Monday, 4 July 2022

RETROWURST: New Optimism

 


Travelling 18 years back in time, I’ve dug out an article written in July 2004, about the state of the nation - Germany, that is. It was based on the (at that time) German tendency to self-flagellate, dwelling on the woes of the current and crimes of the past. Contrasted with the chirpy British attitude of having a laugh and pint and “Always look on the Bright Side.”

I sensed a turning in a Stern article, a kind of Reasons-to-be-Cheerful (at least as far as business went) with Germany coming 3rd in a Best Location for Companies survey, along with being world leader in export, centre of Europe, King of Patents, thriving Mittelstand and so on and so forth.

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I am often asked which characteristics of the Germans I find the most frustrating and, occasionally, which characteristics are at all attractive or endearing. Perhaps top of the list for annoying characteristics is the Germans’ tendency to beat themselves up, which has become particularly to the fore over the last couple of years against the background of the less-than-booming economy and political incompetence of one sort or another. While we Brits are also happy to have a good whinge and moan, we don’t spin it out too long and eventually we capitulate to some black humour about the situation and/or a quick pint. But for the Germans, whether it’s the football, unemployment, the woes of the economy, collective guilt for the crimes of grandparents and great-grandparents or whatever, there seems no end to the whingeing and wailing and the German media love to stir it all up again should the misery chorus show any signs of abating.

 

Against this background, I was quite pleased to see that the German media are now focussing on some rather more positive events. This week, with the 60th anniversary of the attempt on Hitler’s life by a group of officers led by Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg , the TV is full of dramas and documentaries about this incident and about other resistance fighters against the Nazi regime. And, a couple of weeks ago, the Stern magazine’s title page showed a thumbs-up sign painted in the colours of the German flag with the headline ‘We’re better than we think’. The accompanying article was, for once, a positive look at Germany’s place on the world stage and I thought you might be interested to read some of the main points from this article

 

In Spring this year, Ernst & Young conducted a survey in which 500 international companies were asked what the current best location, from an economics viewpoint was for a company .This year, Germany came third behind the US and China, whereas the year previously, both France and GB were voted ahead of Germany. In a similar survey, locations were rated on a number of criteria and Germany emerged ahead of its European neighbours on factors judged vital to economic success such as transport and logistics, telecommunication, quality of R&D, potential for increased productivity and skills/education of the workforce. The main drawbacks to business in Germany were seen as the cost of labour and inflexible working law.

 

A number of CEOs of German companies cited Germany’s geographical position at the centre of Europe as being key for worldwide communication and the closeness to the rapidly-growing Eastern European economies as a factor of great importance. In addition, the article points out that Germany is once more world leader in terms of export.

 

Perhaps the most interesting point made in the article is that it’s not just the big names that are contributing to Germany’s renaissance on the world stage. Of course, Mercedes, Porsche, Bayer, Siemens and their like are playing a key role. But what is interesting to see is the sheer number and scope of the ‘hidden champions’ - the middle-sized companies, often operating in very specialist areas, who are world leaders in their fields but whose name nobody knows. Did anyone really know, for example, that there are more machine tools produced in the region of Baden-Württemberg than in the whole of the USA?

 

So, Germans can be proud once more that they are world leaders in such diverse fields as artificial limbs, car-locking systems (every fourth car in the world has a system from Huf Hülsbeck and Fürst), printing machines, fish food, corn chaffer machines and children’s bubbles! And, it seems that the inventiveness of the Germans for new and obscure items is not due to halt, either. Germany registered 22,700 patents in 2003; behind the US with 31,860 but well ahead of Japan with 18,500.

 

Maybe this is a huge opportunity for us in marketing; to help these ‘hidden champions’ join the big world players with effective and appropriate brand strategies. The trick is surely to combine their know-how with a dose of creativity and entrepreneurial spirit, but not in a flippant and superficial way. Germany, especially the typical CEOs of these middle-sized, often technical, companies, have a great mistrust of marketing and advertising, seeing it all, quite frankly, as fluffy. A friend of mine, who is a freelance copywriter, even uses his ‘Dr’ title on his business card to lend him the right sort of gravitas. Funky logos and tricksy websites just don’t cut it with these people. But it would be great to help some of these smaller brands to break away from the whingeing and small-minded politicians and media who are currently dragging the country down and to achieve real presence on the world stage. 60 years on, it might be a revolution against the undesirable status quo that actually succeeds.

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Blimey, how times have changed! No comment, really, except that there appears to have been a complete about turn. It seems to me now that the Brits are the ones that have lost their sense of humour and dived down into the dumps of the glums. Maybe it’s just the impression from the media - I do hope so, and I’ll see for myself when I venture over in a couple of weeks.

Meanwhile I’m pleased to say that Germany, and specifically Frankfurt, isn’t just a top location for business, it’s desirable as a place to live, too.

Thursday, 23 June 2022

Games of Life

 


It’s often been observed that we learn how to live through play, starting with playing shops or house as toddlers. My childhood included games that involved a historic or sci-fi fantasy world, such as Escape from Colditz or Thunderbirds, but also games that later found direct application in the grown-up world: Monopoly or Go-The International Travel Game.

