Monday 12 February 2024

Mixed up, muddled up, shook up world


I had a lucky childhood.

I grew up believing I could do anything or be anything I wanted. If I set my mind to it hard enough.

At the age of 3 or so (above) I was convinced I was a dog.

I wasn’t at all concerned about whether I was a male dog or a female dog - it seemed irrelevant. I didn’t have any dolls - just a pack of furry toys. Many of them were dogs.

My hair was cut short and I tended to wear my brother’s hand-me-downs. It was a question of practicality. I did have a blue party dress with a sticking-out skirt, which I hated wearing. Not because it was a dress, but because it was itchy.

The boys’ clothes continued into my teens. I grew my hair a bit longer in the 70s, but so did my brother and most of the boys I knew. I do remember us getting muddled up by an elderly relative, who’d thought “the boy was the older one.” He was in purple cords, I was in a Ben Sherman shirt and jeans. We thought it was funny, a bit subversive. 

If you look at photos of groups of young people in the late 60s, 70s and 80s, the boys and girls look pretty similar. From Woodstock to the New Romantics. I dug out what I think must be a book to accompany an exhibition, entitled 14:24 British Youth Culture. It was published in 1986.

You can see the effect in these photos of punks and skinheads by Nick Knight.

But something started happening just after my son was born, in 2000. When he was small, our house was a sea of yellow, blue and red plastic. I bought his clothes from flea markets.

But I did start noticing that the brand new toddlers’ clothes in H&M were sectioned off  into “boys” and “girls”. For  “Mummy’s little man” and “Daddy’s princess."

And Lego had started producing rather “girly” toys.

And our neighbours/fellow primary school parents would have parties where men and women sat in different rooms. Or even “women/men only” parties. This latter phenomenon I initially (rather snobbishly) put down to class or maybe educational level. Or possibly even an age thing, although this seemed unlikely as it didn’t seem to reflect any kind of progress.

And that “Women are from Venus, Men are from Mars” book started a whole industry of pop-gender-psychology. Excerpts from 1950s publications coursed around the internet, demonstrating how dreadful life was for women in the 20th century. I found these somewhat suspect - my mum had two degrees and was better academically qualified than my dad.

Ten years ago, we had the whole full-blown pink glitter pony stuff spilling from the kindergarten into adult life.  

And then came the whole #MeToo thing, the victim/oppression/patriarchy stuff and the omnipresent adjective “toxic.” 

I wondered why on earth I’d want to join a “women only” group from my college, that I’d deliberately chosen because it was mixed. And whether segregation really is progress. 

This data, published recently in the Financial Times, didn’t really surprise me.

But some of the extreme reactions I saw on LinkedIn certainly did. A lot of screeching about how this is evidence that all young men are unredeemable sexist and racist bastards.

Still, I can look forward with optimism. I hear there’s a brilliant new invention called “gender-neutral clothing” for children.

Whatever will they think of next?

Thursday 1 February 2024

RETROWURST: Money February 2006


Today I discovered a lost world. That of German banks eighteen years ago. Things have changed and not necessarily for the better. Take a time-trip back to my Extrawurst from February 2006 and discover why Kredit was one of the dirtiest words in the German language. The Germans have plenty of new dirty words these days, mostly stolen from us or our US friends, which is not encouraging. Back then, I wrote about the big banks with their impressive Frankfurt skyscrapers, and their intimidating but competent advisors. The reassuring air of stuffiness and formality, coupled with the persistence of the personal touch, the reluctance to go online and digital with it all.


The time has come, today, to tackle one of the dirtiest words in the German language. It’s not the word Scheiße or Schweinhund but a rather inoffensive looking and sounding little six letter word: Kredit. Along with looking at the reasons why this is a word so loaded with negative meaning, I’ll have a go at trying to get behind some general German views on all things money and finance.


I used to live in Frankfurt where one of the defining features or iconic elements is the skyline, which is dominated by Frankfurt (and Germany’s) leading banks, all vying with each other to see who can build the tallest skyscraper. Since the late 1990s, the Deutsche Bank, Commerzbank and rivals have also been joined by the European Central Bank, the spawning ground (if you like) of the Euro. It is actually quite difficult to get away from money in Frankfurt: on every corner is a bank or at least a Geldautomat and even if you do escape to one of the Olde Worlde Apfelwein pubs in Alt Sachsenhausen, one quick glance skywards will bring you back to the world of money, even if your neighbours at the table aren’t bankers (which would be unusual.).


