books for pre-school children in the UK tend to be very colourful, imaginative and often funny, German books for this age-group tend to fall into two categories: the dreary realistic and politically correct (typical is a book I got out of the library recently for my son, who is nearly 3, on rubbish and recycling!) or nostalgic over-sentimental (woodland creatures and elves).


Now of course, there is a reason for all of this, which occurred to me when I was talking to a friend of mine, a Doctor with boys aged 3 and 4. She said that it is all to do with the German belief that childhood innocence is ‘sacred’ and there is a strong urge to preserve and protect this innocence for as long as possible. Once I thought about this, everything seemed to fall into place. This is the reason that miniature adult or teenage clothes, such as denim jackets, are not overly popular here for babies and toddlers, who are kept in woolly romper suits for as long as possible. This is the reason that, for a child’s birthday party, a mother will bake cakes herself (with maybe a few Smarties in the icing being the only concession to commercialism) rather than buying a ready-made Thomas or Barbie cake. This is also the reason behind the school system, where, although children go to Kindergarten from age 3 to 6, they do not begin to learn reading and writing (elements of the cruel adult world) until they go to school at the age of 6. Interestingly, most children are only at school until lunchtime right up to age 19. Someone (the mother) is expected to pick them up, give them a cooked lunch and help them with their homework. It also explains the strange (to me) phenomenon when I first came to Germany of interviewing ‘young students’ for trainee posts who were of an age where they’d be running a company in the UK!


The implication of all of this for brands and marketing is not that we should give up on marketing to children in Germany but rather that we should acknowledge the cultural differences that exist and be a little careful not simply to transfer concepts and ideas that work in the UK. Although the job is a little harder in Germany, it is interesting by virtue of the challenge that it presents. Rather than falling back on the idea of character merchandising, perhaps we need to develop real concepts and new ideas that appeal to children for their own sake, rather than just a quick ‘sell’ through associating with an existing character. Maybe the dearth of German children’s characters provides an opportunity for a brand to create something new. And overall, the key is that the ideas have to have integrity. For example, there is far less ‘fast food’ in Germany - while they may not be wearing scaled-down versions of adult clothes when they go out to a restaurant, the children’s menu in most restaurants offers scaled-down versions of real food (Wiener Schnitzel, Spaghetti Bolognese, grilled fish) rather than the ubiquitous Chicken Nuggets that one finds in the UK.


Another huge opportunity that I see is for someone to launch a range of children’s toiletries here with the pre-school 2-6 age- group in mind. As long as it’s made absolutely clear in which re-cycling bin to put the containers after use and what precisely will happen to them as they are re-processed, it will be a winner.


Thereafter followed a deluge of yukky gendered monstrosities in children’s books, clothes and toys - largely US and UK-driven. It never quite reached the sparkly, glittery, tweeness of those markets, although even IKEA and Aldi were at it. The pendulum is now swinging back, and I’m pleased to see that the German belief in sanctity of childhood stands pretty well firm.

Although one rather sad consequence is that those dreary realistic and politically correct children’s books now seem to dominate the UK market, too. 

Tuesday, 27 April 2021

Which brands do you want to cosy up to?


Back at the turn of the Millennium, it was called “cocooning”, a retreat from the 24/7 always-on world. It took on a Sacndinavian flavour in the last decade or so, in the form of hygge or mysig, with Instagram as a perfect medium to sing its praises. And it has been the over-riding trend and desire throughout the pandemic - and quite possibly something some people will be reluctant to move away from as the outside world re-opens. Indeed, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if workplaces become more homely once the workers return. Like kindergartens that allow children to bring one special soft toy or security blanket. When it eventually comes to Covid nostalgia - which it surely will - this word, this concept, will be top of many people’s lists.

I’m talking about cosiness. You can see its takeover of our world across fashion, across home furnishings and across books, to name just a few. The “cosy mystery” genre of the fiction section - those stories involving amateur sleuths in a picturesque community, with very little blood and gore to be seen - is selling like hot-cakes. Along with cuddly blankets decorated with pizza patterns.

Cats, crosswords, cakes, Christmas, crochet, cottages and countryside - all cosiness.

Cosiness is different to comfort. It is, if you like, a combination of comfort and joy as the song goes. While comfort is often sought to right a wrong, or can simply be the absence of unpleasant feelings, cosiness is a positive choice.

Cosiness is about free will, not a reaction to being victimised in some way.

Cosiness is very much about the senses, especially the sense of touch.

Despite the ubiquity of cosiness around us, there are very few brands that expound cosiness as a value. Maybe it’s because of the ubiquity, maybe because marketing people feel cosiness is too fluffy, not dynamic enough, not lofty enough.

But I think it would be a welcome alternative to all those rather high-powered brand purposes, tiring-sounding manifestoes, and being preached to.    

Friday, 16 April 2021

Planting a change


Last year, I wrote about the (warning - horrible word) mainstreamising of plant-based/Vegan products, that I reckon is being driven partly via the connection to sustainability.

The trend doesn’t seem to be slowing, and there are plenty of start-up (ish) brands following Oatly’s example and being all activisty about farting (or is it burping?) cows.

But this is no way to go if you’re a mainstream brand that makes its money by churning out meat or dairy-based products at scale. On this note, it will be interesting to see how Ben & Jerry’s  develops in light of a potential clash between social and environmental activist factions. 

There are some examples in fast-food that get it right: Burger King, with its unapologetic Rebel Whopper.  McDonald's are hot on their heels with McPlant. And Dunkin’ Donuts, who seem to be introducing plant-based donuts at scale. At least in the Low Countries.

And there are a couple of useful studies I’ve come across that mainstream brands can use as a framework for encouraging people to eat more plant-based food, or any other aspect of healthy & sustainable living. There’s this recent one from Globescan, which describes 7 Unlocks (another ghastly word, but the idea is good) - make it:




yes ... and




This is all echoed in a report from last year, from the Behavioural Insights Team - Menu for Change which emphasised:

make it appealing

make it normal

make it easy

I’d add to all that: make it about choice, and treat people like the adults they are. Often a meal or eating together is about socialising, and can create common ground.

Although we may not want “what she’s having”, we can all agree to enjoy our burgers, donuts, pizzas or whatever without thrusting personal preferences (literally) down each other’s throats.