But these days, do children really aspire to be a jet-setter or propery tycoon? I was interested to hear this week about a new game, developed by a group of young entrepreneurs, whose theme is a little closer to today’s aspirations - tackling climate change.

The group in question is Carducation from a school in Kelkheim, just down the road from here. They quote the inventor of the Kindergarten concept, Friedrich Fröbel - The source of all that is good lies in play (or thereabouts) and their business idea is to educate about important issues via card games. It’s a sort of “Cards for Humanity."

The first card game is called Ecucation - a strategy game in which businesses must balance profit with environmental responsibility, and, as in real life, catastrophes such as flooding or forest fires can turn up unexpectedy to scupper the best-laid plans.

The young start-up has been declared the best school firm in Germany by the Junior-Projekt, which encourages and fosters entrepreneurial business in schools. And the cards have already been seen in the hands of Chancellor Scholz and Vice-Chancellor Habeck.

All-in-all, a neat idea, and one that a few brands could learn from in their ESG communication. All the best to Carducation for the European final in July! 


Friday, 10 June 2022

Here we go again

 


I’m always amused when clever young things at ad agencies rediscover topics and stories that are as old as the hills, with the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed conviction that they are the first to do so. One story that’s been going round and round and round and round like a broken record (showing my age here) is the one about the 50+ generation.

The latest study to cop onto the fact that over-50s hold 99.9% of the wealth but are only featured in 0.1% of the ads (or whatever the latest figures are) is The Invisible Powerhouse from MullenLowe Group UK. 

I know I’m as guilty as the next person when it comes to blabbing on about this stuff - and I can recommend this report in that it’s well put-together and thought through. There’s a useful segmentation based on approach to life which I can see having application.

But ...

Why do the old chestnuts still persist? “You’ll become invisible” “Older people are either portrayed as frail old dears or 90-year-old sky-diving super-heroes” “Old people don’t think of themselves as old” “It’s important because - gasp! - we’ll all be old one day” “Age does not define them”

There’s a certain lack of logic in it all, though. If Age is not Identity, if In our Minds, none of us is Old, if A 60-year-old Happy-Clappy-Activist has more in common with a 20-year-old Happy-Clappy-Activist than a 60-year-old Karen Brexit-Gammon, then ...

Why the heck should representation on the basis of age be so important?

I can identify with a 25-year-old man or quite honestly, an ageless, sexless cartoon character in an ad if it hits the nail on the head about a desire or need I have - and is presented in an entertaining way.

Maybe the real insight here is not “we’re all going to be old one day” but “all old people have been young, but no young people have been old” (not going to get into Buddhism here). I suspect that is where this is all going wrong.

By the way, if you’re an over-50 yourself, you might need your reading glasses for the Mullen Lowe report if you’re looking at it on the laptop. It’s a tiny typeface. 

Thursday, 2 June 2022

RETROWURST: National Pride June 2004


 

With the British Isles bursting out into a mass attack of Jubilee Jollity and Jubilee Jadedness, it seems particularly apt to drag this item out of the Retrowurst archives. The subject is about marketing on the basis of German-ness (I don’t really want to repeat the title as some algorithm might misconstrue it and have me kicked off Blogger as some hate-spewing, trolling Karen Boomer-Gammon or however such creatures are referred to these days).

Re-reading it, I winced a little at some of the choices of words, but was amused to see that I mentioned Boris Becker and his broom cupboard exploits which the press even today seem reluctant to forget. So, here we go, in a flourish of black, red and gold ...

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I was interested to read recently that, 20 years after Audi introduced their Vorsprung durch Technik claim to the unsuspecting British public, that Volkswagen plan to introduce their German slogan ‘Aus Liebe zum Automobil’ or ‘For the love of cars’ in the UK. It will be interesting to see how this claim fares for VW; will it be understood? Will it generate the same sort of positive brand associations and image improvement as Audi built with their German claim? Or will it fall flat on its face in the light of the current overdose of Love, Lovin’ it, AmourLiebe and whatever other manifestations of lovey-doveyness are flooding the world of marketing and advertising at the moment. Because, when it comes to it, Boris Becker and his broom cupboard exploits aside, Germans are not really known for their prowess in matters love and romance. Audi really hit on one of the key German strengths with Vorsprung durch Technik (‘progress through Technology’). A lot of the British public were not too sure what it meant but it certainly sounded impressive. 

 

Of course, the Germans always have to be a little careful when playing on their national strengths abroad. I remember reading a rather alarming piece during the 1996 European Football Championship (I am sure no England supporter needs reminding of how that ended for the England team) of how the pharmaceutical and chemicals giant Bayer had advertised a fly spray product in Latin America with a line that translated as ‘Sudden death is a German speciality’. A somewhat unfortunate choice of headline, I feel. And that is a big problem for German marketers – because of the past, marketing any product, event or service on the basis of nationalism or national strengths inevitably lands one in rather deep water.

