Thursday, 2 December 2021

Grotto or grotty?

RETROWURST is taking a break this month because lazy little me didn’t write any articles in December back in the 2000s as I was probably too busy dashing and blitzing around doing Christmas shopping. But the series will be back in 2022.

Yes, Christmas shopping. There are reminders on the radio - have we bought all our presents yet? I have bought one, and was quite proud of having already done so in November before I heard all those smug so-and-sos with only one still left to buy. 

I am not relishing the thought. Somehow the magic of Christmas past and the twinkling welcome of Santa’s grotto is lost in a mire of masks, pandemics and it’s-all-easier-online-but-bad-conscience-haunting-me.

I’m not sure if the experience was ever that magical, anyway. My only memory of Santa’s grotto in Harvey’s department store in Camberley was being given an empty box. I think amends were made, but still.

But we can dream, and take a shopping trip through the streets, windows, lights and paper catalogues of the past:

There’s shopping in style, even when you’re on public transport. Just don’t spill mulled wine on those collars or cuffs:

Christmas didn’t have to be gaudy. Post-war shortages aside, this was a world where black and white was the norm, certainly as far as brand communications and broadcast media/entertainment went:

Hamleys was the mecca of tinsel and toytown. The 1926 ad offers a number of most suitable gifts for children including “The Crown Tavern”, a pup named “Looney” and what looks like an interrogation device. 60 years later, the store tried a "Teddy Bears’ Picnic meets 333 Men in a Boat” approach:

Does anyone have time or inclination in these pandemic days to linger looking at shop windows? Even war didn’t stop Selfridges in 1916:

This picture, of 1960s Regent Street, seems to sum up my earliest memories. A quick blast of Nina & Frederik, and I’m back there.

Monday, 29 November 2021

Tschüss, Mutti!


 I don’t know if there has, or will be, one of those Barbie collectors’ dolls of Angela Merkel, but somehow the commemorative teddy bears seem more apt. Not made by Steiff, but by another German family firm that’s been around for over a hundered years, the teddy bears are of the typical mohair variety with added Merkel touches - the distinctive hairsytle, the red jacket, the necklace in red, black and gold.

Angela Merkel became Chancellor over 16 years ago, in a Twitter- and iPhone-less world.

The public perception of a country is influenced considerably by the personality of its leader - and with a larger-than-life personality, disproportionately so, as was the case with Donald Trump. Angela Merkel is at the other end of the scale to Mr Trump, but on the other hand, the world has had sixteen years of her presence as leader of Germany. While some leaders are all about show, Mrs Merkel projects an impression of substance/integrity and diligence, and the Christian part of her party’s name, and her strong faith result in an impression of universal humanity and decency. But there’s also a feeling that too much is rooted in the past, with a cautiousness or resistence to change. Whether Germany’s slight reluctance to leap, devil-may-care, into the brave new digital world will be the undoing of the nation remains to be seen.

Back in 2009, I wrote a post entitled The Lady’s not for Branding about Angela Merkel’s imperviousness to branding. A lot of it still applies, although journalists have taken to the “Mutti” nickname and the “iconic” (bleurgh!) colourful jackets and “diamond” hands with glee. 

I imagine that Angela Merkel has the same reaction to being referred to as “iconic” as to the commemorative teddy bears - mild amusement. But I expect we’ll never know how she really feels, and maybe things are good that way.

Thursday, 18 November 2021

Quadratisch, praktisch, gut


Wie Werte Marken stark machen by Nina Rieke and Hans-Christian Schwingen, published by Haufe, is one of the few business books in German that I have attempted to read. But I’m glad I did. Here’s my review:

There’s so much goobledegook and pontification about Brand Values and Purpose these days that it’s refreshing to have a concise, readable handbook for marketers and strategic planners that is rooted in practice.

This book puts forward the case for values-led brands in today’s “glass box” society, and provides a working model to define a unique navigation needle for the brand, based on values. This is derived from looking at the brand’s potential and matching this to what is going on in the category/market, in individual customers’ lives and society as a whole. The sytem avoids strings of nebulous attributes as well as trendy bandwaggon issues by rooting everything in what’s inherent in the brand.


Nicely-produced, easy-to-read (N.B. only available in German as yet) and concise (yes, time is valuable, too) with examples - it would be good to see a few more non-US examples of brand manifestos, but these will hopefully come in the next edition.


A smart, valuable book.

Tuesday, 2 November 2021

RETROWURST: Geiz ist Geil! November 2003


This month’s delve into the Retrowurst archive chronicles the “flaunt your stinginess” trend of the early 2000s, led by some high profile campaigns from discount retailers. It’s an interesting one for me as this period was one of my low points financially, and looking back, I think I took great glee in buying cheap wine at Aldi, frequenting flea-markets and then what we’d now call virtue-signalling  about it all to anyone who’d listen.


