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:

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HAPPY AMATEUR

 

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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

Thursday, 29 July 2021

Triumph or tasteless?

 

The flooding in Germany has dominated the news for over a week now, along with efforts to help, financially and through volunteering. One of the more unusual approaches is a campaign called Flutwein, or “Flood Wine”. 

The Ahrweiler region is known for its wine production, and the idea behind this campaign is to to sell salvaged bottles to support the rebuilding of the region and to give those hit by the disaster financial support.

The publicity for the campaign shows “original” bottles, covered in mud and numbered 1 - 1000. Slogans include Unser Schlimmster Jahrgang (“Our worst vintage”) and Trauerburgunder (“Grief Burgundy” - a play on the name Grauerburgunder).

Behind the campaign is a collective of restaurants, wine growers and charity clubs from the region.

The campaign is being run on a crowdfunding site, where the numbered bottles have already sold out (example price: €500 for bottles numbered 100 - 150). Donations can also be made direct, or for unnumbered bottles (e.g. €60 for 3).

Is it tasteless to produce a slightly macabre campaign where many have lost their lives and livelihoods? 

Or do the results speak for themselves - heading towards €900K in donations when I last looked?

Friday, 9 July 2021

The freedom of lancing

 

LinkedIn started up at almost exactly the time I started freelancing - founded in December 2002 and launched in May 2003. So maybe it’s no surprise that my experiences, highs, lows and progress in my occupation have been closely linked to the way that work-related networking has changed over the years.

When I started up (and at the time I had no idea of whether I’d brave the slings and arrows, or retreat back into classic employment) it was a time pre-social media. I had no office, and was working from an Aldi computer my husband had bought in the previously century. I had a toddler and a freenet email address. I’d written a business plan for the Arbeitsamt but knew that it was as much a fiction as the retro-style adventures I was to write. An exercise in box-ticking only (more of that later).

I knew intuitively that I was likely to get business from people who already knew me and what I was capable of, and their contacts. My working title was “Ideas for Sale” before I hit on Secret Agency. I still love the irony inherent in this name - I’d be a plug-in-and-plan type of freelancer, flexible and happy to fit in to clients’ ways of working, systems and culture. I’d have ideas and experience of methods and tools, but wouldn’t force any propriety straightjackets on anyone. I’d be content working in the background, but would make no secret of who I was or where I came from. I wouldn’t hide behind some corporate-style website using the Royal We, implying I had unlimited resources at my disposal.

By and large, I’ve been happy about how this has turned out. The upside is that being low profile allows me to pursue other interests - writing those books, for example.

But the downside is that there is no safety net when you operate under the radar (I know, a particularly clumsy mixed metaphor).

Over the time I’ve been doing my freelancing, there have been vast changes in the way the freelance world works. Most of these, on the surface at least, have not really improved my lot.

First of all, there has been a huge increase in compliance-type stuff from clients of all sorts - hoops to jump through that are time-wasting and irritating for a one-woman band. Box-ticking, forms to be filled in and signed, purchasing departments’ rules and regulations, certifications here there and everywhere. In summary, a lot of things not being taken on trust, as they were in the past. I understand, to some extent. But it is wearisome.

Then there’s the growth of what used to be called the gig economy. This stretches from the democratic/exploitative (depending on your viewpoint) crowd-sourcing such as Fiverr through to what is referred to as Open Talent. This is the elite end: curated networks of specialists and experts. I’m not sure about Open Talent yet. I have joined a couple of these, and was turned down by one - I suspect due to insufficient attention to Buzzword Bingo. My main concern is that they don’t know me and what I can do, and I’m damned if I’m going to start trying to explain it all.

And the latest development is a Covid-related one as companies re-examine ways of working post-pandemic. A new employment model from Unilever is U-Work, the idea being to have a pool of staff assigned to different roles on a project-by-project basis. This gives the staff in question the benefits of freelance/contract work plus the security of fixed employment as they are paid a monthly retainer. I note the benefit to the company is that this model “avoids the costs of finding freelance workers and getting them up to speed.” I expect a lot of other companies will follow suit.

If I was starting up now, I would do things differently. I’d be all over LinkedIn using the right buzzwords and hashtags, collecting certificates, making connections, speaking the Key Word, algorithm-friendly language about great leaders, amazingly empowering inspiring blah and following the advice about asking questions and writing engaging posts. 