 

The problem is, of course, that the Nazis may not have been the master race, but they were certainly masters of propaganda or marketing, as it would be called today. Almost every time one looks for values, myths, archetypes or even fairy stories to support a German brand, we see that someone else got there first, probably in the 1930s. Want to use a stirring piece of Wagner as background for your brand’s TV spot? Forget it. How about a nice dynamic logo in red, black and white? No chance. What about an advertising campaign that associates the brand with mythical or historical characters, in the same way we might use the Knights of the Round Table in the UK? Err…not today, Siegfried. How about a spectacular TV spot for Lufthansa (as in British Airways) with lots of people waving flags and forming patterns? A bit too reminiscent of Nürnberg, I’m afraid. Is it any wonder that much German advertising shies away from the symbolic and emotional and concerns itself only with fact and product performance? Not only does the devil get the best tunes – in Germany, he has certainly spoilt a lot of good advertising and marketing ideas for anyone else.

 

The wariness of the German people in showing any kind of national pride is particularly apparent at the moment, during Euro 2004. While it may well all be over for the German football team tonight, the lead-up to Euro 2004 has been very low-key here- extraordinary when you think that, through luck, skill, or sheer determination, they were the runners up in the World Cup. From a marketing and sponsoring viewpoint you would hardly know that it is on. Apart from a few TV spots from an alcohol-free beer sponsoring the team, a few footballs and children’s football kit (choice of Portugal, Turkey, Italy or Germany) on special offer in Aldi and Burger King offering something called a King Kahn Burger , there is precious little going on. Contrast that with the St George flag hysteria in England where you can’t move for flags, shirts, tie-ins, sponsorships, promotions, events and all the rest.

 

One way that German brands, particularly in the food and drink categories, can capitalise on their authenticity and history without getting too bogged down in undesirable associations is by using their regional, rather than national provenance, which makes a lot of sense, given that Germany has only really existed for less than 150 years. Many products such as beers, sausages or cheese position themselves on the town or region from which they come. To some extent this can provide differentiation and positive association but there is also the danger of losing oneself in the standard, nostalgic-but-not-too-specific-as-to-when-it-was, rural idealised village worlds that many of these products employ in their advertising.

 

For technical and financial brands, such as Audi, Siemens, Lufthansa or Deutsche Bank, it is more difficult. Not only does it make sense for such brands to want a positioning for today and the future rather than harking back to the past but many of these brands really do have associations from the past that they would rather not dwell on – just think of the beginnings of Volkswagen, for example. Thus the most fruitful area is to take an accepted German strength such as technical expertise, engineering competence or financial acumen and exploit that. 

 

One area where going back to the past is not fraught with difficulty is the more recent past. There is a real wave of nostalgia here for former DDR brands and whole websites where these brands are discussed, bought and sold, such as www.ossiladen.de . Many brands from this time are being successfully revived and marketed with the sort of fervour of 70s revived brands in the UK.

 

We will have to see how the Volkswagen line ‘Aus Liebe zum Automobil’ will work. Perhaps it will be a step to adding some emotion to the cold, robotic image of German companies. After all, at least Germans do love their cars and Volkswagen has produced some of the most ‘lovable’ character cars of all time. Perhaps, if the Czechs really want to let Germany through tonight rather than Holland then we might even see a few German flags hanging out of Volkswagens as football fans drive over to Burger King to grab their King Kahn burgers.

 

 

Sue Imgrund 23rd June 2004 


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Well, some of that was quite extraordinary. I had forgotten how little flag-waving there was here pre-2006 and the “Sommermärchen” that was the hosting of the World Cup. Everything seems to have come full circle again, though in recent years, within Germany and without, with more and more pressure on brands and companies to show some sensitivity to the less desirable (through today’s lens) aspects of their history. But I’ll leave a discussion of decolonisation for another time. Ot maybe not.

What is certainly true is that the local/regional positioning has boomed. This is helped immensely by the part that local plays in sustainability generally, and there have been some great examples of communication, and even new brands based on clever mash-ups of local/nostalgic plus global/hip, in a sort of LaBrassBanda style.

The Ossiladen is still going strong, but I’m not sure that Soviet-era nostalgia is quite the thing these days. Oh, and Aus Liebe zum Automobil disappeared in a puff of emissions scandal somewhere along the way.

And what happened on the evening of 23rd June 2004, a few hours after I wrote this piece? Well, Germany lost to Czech Republic and were kicked out of Euro 2004, so it was goodbye to all that.  

Friday, 27 May 2022

On your bike

 


I was asked yesterday if I’d be getting an eBike. 

The answer to that is no, certainly not in the immediate future. Why not? For the same reason that I sigh when I read all about the latest “sustainable innovations” praised in the various marketing and innovation newsletters I receive, be these fashion, electronics, cars or bikes

I have a perfectly good bike and don’t need a new one. Ditto T-shirts, trainers or cars. And I particularly resent “built-in obsolescence” which isn’t just a feature of mobile phones these days. 

The uncomfortable truth is that infinite economic growth on a finite planet just isn’t possible. A recent report by Unicef found that if everyone in the world consumed resources at the rate of OECD and EU countries, 3.3 earths would be needed to keep up with the consumption rate.

I do sometimes wonder what’s going to happen to all those eBikes once the novelty wears off - and to the perfectly good bikes languishing in dusty garages and cellars as a result of this boom.

“Within the constraints of the planet" is often added as an afterthought when marketers talk about growth, but perhaps it’s something that should be brought to the forefront more often. The planet is something we must all share. Share in the sense of apportioning something finite, not the more current use of sharing as a term for making public - and quite often, showing off.



