Wednesday 24 March 2021



During the first wave of the pandemic, advertisers from retailers to telecoms, food to insurance, appeared to all have received the same script for their TV commercials, which was executed in a remarkably similar fashion worldwide: plinky piano music, an "empathetic" yet rather sombre tone, vignettes of human despair and hope, and a promise of "being there for you.

Meanwhile, on social media, people created and shared their own entertainment: OK, there were plenty of mawkish poems, but much inventive and fun stuff too - horse-riding and mountain-climbing illusions created within the confines of a small apartment, toilet-paper jokes a-plenty and song parodies that most of us still have stuck in their heads. Which seems unlikely for any of those "we're here for you" ads, let alone whichever brands they were attached to.

Those few weeks really brought into focus the challenge facing the advertising industry today, which Paul Feldwick examines in his latest book, "Why does the pedlar sing?". Advertising is less liked and less effective than it was a decade or two ago. 

While many of those in the industry may put the blame at the door of the client, for not being brave enough to buy their edgy, disruptive ideas, Paul Feldwick asks the question: what is good advertising, actually? Is it the bold, kick-ass, "stuff that matters" that's celebrated on LinkedIn and at awards ceremonies?

The answer to this question is drawn from Paul Feldwick's previous book, "The Anatomy of Humbug" as well as a fascinating look back to the origins of modern advertising, 20th century examples from his own experience, and recent studies/works from Binet & Field, Orlando Wood and Byron Sharp: good advertising is popular, something people like and something that makes brands famous.

The book is full of good advice on how to develop - and even create - better advertising. I work as a strategic planner, and I found the idea of getting away from the "essentialist" theory of brands a good wake-up call: instead of theorising about brand essences in a Platonic sort of way, get down to a direct appeal to the senses through a brand's "distinctive assets". And let the "creative process" - if it can be described as such - take its chaotic, iterative, not logically-predictable course.

The book raised questions with me, which is a good sign. Is fame (in a mass-media, mainstream sense) different for niche or local brands? And how does the call for more representation/reflection of people's lives in advertising tally with a return to the fun of the fair, the cartoon animals, the wild and wonderful, satire and general nonsense? Not to mention the much stricter regulations and guidelines imposed on the industry?

Like "The Anatomy of Humbug" before it, "Why does the pedlar sing" is engagingly-written, with a good dose of personal experience and opinion thrown in. I'd recommend it to anyone who works in brand communications and advertising.

And once lockdown is over and I can get back to the UK, I'm heading to the Museum of Brands.

Thursday 11 March 2021

Unique vs. Original


In the last few years, I've often been involved in those conversations about differentiation and distinctiveness when it comes to brands and advertising. In the early part of my career, differentiation was the thing: setting your brand apart from competition by focussing in on some aspect of the brand - how it's made, a secret ingredient, what it can do for you, and how it can deliver these benefits better than any other brand in the category.

But things changed, and the internet happened, and a new genus called platform brands grew up, and lots of clever bods did smart analyses, and the point of view now is that brands should be distinctive, that is, to stand out via impactful brand assets.

I've been wondering recently, in a similar fashion, about "uniqueness". It was always my belief that brands should strive for uniqueness in their totality - to be unequalled - the opposite of "generic" or "interchangeable" and to emerge out of that cliched "sea of sameness."

But does uniqueness alone really do anything for a brand? I could create a unique brand but that wouldn't necessarily make it desirable, or relevant. Uniqueness is not necessarily good. It could be quite the opposite.

Uniqueness is like a statement of fact. It doesn't involve human emotion or judgement in a positive or negative way. A landscape or a micro-climate can be described as unique.

Now think about the word "originality". A far richer word, which has associations with the word "origins" and thus, authenticity. It feels fresh, newly-created, pioneering, not imitative, absolute, novel. You know there are stories to be discovered. A past, present and future. You say "Oooooh! That's original", but you'd never say "Ooooooh! That's unique."

We talk about "original thought", "original ideas". The human is entangled in the concept of originality. It's not detached, like "uniqueness."

"Unique" should mean unusual or remarkable, but quite often it doesn't.

I am sure that a unique new brand could easily be generated by a machine these days.

But an original new brand can only be created by humans.   

Tuesday 2 March 2021

RETROWURST: Carnival in Germany March 2003

Time to rummage around in the archives of my pre-blogging days again, and this month I have a special treat. My first ever Extrawurst, which also gives you a little bit about the origins of my blog name. This delight dates from March 2003, and is accompanied by the sound of slightly tiddly oompah music.


Seeing as this is my first Extrawurst, I’d better give you a quick explanation as to what an Extrawurst is. Yes, it literally means a ‘sausage thrown in’ if you’ll excuse my German. A typical use of the phrase is ‘The problem with Franz is that he always expects his Exrawurst’ or, in better English ‘Franz always expects his added extras (at no added charge)’. I’ll be giving you some thoughts on life and brands from behind the Sauerkraut curtain every month which I hope will amuse and inspire. 