Or would I?

A subversive part of me shudders when LinkedIn suggests phrases I might like to use. I read somewhere, in a discussion amongst creatives about today’s award-winning ads that someone said “I don’t want to be good at doing that kind of advertising.” In the same way, I’m not sure I want to be good at raising my profile.

I still get asked through my various acquaintances in the business - could you, or do you know someone who could ...? And I still believe that companies look for an outside view on strategy - a view from someone independent, free of company culture, processes, philosophies, who is nevertheless prepared to listen and understand, and work out something tailor-made that fits and works.

LinkedIn can become ChainedUp only too easily.

  

Friday, 2 July 2021

RETROWURST: Time July 2003


With the longest day of 2021 behind us, it seems right that the next article from the pre-Extrawurst archive is one I wrote on the subject of Time, eighteen years ago, in July 2003. I’d been up to the Account Planning Group Germany conference and was fascinated by a talk given by Professor Karlheinz A. Geissler on the subject of the German relationship to speed and time. A prediction was made that “we will be ruled by the mobile phone/communications handset, not by the clock.”

Remember, this was a good few years before smart phones ...

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I was up at the German Account Planning Group’s annual ‘Open Source’ event in Hamburg last week, where, sandwiched in between two talks - the entertaining-but-expected (an Army colonel talking about military strategy and what we commercial Planners can learn from it) and the expected – and mind-blowingly tedious (a Management Consultant doing an elongated sales pitch; see www.rolandberger.de for the full horror) - was a fascinating talk from Professor Karlheinz A. Geissler on the subject of Time.

 

The professor spoke about our relationship with time over history, moving from the time when time and the weather were one and the same (the word for both remains similar in the Latin-based languages such as temps, tempo), to the age of the clock, to the industrial age where man’s speed was no longer limited by nature and through to our own age. He argued that, in our ‘post-modern’ world, the key is no longer speed but flexibility. That is, the people that will succeed in our times are those that have the flexibility to do several things at once, not those who can do one thing faster than anyone else. We will be ruled by the mobile phone/communications handset, not by the clock.

 

Interestingly, he raised the point that some people/cultures already have a head-start in this new world of flexibility, the US (generally) and working mothers being two examples he cited. Conversely, other cultures may well be handicapped in the adaptation process, especially those who have excelled in the last age. Professor Geissler was not slow in holding up the Germans as the key example here. Maybe the Swiss have a greater obsession with clocks and punctuality, but the Germans combine this with their love of the stopwatch and what it measures - speed, rather than time!

 

So, this is the country where Michael Schumacher is the most revered sports hero but where you’re not allowed to use your washing machine after 8pm; where 150mph on the Autobahn is totally acceptable if your car is built for it (and most German cars are) but where having a BBQ party that goes on after 10pm is not. Even in German advertising agencies, punctuality and efficiency rule the roost- in some of Jung von Matt’s conference rooms there are no chairs, encouraging meetings to begin and end on time - in fact, there is no English equivalent of the German word Stehtischwhich is literally, a table to stand at. Contrast that with the comfy sofas of UK advertising agencies!

 

This all brings me on to a topic of huge current interest here in the area of retailing- opening hours. When I first moved to Germany in 1996, the opening hours, even in the big cities, were like something out of 1950s Britain (minus the ration books!) It seemed that what you won on the pubs (most open until 1am), you lost on the supermarkets, which were only open until 1pm on Saturdays (typical German exception of one Saturday per month being ‘long Saturday’ but I was blowed if I could ever remember whether Langesamstag was the first in the month, the last or in the middle somewhere!). Imagine the scene, if you will, of the entire working population of Frankfurt all queuing up at the same three supermarket tills at 12.30pm on a Saturday. I was appalled by this: the grudging acceptance with which the local people regarded this, and the underlying implication that women aren’t meant to be working, except as a good Hausfrau, so they can jolly well do the shopping during the week. Things improved a little a year or two later, with supermarkets opening until 8pm most weekdays and until 4pm on Saturdays.