Monday, 16 May 2022

The me-me-me-nopause

 


There seems to be no pause whatsoever in the media’s current obsession with menopause. The unstoppable flow of articles from female journalists of a certain age, with their intent on playing a sort of symptom Top Trumps are bad enough. And now there’s a hot flush of “taboo-breaking” ads each trying to out-do the next in terms of “reflecting authentic experiences”, smashing stigmas and general mawkishness.

“Our many, varied experiences are brushed under the carpet by shame and indifference” boldly proclaims one agency representative responsible for these ads. An unfortunate choice of metaphor, possibly, when describing “occasional pelvic floor betrayals (sic)”.

“We hope this campaign can reinject humanity and beauty into the life stage, subvert damaging and demeaning stereotypes and help women feel better supported and less alone. We also hope it’ll inspire people to talk to their own loved ones about the menopause — we all know someone going through it, yet we so rarely talk about it. It’s no wonder one in three feel alone during the menopause” gushes another. Does Pseuds Corner still exist? Talk about a high horse!

Now, I know some women have a hard time during the menopause, but I do find this “suffering victim narrative patronising and insulting. Not much better is the shock tactic approach employed by the brand Elvie - not directly about menopause, but certainly confronting one of the symptoms. Im glad I didnt have to walk past this billboard with a few small children in tow.

Why does a normal, natural phase in life have to be obsessed over in this way? My own feeling is that this could backfire and do women more harm than good. It brings out the very worst in the loud and narcissistic look-at-poor-me brigade.

And the cynical part of me thinks back to a whole category of feminine hygiene products that was introduced round about the time I was growing up - panty liners. Are these environmentally-unfriendly products really necessary for the majority of women? Probably not - yet they were marketed as a hygiene essential - the clue is in the name Alldays

Both Tena and Elvie have products to sell to help prevent or deal with urinary incontinence. How much of the normalisation is geared to getting new users, who could probably cope perfectly well without them, to buy these? Hunger for growth wrapped up in a saving hu(wo)manity script - it would be nice to just press the (meno)pause button on all this.

Monday, 2 May 2022

RETROWURST: Insurance May 2004

 


Back in May 2004, I tackled the potentially dreary topic of insurance in Germany, and discovered some fascinating insight into the German psyche. Why wasn’t I being taken seriously at parties? Should I be concerned about my young son pulling a local pooch’s tail and causing untold canine trauma? Why was I so blithely oblivious to the catalogue of disasters just waiting to befall me if I didn’t follow rules and regulations to the letter?

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We are moving house at the moment, which is what has inspired me (if that is the right turn of phrase!) to write about the German insurance market. Before you decide that this is only marginally less dull than the market for fishing tackle in Finland, please read on as some of this is surprising and provides an interesting insight into the German character in general.

 

When I first moved over here, I was a little disappointed when I met people and, on asking what I did and who I worked for (the answer at the time was that I was setting up – no, pioneering – a Strategic planning department for Saatchi & Saatchi Frankfurt) I was answered merely with polite coughing and a rapid change of subject. In the UK, those that work with brands, be it in a marketing department, advertising or brand consulting agency are generally regarded as fascinating folk at parties, full of clever ideas and witty repartee. But, here in Germany, I felt as if my profession was shunned and about as glamorous and fascinating as an estate agent – or an insurance salesman!

 

I soon came to learn that this comparison was a decidedly unfair one on the side of the accountants, tax advisors and insurance representatives (although estate agents appear to be a reviled species the world over.) Indeed, if someone announces themselves as belonging to any of these worthy professions at a party, they are practically revered rather than reviled. Such professionals deal with the important substance of life, in the Germans’ eyes rather than the hot air and froth that is the province of those of us in marketing and advertising. Rather than being a necessary evil, to be dealt with as quickly and painlessly as possible (and preferably at a good cyber-arm’s length away via the Internet so one doesn’t have to actually talk to any of the low creatures who make this their business) as it is regarded in the UK, insurance in Germany is a fascinating subject to be taken very seriously, even studied, by the layman.

 

And insurance in Germany is Big Business. In a survey last year, Germans were asked which of a list of areas they would be prepared/happy to spend a bit more money. The results were compared with 1999 data. In both years, top of the list was ‘good food and drink’ with around 50% of the sample citing this as an area where they’d be prepared to spend more. In the carefree days of 1999, ‘travel and holidays’ came joint first place, followed by fashion/clothes and then cosmetics/body care. However, last year, ‘pensions and insurance’ leapt into second place with 44% citing this as an area to spend more on in 2003 compared to only 30% in 1999.

 

The market for insurance in Germany has some of Germany’s best-known brand names. The biggest and most well-known insurance company is Allianz; 28% of the German population have at least one insurance policy with Allianz. Other well-known players include Aachener und Münchener, ADAC, Hamburg-Mannheimer, HUK-Coburg, R&V Versicherung, Victoria and Volksfürsorge. Most of these big players advertise heavily in the classical media, often with surprisingly creative campaigns. 