The German banks, particularly the “big boys” such as the Deutsche Bank ( ), Dresdner Bank ( ) and Commerzbank ( tend to be, on the surface, somewhat intimidating and less immediately approachable than their UK equivalents. One still gets the feeling, which is reflected in their web presence to some extent, that there will be no chummy banter here and one should really put on a suit when going to the bank, even if it’s just to make a simple money transfer. Although the big banks have moved with the times to some extent, there still seems to be some feeling of stuffiness and formality. However, one can sense a pattern here that is very similar to that of relationships in general in Germany: these tend to develop slowly, step-by-step, until the no-turning-back-friend-for-life stage of “du-sing” is attained. 


Although one doesn’t get all the chummy, jokey, for-God’s sake we’re-not-boring-and-we’re gonna-prove-it attitude of UK banks in Germany, we also don’t get the call centres and never speaking to the same person twice that we are beset with in the UK (I know, I still have a UK bank account.) In Germany, everyone has an advisor assigned to them at their own branch, with a direct phone line, regardless of whether you have a couple of thousand Euros or a few billion. These advisors really do get to know you and your preferences when it comes to accessibility of your money, what kind of investments suit you and what your future plans are, which is particularly important in a country where everyone is rapidly having to seek alternatives to the state for health insurance, pensions and the rest.


While the big three banks dominate the skyline of Frankfurt, most Germans actually have their account at the local Sparkasse or savings bank ( ), Volksbank or Co-op bank ( ) or the Postbank ( ). While these banks may be a little less intimidating than the big three, they are never-the-less places of seriousness and formality. In fact, when Germans are asked about which qualities or values are important in choosing a bank, trustworthiness, serious and solid reputation and flexible to my personal needs are the top three criteria, with modernity and friendliness seen as “nice to have” but not critical. 


Although the banks do seem to have moved with the times, the use of services such as on-line banking is still relatively low in Germany and the idea of physically visiting the bank to make transactions still a very popular one. Even cash dispensers seemed to take longer to catch on here and one feels that there is a huge underlying mistrust of finance and banking conducted by anything other than real people.


This brings me on, of course, to that dirty word: Kredit. While things have improved over the last ten years, when I first came to Germany, I was astounded by the unacceptability of plastic generally. To buy a major item, one either had to pay in cash or write out a number of cheques, each of which had a maximum value of DM 400 in those days. Credit cards were scorned and frowned upon almost as much as if one came up with a begging bowl. Again, the distrust seems to stem from a very direct relationship that Germans seem to have about money: carrying large wads of cash around or openly discussing with strangers the cost of your house or car are not seen in any way as vulgar displays but rather as an honest, straightforward approach.


Credit cards are still barely accepted today. Visitors to Germany are often surprised and embarrassed that restaurants turn their noses up even at Mastercard and VISA. And the Mastercard and VISA cards here tend to be cards that are paid off within 4-8 weeks, so not real credit cards at all! Mastercard did themselves no favours with the German public by making the World Cup tickets draw only accessible to Mastercard holders. However, a step in the right direction, to win the Germans’ trust in plastic money has been made in the last few years with the introduction of the “ec card”, a form of direct debit card that doubles as a cash card that is issued by most banks. But to think that this has only been in general use for the last 5 years or so is astounding.


Part of the disgust for credit cards may well come from the fact that they are seen as coming from profligate and decadent lands, such as the US and UK. Perhaps if one of the big German banks could introduce a very serious, trustworthy and solid credit card (maybe made a bit thicker than “your flexible friend”) that signaled control and financial acumen instead of profligacy when you took it out of your wallet, they could be onto a real money-spinner.


Things probably started to go sour in that fateful year 2008. The Dresdner Bank was acquired by the Commerzbank in May 2009. 

What do we have now? Blowing up cash machines seems to be a national hobby. Bank branches are disappearing faster than tigers. I’m reduced to asking for cashback at the supermarket more often than not. While Covid speeded up the move to a cashless society, there are plenty of flies in the ointment - local independent shops and restaurants who don’t take cards - and who can blame them?

I’m still hanging on in there with the Commerzbank in the hope that things will get better, but I’ve been let down by them far too often, with the resulting loss of trust. Frying pan and fire come to mind.

Still, things aren’t quite as dire as they are in the UK. But that’s another story. 

Thursday 25 January 2024

Status Quid


If any British retailer represents the Status Quo, it’s Marks & Spencer. That’s why I was a little taken aback, then rather tickled, to see this TikTok ad which seems to have upset the Status Quo of the advertising world.

