Tuesday 21 December 2021

From one Heile Welt to the next


When I first came to Germany and listened to people in group discussions talking about advertising (mostly TV advertising in those days), one phrase I heard again and again was Heile Welt. It’s a phrase that doesn’t translate exactly into English, but the idea is of an undamaged/unhurt/unbroken world. It’s a bit like a Utopia, but presented as if it just could be reality.

Advertising in those days in Germany was more influenced by US-style advertising typified by P&G than the more self-deprecating humour, or surreal flights of fantasy found in UK advertising at the time.

The Heile Welt had some typical tropes - flawless skin, happy nuclear families, white washing and sparkling homes, svelte and beautiful career women tossing manes of glossy hair around, endless summers in a countryside idyll, wise and knowing loving grannies in cosy rustic kitchens, square-jawed men driving impossibly shiny cars up picturesque mountain passes ... R.E.M’s Shiny Happy People wherever you looked.

I think, in those days, most people watching knew the rules of the game. It was only advertising, after all.

In the last few years, there has been a greater call for authenticity in brand communication. More reflection of “real people” (what other kind are there?) and “real life” as well as more representation of today’s diverse society

But have we exchanged one Heile Welt for another?

I suspect, looking at this year’s selection of Christmas ads, that we have.

Advertising has moved from material or appearance-related aspiration to what I’d call emotional aspiration. 

People in ads these days - from tiny tots to great-grandparents  - are caring and generous. Inclusive, tolerant and kind. Feisty and resilient. Empathetic and compassionate.

But I can bet you that these models of new EQ standards make some people feel as inadequate as the impossibly slender models of the last century’s beauty standards (by the way, I’ve always wondered if there's some ministry hidden away somewhere busily setting all these standards that the new advertising is so keen to disrupt and smash).

This kind of advertising is no more “authentic” than the stuff from the last Heile Welt. Real homes are messy, and so are real people, emotionally. On a good day, I can be a model of empathy and compassion, but on other days I can be downright spiteful and pig-headed. It’s called being human.

I don’t mind a bit of emotional depth in advertising, but I’d ask agencies to be more honest - or even authentic - about what they’re producing. 

Good story-telling that pulls at the heartstrings is nothing to be ashamed of - but just don’t pretend that it’s real life.   

Monday 13 December 2021

LOAT-al Hero?

 One of my very first posts about new brands on Extrawurst had a look at the (then) phenomenon that was mymuesli . This was back in 2008 when Facebook was a novelty and personalisation meant getting your name engraved on a pen, or something. The idea of mass customisation seemed a brave new world indeed, and for quite a few years afterwards I held this up as a favourite when it came to new, start-up brands, maybe because it wasn’t, productwise, in the tech field.

mymuesli is no longer a start-up, more part of the establishment, although a quick flit around the website revealed a rather sad notice that they no longer deliver to the UK “due to Brexit.” And once you’re establishment, there are always young pretenders yapping around in the hope of seizing your crown.

Enter another duo of young German chaps with a good idea. Philipp Reif and Tim Horn have backgrounds as IT specialists (at Deutsche Bank and Telekom) and sportsmen, who saw a gap in the market for quick-to-prepare healthy breakfasts. They introduced Oatsome Smoothie Bowls in 2017 -  an idea that’s part mymuesli, part Huel, part Ben & Jerry’s (note the quirky flavour names). With their background, it’s no surprise that Philipp, Tim and their colleagues develop recipes as one would develop software - testing and learning, failing fast, and all that stuff. Proof that this can work for the traditional food industry?

The company seems to be doing well so far. Sales are in the 10s of millions of €s, the company is profitable, and they have hundreds of thousands of Instagram followers. According to this article, they are learning from mymuesli’s mistakes of rushing offline and expanding too quickly. And I’m proud to say they come from just down the road, on the Hanauer Landstrasse.

It’ll be very interesting to see - in another 13 years - what has become of both of these brands. But maybe I’m now showing my age in that longevity may not be the aspiration these days.

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 www.makromarkt.de – 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

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

Tuesday 10 August 2021

Isn’t it ironic?

 Three or four years ago, I made a calendar for my son’s Christmas present. The calendar was entitled “Beautiful Bruchköbel” and featured our home town’s architectural highlights, many of them sadly demolished now.

We both love that calendar - I loved making it, and I think my son still has it on the wall somewhere. The point being that we both love Bruchköbel, warts and all. 

I was reminded of “Beautiful Bruchköbel” by the cinema ad from the tourist association of Linz to attract visitors to Austria’s third-biggest city: Linz ist Linz. Even if you don’t speak German, I’m sure you’ll get the drift. It's a bit warts and all. Linz is described as being “for old people”, “gruesome” and “a bit rascist”, amongst other things.

There have been complaints. From the mayor, from restauranteurs and hoteliers.

But don’t we keep hearing about authenticity in advertising? Isn’t this the big thing? I find it sad that the ad industry is so po-faced and serious these days. A bit of self-deprecating humour, a touch of irony ... it doesn’t seem to be recognised or appreciated any more.

Linzertorte made by me

I’ve never been to Linz myself (although I love Linzertorte), but after seeing this ad, I’m really quite tempted.

Better ironic than (yawn) iconic, I say. 