 

However, the latest change has met with disapproval from many sides. For the last month or so, the Supermarkets have stayed open until 8pm on Saturdays. The church is up in arms, so to speak, as they see this as the next (final?) step down the slippery slope to that abomination, Sunday opening. (NB. Finding a shop open on Sundays here in Germany- with the exception of petrol stations, airports, railway stations and the odd kiosk- is about as difficult as beating Michael Schumacher round the Nürburgring. Even the DIY and garden centres are geschlossen.) But the Church aside, what is perhaps surprising is the somewhat unenthusiastic attitude of the general population. Who in their right mind, they think, would want to go to a Supermarket at 7pm on Saturday evening, when they should be watching the Bundesliga, throwing half a pig onto the BBQ or baking a cake for Sunday’s Kaffee und Kuchen with the mother-in-law?

 

The point here is not that the German people don’t like change, but that this is a change that they don’t understand. It doesn’t fit into the unwritten rules of order and efficiency. If someone has to do their shopping on Saturday evening, they must be disorganised (not spontaneous). They clearly haven’t planned ahead. I haven’t been shopping myself yet on Saturday evening, but I’ll make an effort this weekend to tear myself away from the cake-baking, or the BBQ (Bundesliga is in the middle of the summer pause!). I suspect that the people I’ll see; far from being disorganised, will be the sort of spontaneous, flexible consumers who will have to represent Germany’s future as they move away from the age of speed and punctuality to the age of flexibility and multiple lives all lived simultaneously.

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Pre-pandemic, Germany wasn’t quite on 24/7. Retail opening hours had stretched to 10pm or so, but Sunday remains sacred (except for online ordering, of which more later). 

It’s interesting how the pandemic has thrown time out of the window, along with freedom, while online shopping has devastated the city centre (although local independent shops of the butcher, baker and candlestick maker variety seem to be thriving). 

What intrigues me is that, over the eighteen years that have passed, I can still see Professor Geissler and his antiquated overhead slides before me, and I can recall many of his words of wisdom. 

I can’t remember a single thing the chap from the management consultancy (with his slick PowerPoint presentation) said.

I understand that Professor Geissler doesn’t have a driving licence and lives “watchless”.

Sounds like the norm amongst young people.

Thursday, 24 June 2021

Testing dot com

 

There’s a new pandemic in the UK - this time, of medical test providers, with more and more springing up daily like new Covid variants.

Whereas it seems to be possible in Germany to travel a short distance to the nearest town and get your PCR test to travel, in the UK the situation is rather different.

It’s a requirement of entry from Germany at the moment to pre-order tests to be done on Day 2 and Day 8 of your ten day quarantine period. And booking and waiting for these tests is an experience that would certainly dim the Wanderlust of anyone remotely faint-hearted (or anyone whose native language isn’t English).

The UK government website currently shows 433 test providers.  Would-be travellers are advised that the government doesn’t give any advice about these - the traveller is advised to “do their own research”. 

Now, can you imagine researching 433 different options? Going through this medical multiplicity is rather like being on booking dot com or similar: “only 6 tests left at this price” “1m people are looking at tests for this date” “3,000 tests booked in the last hour” - I am not exaggerating greatly.

Most of the providers have smart, well-designed websites that promise efficiency, reassurance, simplicity, speed (if you can afford it) and so on and so forth, all at a reasonable price. Many have names designed to get them to the front of the list. Some boast their capacity, others their Mission and caring/human credentials.

But in the end, it’s not like choosing a hotel that you may want to come back to. It’s what is called a “distress purchase” that most people resent paying for, and you just want it done and delivered in time.

I’ve had a mixed experience with Day 2 (delivered in good time) and Day 8 (somewhat tardy and had me perspiring a little, especially reading some bad reviews about lost tests and missing flights). 

I’m about to do my test to travel, which is even more critical.

I can only hope and pray.

Thursday, 17 June 2021

Your customers choose you


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

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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, 2 June 2021

RETROWURST: Das Pfand June 2003

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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


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

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

Monday, 24 May 2021

Unlocking - it’s Opening Time!


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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, 12 May 2021

The continentalisation of the UK


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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Sunday, 2 May 2021

RETROWURST: Children May 2003

 


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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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


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


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

Tuesday, 27 April 2021

Which brands do you want to cosy up to?

 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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