 

The range of insurance in Germany is quite bewildering. While we’re happy in the UK with our car insurance, house contents and buildings insurance – and may well toy with the idea of private medical insurance or life insurance, these are just the tip of the iceberg in Germany. Maybe because Germany is so crammed full with rules and regulations (you’ll all have heard the horror stories about not being allowed to use your washing machine between certain hours for fear of disturbing the public Rühe, or peace and quiet, or having to do Hausordnung once every three weeks and keep the pavement in front of the house or apartment block swept clean and free of banana skins and other booby-traps that could catch a passing Fussgänger unawares) that insurance is required should any of these rules and regulations be broken, with drastic consequences. As soon as I set foot in Germany, I was asked to sign up for Haftpflichtversicherungwhich would let me off the hook should someone slip on the ice in front of the apartment block that I’d failed to grit or clear because I’d forgotten it was my turn to do the Hausordnung that week and had better things to do on an icy Saturday morning at 8am. Now that I am a house-owner, I have learned that the house has to have its own Haftpflichtversicherung on top of my own personal policy – the mind boggles.

 

Perhaps the most bizarre example was, soon after my son was born, I was beset with offers of child insurance policies, covering such eventualities of my son breaking someone’s Wintergarten window with a well-aimed ball or terrifying some stranger’s poodle, necessitating canine psychotherapy. Being rather foolhardy, I didn’t take any of these offers up. I find something rather alarming about the very idea of child insurance. No doubt there were reciprocal policies being sold to grumpy old things to insure against a nasty brat doing their pooch some serious psychic damage.

 

Perhaps the biggest difference to the UK is the way that people buy insurance here. No-one is terribly keen on buying something so serious and fundamental over the internet – only 18% of the population see online availability as an important factor in deciding on an insurance company. By far the most important attributes are that the company is efficient, trustworthy, stable/serious with a good reputation – even price takes a back seat compared to these attributes. Personal consultation through face-to-face meetings with the representative, either at home or at one’s place of work is how most business is done here in matters of insurance. After all, the internet may be the place to go for something frivolous and frothy like a piece of advertising but when it comes to insurance, there is nothing more reassuring to the Germans than someone in a smart suit who can talk knowledgeably for hours about different tariffs and eventualities. By the end of it, you will even feel like inviting him or her along to your next party to impress your friends about the kind of company you keep and just how well-insured you are!

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Eighteen years on and not a great deal has changed, although the big insurers have cottoned on to apps and suchlike. But given the horror of what I experience dealing with UK banks, insurance and financial institutions - from chatbots to being passed through the call centre circles of hell through being asked if I’d like to chat about my finances on Facebook (clue: the answer is NO) - I’m rather pleased that they haven’t gone full digital-first. It’s still possible to see a man or lady in a smart suit, sitting in an office. That’s reassuring for an old-timer like me.

And a quick look at Interbrand’s Top 100 Brands showings the Allianz at No. 34, growing at 17%, and bigger than Netflix, PayPal or VISA

   

Sunday, 24 April 2022

Bloomin’ Lemons

 


In my last post, I referred to a talk by Orlando Wood, which sent me down an Orlando-shaped rabbit hole in search of more of his wise and wonderful thinking. He has published two books, Lemon and Look Out, which sound well worth reading. And as a preview, there’s a 20 minute film, produced in June 2020, those heady days when we thought the pestilence was as good as all over ...

I don’t think a marketing-related film has ever made me feel homesick before, but I’m afraid this one did, with halcyon scenes of the Thames in all its midsummer glory. Where the Lemons Bloom starts with an anecdote about Goethe, and how working as an administrator for the Court of Weimar stifled his creativity, so much so that he took off and fled to Italy in the middle of the night.

This reflects Orlando’s premise: that advertising has become less effective over the last fifteen years or so, due to a shift to the left-brain mode. Flatter, more abstraction, less holistic, less employment of metaphor and humour. No doubt a consequence of the obsession with being “data-driven”.

And it’s not just marketing communications. Culturally, the effect is only too apparent - intense focus on particular words, often taken out of context. Obsessions with categorisation and labelling people. A widespread sense of humour failure and lack of appreciation of nuance. 

Is human intelligence becoming more artificial, I wonder?



Thursday, 14 April 2022

Parable

 


I am not normally a fan of “social experiment” ads. There was a nasty spate of them a few years ago - either manipulative codswallop by beauty brands for “poor me” narcissists. Or po-faced offerings from previously jolly beer brands jumping on the latest Twitter trend. Patronising, preachy and pretentious stuff, instead of being informative, entertaining or useful.

However, when we’re talking life or death rather than cans of cheap lager or mostly-water body lotions, maybe such ideas can make a point. 

“First Aid for Humanity” is an ad by VMLY&R Poland for the Polish Red Cross, supported by BNP Paribas. The idea was a first aid training course that used dummies that not only looked like real people, but were modelled based on real people who have faced discrimination. These were a homeless man, a Muslim woman refugee and a genderqueer activist. The participants in the course were encouraged to set any prejudices they may have had aside. At the end, they met the people behind the dummies in real life to hear their stories.

Have a look here.

I listened to a talk by Orlando Wood the other day, and he mentioned that advertising that gets noticed employs metaphor, connections and relationships and is in some ways like a parable - it’s not telling you what to think, but leaving you to process it and work that out for yourself.