My theme for my kick-off Extrawurst is Carnival, or Karneval, or Fasching which you just can’t avoid here at the moment. I’m pretty sure that if you ask people in the UK about Carnival at this time of year, Notting Hill aside, they are far more likely to bring to mind the jazz bands of the New Orleans Mardi Gras, the sequinned costumes of the Rio dancers or the romantic masked balls of Venice than the goings-on here around the Rhine. But Carnival has been building up to a climax here since November, when the Carnival Clubs officially launch their campaigns with the high points of Rosenmontag and Fastnacht before Ashermittwoch (Ash Wednesday).


You may have noticed the mention of Clubs and Campaigns there, which is one little element of Carnival, German style. Everything is meticulously timed and organised with parades starting at 11 minutes past the hour precisely. There are also very strict rules of behaviour for the revellers- even though you may call the colleagues you’ve worked with for 20 years by the formal ‘Sie’ for the rest of the year, not calling them by the familiar ‘Du’ if you happen to bump into them at a Carnival party will mark you down forever as being hopelessly stuffy. 


What are some of the typical elements of German Carnival? Well - the skimpy costumes of Rio are not recommended in February temperatures in Germany- far more popular is something with maximum coverage and minimum shape, to disguise the number of beers you’ve downed - variations on clowns are a perennial favourite and furry cow suits seem to be this year’s fad. Of course, the powers-that-be in the Carnival club have their own special costumes and fools’ caps in the carnival colours of red, yellow, blue and white, with the most extravagant costumes worn by the Carnival Prince and Princess (who are likely to be called something like Prince Gunther II and Princess Gundula IV). Gunther could well sport a fine Rudi Voller hairdo and moustache with his costume while Gundula is likely to be a little on the portly side with a particularly severe pair of glasses. Who needs the glamour of Rio?


Whoever thinks that German carnival is all frivolity and foolishness is very wrong. The Carnival had its origins in satire against the government and politics still plays a huge part. In the parades, there are huge paper-machée models of Herr Schroeder, Fischer and other (un) popular figures with our friends from the US being high on the agenda for satire this year. Germany must be the only country who would think of sending a Spitting Image puppet of its Chancellor as representative at the Eurovision Song Contest! It’s no surprise that Carnival was very definitely verboten during the 1930s.


Carnivals isn’t Carnival without food and, most importantly, drink. Traditional fare is doughnuts, called variously ‘Kreppel’ or ‘Berliner’ depending on where you come from - hence JKF’s infamous statement on his visit to Berlin in the early 1960s. ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’. But the main course on the Carnival menu is drink, and plenty of it. Here the Germans really come into their own. Carnival is strongest around the Rhine, which is wine country and half litre white wine ‘spritzers’ where the wine is probably just given a quick look at the water bottle are a typical drink to get people into the mood. Beer is also not to be avoided, especially in the carnival centre of Cologne (Koelsch) plus little bottles of Schnapps with innocent –sounding names like ‘Pflaumchen’ or ‘Little Plum’ or ‘Kleine Feigling’- ‘The cowardly little fig’.


 So, what relevance does all this have for brands? Apart from not calling German colleagues too early in the morning on Ash Wednesday or the obvious product and promotional opportunities (buy a furry purple Milka cow outfit and get ten doughnuts free) I think that it says something important about brands. Sometimes, I feel we (brand owners, managers, stewards, whatever) get just a little bit too precious about what Brands should and shouldn’t do, rather than thinking about how the brand in question might do whatever it is, and, importantly, what effect that might have on the brand’s fortunes. Carnival is certainly a way of getting noticed and eliciting plenty of sympathy (and hangovers) amongst the brand’s community (or potential community).So, just because the brand Germany may have values such as efficiency, organisation, duty and obedience to authority at its core (along with the more Carnival-friendly attributes such as oompah-music, jolly good beer and no worry about wearing ridiculous clothes in public) doesn’t mean to say that these values can be brought to play in celebrating Carnival, as we have seen, in a way that is 100% true to the brand.


That’s my first Extrawurst- I hope that you enjoyed it. I’m off to eat some doughnuts because tonight it all has to come to an end and the offer of ‘Traditional Aschermittwoch herrings in our local town hall’ tomorrow doesn’t sound that appetising!


Well, a lot of readers will know where it went from there. The music got worse as the years went by, the costumes even more grotesque (1980s shell suits were very popular last time I looked) and, in a tip of the clown's hat to inclusivity, we had a gay Prinzenpaar locally.

Last year, I made one of my biggest mistakes ever. We spurned the local carnival parade in a self-righteous manner and went jogging, for about 10km, around it. How smug and holier-than-thou can you get? I really don't know what on earth got into us. Certainly not alcohol.

We paid for this error. Last year would have been the last carnival as we know it for some time. Carnival parades 2020 were some of the first super-spreader events, and this year it's all been online and making cute YouTube videos with Playmobil figures. Yawn.

At least I don't have to eat pickled herrings, though.