The origins of the film are interesting. Campaign rather sniffily just refers to it being “in-house”. But what actually happened is that M&S have been giving their store managers autonomy to do their own thing on social media for a while now. One young store manager - the chap who appears at the beginning of this video, who’d been doing his own TikToks for a while - put up his idea via the digital equivalent of the old-fashioned staff suggestions box.

Advertising types in trendy parts of London, predictably, find the result quite ghastly. And yes, it is cheesier than the counters of all the M&S Food stores put together, but that is its charm. Why is Barbie acceptable cheesiness, while this is not? 

But even worse than the creative types tearing out their rainbow hair are the pompous planners on their high horses about branding. I am at a loss to understand how this little film - it’s hardly a multi-million image campaign - can be detrimental to the brand.

The message is highly relevant to our current “counting the pennies” situation. It shows that the brand knows exactly where people are.

The jollity and exuberance of band, staff, influencers and customers will surely attract a few more people in-store rather than ordering online.

Francis Rossi and his band are just as much a national treasure as Twiggy, Dawn French or any of the many M&S spokespeople - best of British and unafraid to take the p*ss out of themselves.

And the beauty of it is - as with top-notch humour - it unites people across generations. Rather like this rather more spectacular ad from Australia:

If Francis Rossi rakes in enough money to get a new guitar, I won’t begrudge him that.

Monday 15 January 2024

Old, new, borrowed and blue - or purple


One of my favourite German ads from last year was this 1980s extravaganza from Perwoll. And little did I know it last March, but this heralded a rather nifty “practice what you preach” trend in the ad world. Ad recycling. 

Mars went all-out for it with their Healthy Planet Productions Campaign , where well-loved ads for M&Ms, Twix and Bounty have been repurposed to draw attention to the carbon impact of advertising and get some new messages across about climate change. All while saving on production costs to client coffers and planet. 

The other bit of good news about this is that System1, suppported by Mark Ritson, have long been casting doubt on the marketer’s bugbear of “wearout". If an ad is any good, it might still do your brand good 19 years later, rather like one of the Princess Royal’s outfits, which never seem to wear out.

Recycled and repurposed items made it onto the Christmas wish list for many responsible citizens. And responsibly-minded clients got recycled ads. If not the specific execution, then at least the idea - such as Cadbury’s extending their previous year’s campaign into OOH media.

And then there was the heartwarming recycling of the Shake ’n’ Vac song, or Double Diamond works wonders and other jingles from the past as reminiscence therapy for dementia patients via Heart radio and The Wayback Project. 

And the trend shows no sign of abating. This rather wonderful film from Cadbury’s (again) is not really a direct recycle, more a mix of old, new, borrowed and blue. Or is that purple?

What’s clever here is that it not only reinterprets the original Cadbury’s Mum’s Birthday ad ... but it also borrows from a rich school of “heritage” ads - something that the Brits do particularly well:

Some may bemoan the lack of creativity and originality here, but I beg to disagree. Choosing exactly the right combination of familiar and surprising elements for these films is an art.

Could 2024 be the year of the Circular Adconomy?

Tuesday 2 January 2024

RETROWURST: Drogerie Wars January 2006


I’ve just done my first shopping trip of the year in dm - I couldn’t quite face all the eager beavers buying groceries just yet. Maybe - as I wrote in this piece 18 years ago - there is indeed something calming about the dm shopping experience that’s just right to get you back into the swing of things.


To start off the New Year, my first Extrawurst for 2006 will take the theme of “drugstore wars”. Before we get into the armies involved, I probably need to just say a little bit about German drugstores themselves. First of all Drogerie or “drugstore” is a bit of a misnomer. A Drogerie is really not the place to go looking for a quick way to deal with that New Year Schnapps-induced hangover as the strongest drugs one is likely to find in these places are herbal teas. Drogeries do not sell anything classed as a medicine, although they do sell a very wide range of herbal remedies and teas.


The main product categories on sale in a Drogerie in addition to the herbal remedies are beauty products of all sorts, household goods, paper goods, baby foods and pet foods. In addition, you may also find baby and children’s clothing, seasonal knick-knacks and decorations, toys and some food and beverages. There may well be shop-in-shop stands, such as Tchibo or services for films and mobile phones.