And of course, “First Aid for Humanity” is a 21st-century retelling of one of the greatest parables of all time - The Good Samaritan (see Luke 10: 25 - 37), about the man who “fell among thieves” and was ignored and left for dead by both a priest and an assistant priest of his own religion before he was rescued and cared-for by a man of a different and opposing religion. 

“First Aid for Humanity” is an effective piece of communication, but I did wonder if it could be have been even more effective if the dummies had gone beyond the “acceptable” victims of discrimination. 

What if your neighbour is a skinhead football hooligan with a few dubious tattoos?  

Monday, 4 April 2022

RETROWURST: Alcopops April 2004


 Eighteen years ago in Germany, you couldn’t switch on the radio or TV without hearing Alcopops and Komasaufen discussed in hysterical, frenzied terms. This would be the ruin of an entire generation! Remember, this was back in the pre-smart phone and social media days, not to mention a certain pandemic, when young people went clubbing and dancing and raving and generally having a wild and crazy time. Retrowurst this month is from April 2004 and chronicles the market at that time.

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There’s a bit of a Sturm brewing in a cocktail glass here in Germany at the moment with lots of talk in high places of dangerous drugs and teenage addiction. It’s probably a bit of a yawn to you in the UK, but the subject is ‘Alcopops’. While the UK and other European countries went through this in the 90s, the subject is only just becoming a matter of hot debate here. The question that is being mooted in the government is whether or not a Strafsteuer (penalty tax) should be applied to Alcopops. The consequence of this would be to double the price and (hope the government) collapse the market, which is exactly what happened in France in 1997. The reasoning behind this is that Alcopops are seen as a dangerous, seemingly innocuous but potent introduction to the slippery slope of alcohol addiction for young people. In an internet survey conducted via www.tageschau.de (one of the main news magazine programmes), 60.3% of the respondents agreed that Alcopops should be subject to a higher tax level.

 

I thought it might be interesting to trace the history of Alcopops’ development here in Germany and to take a look at the range of products currently available (maybe before they disappear for ever!). I think that one of the reasons that Alcopops took rather longer to take off in Germany is that there was never the same tradition of mixed drinks in this heavily beer/wine/schnapps dominated market. While the UK was in a Happy Hour frenzy of cocktails in the 80s, the German fad for ‘long drinks’ in clubs and discos and at Fests was rather more modest. Instead of the exotic concoctions served up in Rumours and the like in London, German ‘long drinks’ were restricted to Asbach Cola (German brandy), Bacardi Kirsch (Bacardi with Cherry) and Wodka Orange

 

However, two very interesting developments took place on the back of this, in the late 80s and early 90s. The first of these was Red Bull and its push as a mixer, typically with Vodka. Red Bull Vodka could be said to be the first German Alcopop, with its lurid colour and taste of melted Gummibärchen. The second development is even more interesting and does not show signs of slowing – and this was the development of individual sweet Schnapps bottles.

 

Small (0.02l) bottles of traditional Schnapps, such as Obstler or Korn had long been available, often worryingly (to UK eyes) placed with the sweets at the checkout of the supermarket or (even more worryingly) petrol station – a sort of impulse purchase, one assumes. However, in the late 80s, a trend started at Fests and parties for the social consumption of these little bottles, often accompanied by strange rituals, such as unison banging of the bottles on the beer table before opening, putting the cap on the end of your nose or making a spectacular domino display from the empty bottles. The new Schnapps leading this trend were sweeter in taste and slightly (but only slightly) less alcoholic (around 20% proof) than traditional Schnapps. The brands who led this trend with quirky advertising and very visible marketing campaigns were Kümmerling, Jägermeister and Kleine Feige. Other notable brands are Kober’s Pfläumchen and Berentzen Minis. The latter brand comes in a variety of flavours such as Sour Apple, Plum, Wild Cherry and Apple and are packed just like sweets in a plastic bag of ten little bottles for €4.99. Pfläumchen is packed in boxes of 25x 0.02l which sells at €8.99.

 

These little bottles of Schnapps were the forerunners to Alcopops, which really only arrived on the scene about 3 years ago. The big boys in the market, who seem to set most of the rules, are Bacardi Breezer (4x 0.275l for €6.29; available in full range of strange flavours) and Smirnoff Ice (6x 0.275l for €7.99). Bacardi Rigo (lime mix) is also available at €1.59 for a 0.35l bottle. These are, of course, off prices. Other players include Puschkin Vibe, 5.6% proof at €1.49 for 0.275l. This is a vodka mix and available in flavours called ‘Green’, ‘Black’ and ‘Red’. Caipi is a Cachaca mixed drink with lime and soda and is also €1.49 per bottle. Caipi is 5.4%, produced in the UK and imported by Borco-Marken Import, Hamburg. Another interesting product, which describes itself as a ‘wine cocktail’, with Lemon-Lime and Lemon-Ginger variants, is Viala Carma. This is also 5.4% proof and costs €1.49 for 0.275l.