About this time last year, a blue and silver cyber-woman burst onto our TV screens here in Germany, proclaiming “Geiz ist Geil” – “It’s cool to be mean and stingy”, roughly translated. This cyber lady may have only been the spokesperson for the new advertising campaign for the Saturn electronics warehouse but somehow her aggressive proclamation captured the spirit of consumer opinion in Germany and launched not only countless copycat advertising campaigns but also a trend of literally wearing your stinginess on your sleeve. 


It’s maybe no co-incidence that the Saturn campaign came from Jung von Matt, one of Germany’s best home-grown advertising agencies. As an agency, they have a talent for really tapping into what’s going on, developing punchy creative ideas and being able to demonstrate the sales effectiveness of their campaigns- at Jung von Matt, the Strategic Planners are called Effizienzers. The Saturn campaign had such a profound effect because it was one advertising campaign that really tapped into the Zeitgeist and said what millions had thought but no-one had dared to say. Like Wall Street before it, with the Michael Douglas character’s pronouncement of “Greed is Good” (and, of course, many great advertising campaigns are derivative of something!), “Geiz ist Geil” has hit the nerve-ending of the age, at least for Germany in 2003.


As a nation, the Germans are used to being successful, be it economically or in football. The will to win and to ‘do well’ is written strong in the German psyche. When the Brits go through an economic crisis, we laugh it off, or find someone else to blame for our misfortune. The Germans, however, took the economic downturn very seriously and very personally. The whole country went through (and is still going through) a crisis of self-confidence. People were bombarded with newspaper articles and TV programs about how the economic disaster was the Germans’ own doing and if they were unemployed or redundant then they only had themselves to blame. It was with furtiveness and embarrassment that once prosperous people were seen sneaking into bargain-basement stores. 


Traditionally, the German mentality with consumer durables is to buy quality brands that last- such things are seen as an investment. However, reduced disposable income has meant many people having to find acceptable quality at a more than reasonable price, which is where “Geiz ist Geil” came in. This slogan provided a rallying cry to the hard-up consumer. More than just being a “Smart Shopper”, this consumer-power movement gave people permission to actually flaunt their stinginess in public and celebrate it.


Within weeks of the campaign breaking, celebrities were being photographed in the gossip magazines with Saturn and Aldi carrier bags. A whole host of other retailers followed suit and penned their own versions of the campaign. The most creative advertising agencies were all falling over each other trying to grab a retail discounter account, in the same way that they’d all fought over the luxury goods and fashion labels a few years back. Existing campaigns, from the likes of Ikea, MediaMarkt and H&M strengthened their price messages.


The latest development in this trend draws in the parallel trend of reality TV shows (just to add to the celebration of cheap ‘n’ tacky, perhaps). A spate of books by ‘celebrities’ and the consequent kiss & tell stories in the cheaper newspapers has revealed that these ‘celebrities’ are some of the biggest cheapskates in Germany. In a recent book by one of his (many) ex-girlfriends, Dieter Bohlen (ex-pop singer, record producer, ageing womaniser and Superstars jury member) was revealed as being a cheapskate as well as a love rat. Unperturbed by this, Dieter has signed up for a very lucrative contract with BBDO in their advertising campaign for MakroMarkt, another electronics discounter. Unsurprisingly, the slogan is ‘es lebe billig’ or “Cheapness lives!” Dieter enthuses in the TV ads that everything there is so “schweinbillig” or “dirt cheap”. And he can be seen, in his full tackiness on the website at – the website is a lovely parody of retail advertising from the 70s, complete with multiple starbursts! (now defunct)


The latest signs as regards the serious matter of the German economy are that it seems to be recovering. But with Aldi cookbooks appearing on the best-seller lists I’m sure it won’t be too long before we see a show called something like “Celebrity Bargainhunter” on our TV screens. The signs are that the Germans are taking “cheapness” as seriously as they once took investing in quality and this trend may be one that is here to stay.


In the years since this was written, thriftiness hasn’t gone away, but it’s sidled up to sustainability and a general desire not to be wasteful. Absolute price and cheapness has become less of a thing after all those discounters got pulled under the microscope for less-than-sustainable practices throughout the value chain. So we’re now seeing IKEA getting into the rental market and circular economy, for example.

It strikes me that there have been few German ad slogans with such power (with the odd exception of a couple of DIY stores) since, maybe because so many campaigns are developed globally and transliterated. There were plenty of complaints at the time about the word Geil (which literally means “horny”) but these days, people take offence at different things. 

Dieter Bohlen is still knocking around, though, sitting on talent show juries, producing records, grinning out of the gossip magazines and advertising everything from Camp David clothes to Roller (cheap) furniture. But, thankfully, he is not singing.

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