Now, you may well be thinking “Aha! Boots!” but somehow the Drogerie has much less of a feeling of competence and trust than Boots and more a feeling of a sort of health-and-beauty bazaar. Even Superdrug has a more serious feel to it than these German Drogeries as they at least have some element of pharmaceutical competence. Because anything to do with medicines comes under the very serious business of the Apotheke, the German drugstores have an image more akin to their supermarket cousins.


Of course, most large supermarkets have a section where one can buy all the products one would normally find in a Drogerie but many people prefer to do a separate shop at the drugstore as a greater range is offered and, quite often, lower prices. Drogeries can be found in both high street/shopping centre and out-of-town locations.


So, onto the combatants in the drugstore war. First we have the Drugstore King- Schlecker. Schlecker celebrated 30 years of business in 2005 and is among Germany’s Top 25 family-owned businesses. The billionaire owner, Herr Anton Schlecker is up there in the ranks with Germany’s other kings of discount- Theo and Karl Albrecht (Aldi) and Dieter Schwarz (Lidl). Herr Schlecker, who collects exclusive sports cars in his spare time, started his business 30 years ago in Baden Württemburg, South Germany, on very clear low cost principles to which he has remained true to this day. The business has grown to a €6.55 bn turnover concern employing 50,300 people. Schlecker have been awarded a Superbrand 2005 award from N-TV and Handelsblatt, presumably based on their uncompromising “no-frills” approach.


Schlecker’s principles all relate to a philosophy of “low cost at (almost) any cost”. Schlecker rent out the cheapest of locations for their stores, often snapping up unattractive locations that other retailers have turned their noses up at. The stores carry a range of only 4,000 articles and constantly kick out lines that don’t sell. Walking into a Schlecker store, you will probably be reminded of the Eastern bloc in the bad old days: everything is basic, from the stark blue/white logo to the chilly warehouse “atmosphere”. Schlecker are frequently pulled up on accusations of not treating employees particularly well and not making much effort towards a pleasant working environment but Herr Schlecker’s retort is usually that he is continually providing 1000s of new jobs in Germany and other parts of Europe while others are laying staff off.


Although Schlecker pioneered and developed its Home Shopping service ahead of many other retailers, the website remains a horror for the eyes. You can marvel at this for yourself on and see that that lack of aesthetic sensitivity in the stores is translated into the website. However, for the loyal customers, low prices are worth the somewhat unpalatable “shopping experience” and Schlecker is estimated to hold 41% of the Drogerie market in Germany.


Times have begun to change, however, and Herr Schlecker found, some 18 months ago that his low-cost business model was not always so resistant to swings of consumer fortune. For the first time ever, last year, Schlecker began to make some compromises in the face of increasing competition, particularly in the high street/shopping centre from competitors with higher margins and a more pleasant shopping experience. Among the strategic changes that were made, smaller stores under 200 m² were closed, the food ranges were phased-out (“Lidl do that better”- Anton Schlecker) and payment with plastic (EC or direct debit card) was introduced. Meanwhile, Schlecker continues its rapid expansion outside Germany, primarily to Scandinavia and Eastern Europe.


Whether these changes will be successful is yet to be seen but maybe we should take a look now at the main pretender to the throne who is giving Herr Schlecker these headaches.


“dm” is another drogerie chain that has been going for slightly longer than Schlecker and is about half Schlecker’s size in terms of turnover, outlets and employees. The first dm store opened in Karlsruhe in 1973 and the chain is currently in a phase of rapid expansion, both within Germany (where it took over REWE’s “Idea” drugstore chain in April last year) and throughout Italy, Austria and several Central/eastern European countries including Czech republic, Slovak republic, Slovenia, Hungary, Croatia and Serbia.


A more different retail concept to Schlecker would be hard to imagine. dm’s slogan “Hier bin ich Mensch. Hier kauf ich ein:” (I am human here. I do my shopping here.) is the key to dm’s approach. Walking into one of dm’s stores is a very different experience to walking into Schlecker. You may not be able to put your finger on exactly what it is, but the dm stores are intricately designed to make people feel well and even inspired, at all times of year. Careful attention is given to lighting, colours, the width of aisles and the heights of displays to make everything feel “just right”. It is not too far to say your soul may even feel uplifted, too.