 

The small, sweet Schnapps brands also offer Alcopops; for example, ‘Feigling Eyes’, a vodka mix drink from Kleine Feigling. This is 5% proof and only €0.99 a bottle. There is a website under www.feigling-eyes.com

 

Aldi are also never slow to recognise a profitable idea when they see one and offer a range of Alcopops at very reasonable prices. Interestingly, most of these are produced in the UK. There’s Czerwi Fresh, which is Vodka and Lemon, 5.6% proof, 6x0.275l for €4.99 and Czerwi Sunseeker, a vodka mix in more exotic flavours such as Blue Orange, Red Berry and Mango. This sells at only €0.75 for a 0.275l bottle. Aldi also have a rum variant, ‘Old Hopking Whitey’ which is 5.4% proof and sells at €4.59 for 6x0.275l.

 

There’s a whole website dedicated to these drinks if you are interested, under www.szene-drinks.com

 

Whether the government legislation will go through or not remains to be seen but, despite all the talk, the problem of drunken teenagers doesn’t seem quite so visible here as in other countries, such as the UK or certain Scandinavian countries. It may be simply because alcohol is not so ‘prohibited’ at the moment, being available for next-to-nothing at every local Fest or fair, and all hours of the day and night at petrol stations, that there isn’t so much ‘bravado’ attached to drinking by young people here – it’s simply part of life.

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The bubble burst not long after - on 1st July 2004, the Sondersteuer on Alcopops was introduced, putting around an extra €1 on each bottle, and naturally, sales went down as the government’s coffers were filled. I tend to think that Alcopops were never destined to make it quite so big in Germany, as you’re allowed to drink beer and wine here at 16 anyway, and the age limit for Alcopops is 18.

On top of that, Germany, like many other European markets, has seen a decline in alcohol consumption amongst the young. There are many factors at play here, some of which are highlighted in this report from 2018.  

Mixed drink marketing has concentrated more on the slightly older, more sophisticated drinker, with the Aperol revival and both gin and rum taking Germany by storm.

But that’s the official, commercial side. I do notice that those strange little sweet Schnapps bottles still seem to be widely available - and at remarkable prices that wouldn’t have been out of place in 2004: €8.49 for a 25 x 0.2l pack of Pfläumchen. 

And walk into any local yokel Fest and you’ll likely see buckets and watering-cans of Jacky-Cola and various Jägermeister mixes being swilled back as if it’s 2004. Only the age of the drinkers has changed: Alcopops are now officially nostalgia.


Tuesday, 29 March 2022

Talkin’ ‘bout my generativity

 


Towards the end of the last millennium, at a time when today’s mighty oaks were saplings and I was navigating the first stage of adulthood amid a neon excess of cocktails and heartache, I read The Man who planted trees by Jean Giono. This short story - may the correct term is parable - had been originally published in 1954 and enjoyed a renaissance in the 1980s. The tale starts in 1913, when the young narrator meets a 55-year-old shepherd, Elzéard Bouffier, who has taken it on himself to plant acorns in the Provence countryside over the last three years. 

Even if you haven’t read it, you can probably see where the story is going, and it does, most charmingly, accompanied by beautiful woodcuts. Two World Wars cannot destroy the consequence of one man’s simple act, regenerating a whole community and landscape.

Elzéard Bouffier and his story is the perfect example of generativity, a concept Ive touched on here and here. Generativity - a concern for establishing and guiding the next generation - is the main focus of the 7th Stage of Life in the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development. Interestingly, Erikson extended his stages from the Shakespearean “7 Ages of Man” in that he envisaged eight in total. Maybe this has something to do with increasing life expectancy - more of that later.

The 7th Stage of Life, or second stage of adulthood, typically occurs at what we’d call middle age - 40-64 approximately. Interestingly, once Erikson passed this age (he lived to 91) he reviewed his theory and admitted that generativity continues to play a major role beyond retirement age, too. Even more interestingly, his wife and collaborator Joan later added a 9th Stage of Life to the theory. She was 93 at the time.

Generativity, in its human/social meaning, has a lot of nuances as an idea. There’s a strong sense of altruism, but the “self” is not absent from the concept. It encompasses an inner desire for immortality in the form of leaving something of value as a legacy, making one’s life count for something. And there’s a strong component of responsibility to others, both now and in the future.

The language of generativity has been much used in sustainability communications. “For future generations” has become a cliche, usually accompanied by stock photos of carefree cute children running through sun-kissed meadows or fields of wheat. But maybe there’s an opportunity for companies and brands to use the generativity of their (ageing) co-workers to positive effect beyond tired sustainability tropes. 

The idea of “purpose” has been criticised due to its association with short-term activism and “cause of the moment”. It should be less about “high(er) and mighty” and more about the long-term. Passing on values, skills and knowledge. Mentoring within the company. Keeping the culture alive. Creating something new taking into account both what the brand and company does well and new human needs arising from our changing world.

The opposite pole to generativity is stagnation - and that’s not healthy for brands or people. 

Friday, 11 March 2022

Reinventing the past

 


My dad used to annoy me something rotten when we were watching something like Colditz or The Great Escape by pointing out inaccuracies in anything from the pilots not wearing masks through to how many stripes a colonel should or shouldn’t have on their uniform.

Now that I’ve reached a certain age, I find myself doing exactly the same when it comes to advertising. When some bright spark starts talking about how such and such a campaign has revolutionalised, disrupted or utterly transformed the category’s communication, it’s usually to be taken with a pinch of salt.

Yes, I know - people want simple stories of from:to, of heroes turning things on their heads, of creatives taking humungous leaps. Short attention span and all that. The vogue for storytelling has a lot to answer for.