Monday 2 August 2021

RETROWURST: Die Kräuterhex August 2003


Rummaging around in the archives, I found this article from August 2003. It relates one of the heftier waves of culture shock I had on coming to Germany: the influence of the Kräuterhex or herb-witch. Did friends and relatives have my best interests at heart when they recommended wrapping my neck in mashed potatoes or smothering my ankles in curd cheese? Was it the language barrier? Or were they having me on?


This month, I’d like to write about the German drug scene and its chief ‘pusher’- the Kräuterhex or ‘Herb Witch’ who, having died out long ago in the UK, is alive and kicking and plying her trade as well as ever here.


Before I moved to Germany, I’d hear the odd complaint about not being able to get this or that lotion or potion that one can normally pick up in Superdrug in the UK without a full medical examination and the signing and stamping of various forms. I had always assumed that this was a consequence of a privatised health system and a way for the doctors to make money. It probably is, but I was to learn that this was merely a superficial symptom of a deeper underlying cause.


In my first few months in Germany, I got a nasty sore throat. Now, normally, with something like that in the UK, you’d go to Boots and pick up some Strepsils and maybe a bottle of Veno’s. Instead, my mother-in-law suggested that the sure-fire way to get better was to make a Kartoffelwickel. As far as I understood it, this involves boiling some potatoes, mashing them up a bit and wrapping them in a tea towel around your neck. Putting the Kartoffelwickel idea down as some elderly eccentricity, I went into the Apotheke to try and find something more akin to my familiar brands of cough medicine. Instead of my familiar Veno’s, I got given a bottle of something that appeared to be made from ivy leaves, which I had always thought were poisonous.


My mother-in-law’s strange ideas (to my way of thinking) about the healing power of potatoes turned out to be normal in Germany not just among the older generation. When I got an unexplained swelling in my ankles, a friend (some years younger than me) suggested that a Quarkwickel would see that off in no time. This consisted in smearing Quark(curd cheese) all over the afflicted areas and sitting with my feet up. This was very messy indeed, but it did the trick, although I suspected that it had more to do with having a rest than anything else.


During the birth of my son, I wasn’t offered anything to take the pain away (maybe I didn’t scream loudly enough) except a few pinhead-sized homeopathic pills which were meant to relax me. I can’t honestly remember whether they did or not! And then, once I had a baby, the influence of the Kräuterhex increased tenfold. Recipes for colic remedies from bizarre herbs, more Wickels to deal with fever and colds, bath potions and even something totally weird involving some kind of dark brown root vegetable which one had to somehow extract juice from and pipette into the nose to deal with snuffles were just some of the advice from the Kräuterhex in her various disguises of midwife, baby magazines and other new mothers.


So, there we have it – while we grew up with household names such as Alka Selzer, Disprin, Reach for the Rennies, nothing acts faster than Anadin and so on, the Germans grew up with the Kräuterhex and her lotions and potions. When anyone gets a bout of the runs here, Imodium is only in seldom cases the answer- instead; it’s a diet of Coca Cola and salted pretzel sticks (one of the Kräuterhex’s more modern inventions).


The reason behind all of this is partly the retail structure and partly a more deep-seated psychological orientation to health and illness. Legislation (although this is changing) has meant that medicines, even herbally based ones) can only be bought in the Apotheke and many drugs that we can buy over the counter are prescription only. There are no ‘Supermarket’ – style chemist chains such as Boots here, and the Drogeries which are more akin to Superdrug do not sell medicines as such. However, interestingly, Germans don’t find it a nuisance that they have to make a separate trip to an Apotheke to get certain items; their somewhat hypochondriac nature delights in having an excuse to pick up more strange lotions and potions while they are there; items sold only in the Apotheke – skincare or herbal teas, for example, have a certain cachet. In some recent work I did on Vitamin C tablets, consumers generally pooh-poohed the Vitamin C that one can buy in Aldi and other supermarkets; the belief is that these are probably almost placebo-like and that the only Vitamins that are worth taking (even though they are three times as expensive) are the brands one can buy at the Apotheke.


The retail structure in itself is an outward symptom of the underlying psychological orientation to health and illness in Germany. Traditional and ‘alternative’ medicine have never been so divided here as in the UK. It is not unlikely that a ‘traditional’ Doctor would share a practice with a homeopath or that a classically-trained dentist would also practise acupuncture. It all goes back to a more holistic view of the body, mind and soul, which is closer to an Eastern view sometimes that a UK view.


This has huge implications for food, drink and beauty products. There are huge markets here for ‘anything herbal’. What in the UK is a tiny niche, such as ‘Herbal Candy’- like Ricola- is a huge market sector here. Herbal teas are huge - it’s sometimes difficult to find ‘normal’ black tea amongst the array. In alcoholic drinks, there are certainly more varieties of herbal Schnapps than anyone would care to drink while yoghurts pop up with ingredients like hawthorn or Aloe Vera. One of the most popular flavours for children’s sweets and ice cream is Waldmeister - woodruff. While one gets the impression that, in the UK, many of these herbal products are faddish; the old Kräuterhex has such a hold over the German public that her influence will never fade away.


Eighteen years later and not a lot has changed, other than online ordering and the establishment of discount Apotheke chains such as Easy Apotheke, founded in 2004, making potions a little more accessible. 

Oh, and what was the local Greek Restuarant is now a testing centre, with nose-tickling instead of ouzo and souvlakis. And the venue that was host to basketball games, comedy shows and rock concerts is now the vaccination centre. I’m not sure what the Kräuterhex’s cure for Covid was, but I am sure she wasn’t short on ideas.