For dm have some pretty lofty philosophy on their side. Rather than the “low cost at (almost) any cost” philosophy of Schlecker, the founders and board of dm are followers of Anthroposophy. Now, I have no intention of giving a huge discourse on Anthroposophy here – suffice to say that Anthroposophy is a philosophy that has had an effect on many areas of life in Germany over the last ninety years or so including architecture and education. If you are really interested, you can do a search on Rudolf Steiner, who was the founder of the whole thing (and I would be interested if anyone could send me a potted idiot’s guide to what it’s all about, because I can’t fathom it out!). The Anthroposophy movement does seem to have its critics - although not a religion, or a science, but rather a “spiritual science”- it does seem to have a sort of Kabbalah or Scientology feel to it!


Getting back to the more mundane subject of drugstores, you can see where the ideas of “levels of perception” or “asking questions” or even “artistic expression of perceptions” come into dm’s presentation. The store design is very well thought-out and a lot of thought is put into the design of dm’s products. The website is a contrast to that of Schlecker, with information about the company’s numerous CSR activities and working environment well upfront as well as useful advice of the sort “where do dark rings under the eyes come from?” or “why does the skin get wrinkled after a bath?”.


So, the philosopher is challenging the discounter. We don’t know as yet which way the drugstore war will end up but it will certainly be interesting to see ultimately whether German priorities are on price or shopping experience for this retail category as this may have implications for other high street-and out-of-town-retail names.


Who came up smelling of roses? No contest - it was the philosopher beating the discounter into bankrupcy in 2012. Schlecker is no more on the German retail landscape.

Although dm does have to keep on its perfectly manicured toes. Rossmann is pretty well neck-and-neck when it comes to the 2023 drugstore crown.

Friday 22 December 2023

Time for altered images?


The last couple of times I’ve signed on to my internet banking with Commerzbank, I’ve had a lovely little seasonal surprise. The visual, above, drawing my attention to the bank’s Christmas charity drive. They have partnered with brotZeit e.V an organisation that provides free breakfasts for schoolchildren. And, sad as it is, there are plenty of children in Germany at the moment who could benefit from this charity.

Why am I commenting on this? Well, the visual itself is striking and eye-catching, with its healthy snacks in the guise of seasonal characters. Pictures do paint a thousand words and fun, hope, cheerfulness, children, health, colourfulness, yumminess, friendliness, cosiness, kindness, imagination and creativity are just a dozen to start with. This is so much richer than the type of visuals that usually confront me on opening the website.

Typically in the last year, these will either be the usual grinning plastic people looking thrilled and excited over their laptops. Or pairs of said plastic people smooching. I’ve written about these plastic people here, and I don’t think it needs repeating. 

What I wondering is - in the obsession with representation, diversity and “people who look like me”, have we forgotten the power of the abstract and the symbolic? Long, long ago, we handled the Commerzbank account at Saatchi. We created a striking look, and from what I remember, there were no visuals of human beings. Everything was symbolic, from squirrels to oak trees. And plenty of less expected, yet rich, evocative imagery, too. 

Why does everything have to be so literal? Surely communication works harder when the visual is not merely a reflection of the text? The problem with using the thrilled and excited plastic people is that everyone else is using them too. Within the banking category and without. 

Advertisements from the golden age of posters are now regarded as art

Isn’t it time to give the thrilled and excited plastic people and their laptops a rest?

Wednesday 13 December 2023

Everything, everywhere, all at once


According to Interbrand, Amazon is the world’s third biggest and most valuable brand. Next year, the company will clock up 30 years in business. I’ve watched it grow from an “internet bookstore” (how quaint) through a destroyer of the small and local to a paragon of customer-centric brand virtue (according to Interbrand). And back and forth again. Amazon nows occupies a position of what I’d call uneasy ubiquity.

My own relationship with Amazon illustrates this perfectly. I resist Amazon as default, in the same way that I avoid And yet - I’m trapped with my Kindle. And sometimes, Amazon is the only practical option. 

This is what Amazon have understood. And it’s what they understand by customer-centric (rather than people-centric). When people are in customer mode, when there’s something they really, really, want, and they want it quickly and cheaply, reliably delivered, noble principles go out of the window. Amazon understand the power of “make it easy, make it convenient.”

So, when you already offer “everything”, where can you go from there to make things even easier? You try at “everywhere”. So people don’t even have to leave their favourite social media app, let alone their armchair for (almost) instant gratification. Amazon have partnered with Meta, as well as Pinterest and Snapchat to link your account and shipping address for a check-out without checking-out of the app. 

I won’t be joining in, as I’m old and contrary. But I doubt that’s of much concern to Amazon. They are probably more perturbed that, at this stage at least, TikTok aren’t playing ball, either.