Still, it’s sometimes worth putting the record straight.

Recently, in Campaign, I read an article from a chief strategy officer from a major international agency praising Persil’s Dirt is Good campaign. Now, I also admire this campaign, despite its occasional forays into false directions. The campaign has been running for 17 years, which is pretty good going. The chief strategy officer makes plenty of good points about the campaign, yet dismisses all pre-2005 detergent advertising with a sweeping generalisation:

"Historically, the casting and scenarios for washing powder ads were dreadfully homogenous, typically oppressive portrayals of perfect Stepford mums beaming at a neat stack of clean clothing.

I wonder if he ever saw this Ariel ad from 1997 as a lad? Can you spot any of these:

    - Mums perfect kitchen?

    - perfectly folded piles of clothing?

    - oppression?

    - Stepford mums?

No, me neither. All I can see is a brilliant piece of communication, based on a universal human truth: the younger generation think they invented the world.

Sigh.


Wednesday, 2 March 2022

RETROWURST: Tea March 2005

 


In marketing as well as my life here in Germany, I sometimes find the things that don’t change more thought-provoking than those that do. In this month’s Retrowurst, I’ve rummaged in the antique tea caddy and found an article on that very subject - tea - written back in March 2005. 

It could have been written yesterday, or at least, the day before yesterday.

So sit down, make yourself a cuppa, and read on:

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It’s tea-time! 

 

Tea may not be one of the things that one immediately associates with Germany; sausages, beer and bad footballer haircuts come more readily to mind to most people. However, anyone who has spent any length of time in a German supermarket will probably confirm that the tea fixture is one of the brightest and most bizarre of the entire store. British ex-pats who venture out in their first week of living here to buy some provisions are regularly overwhelmed by the array that confronts them and often need a strong cup of one of the many brews on offer to recover from the shock.

 

Anyone looking for Tetley, PG Tips or anything remotely familiar on the tea fixture is likely to be out of luck. You may find Twinings (with varieties such as English Breakfast, Earl Grey or Ceylon Orange Pekoe) tucked away in a separate exotic food and drink section, nestling uncomfortably between Paul Newman’s Salad Dressing and Green Tabasco but the tea fixture itself will only offer the false security a couple of obscure sub-brands with vaguely British-sounding names, such as “Sir Winston”. The majority of the fixture is likely to be made up of brand names and tea varieties that most of us would never have let out of the first, wildest phase of brainstorming.

 

Even ten years ago the tea fixture offered a startling variety with many ‘traditional’ herb and fruit-based variants in addition to Schwarztee, or black tea. In the last two or three years, however, the NPD departments of the tea brands seem to have gone onto overdrive (or have been on some rather strange tea themselves) as the number of lines offered seems to have almost doubled! Interestingly, many of the new varieties are reflections of trends seen in other markets so maybe we can use the tea fixture here as a sort of trend barometer into what’s the average German’s cup of tea, figuratively speaking, at the moment!

 

Tea is not just drunk at teatime in Germany or, rather, any time of the day or night seems to be teatime. Tea is very much a beverage in its own right rather than an accompaniment to food, be it breakfast or a few biscuits. Tea is normally drunk without milk but maybe with the addition of lemon, sugar or honey.

 

The little German starts on tea very early on in life. In fact, there are special teas for nursing mothers to encourage the milk flow. These are called Stilltees and consist of a whole dried herb garden including aniseed, fennel, caraway, melissa and basil. It’s probably no wonder that many new mothers prefer the alternative traditional method to encourage the milk; namely, a little bottle of Sekt in the evening! The teas for babies and young children come from the baby food manufacturers such as Hipp and Alete and include Baby’s erste Tee- Baby’s First Tea, a fennel tea to be given from the first week onwards. Other variants include Apple & Melissa (4 months +), Peach tea (8 months +) and Fruit Tea (8 months +). Special bottles and teats are also available for these teas, which are thought to help with everything from colic to hyper-activity.

 

As well as helping new mothers and babies with little health problems, there really is a tea for all ills in Germany. Many minor complaints are treated as a first step with tea, which can be bought from the Apotheke or even from the Supermarket. One well-known Supermarket brand, Bad Heilbrunner, offers a range of teas for colds, stomach and intestinal problems, kidney and bladder complaints, sleep and nerve problems, coughs and bronchial conditions and even something called Blutreinigungs Tee- literally, blood-cleansing tea, which promises to be entwässernd und entschlakend (diuretic and purifying). If the brand name isn’t enough to put you off, the taste of these teas is generally so unpleasant that the minor ailment normally conveniently clears itself up in no time to prevent further ingestion of these potions.

 

Aside from this medicinal niche, there is a vast range of interesting and drinkable teas in Germany. The basis of the market is black tea and then herbal and fruit teas. The basic herbal teas include peppermint, chamomile and nettle, while fruit teas include rosehip, forest fruits and citrus combinations. Green tea is also popular in Germany and the well-known brands often offer “English” varieties such as Earl Grey under British-sounding sub-brand names such as Sir Winston.

 

Of the innovations mentioned earlier, most of these play with weird and wonderful new flavour combinations rather than the UK obsession with tinkering with the shape of the teabag and packaging. Three of the more interesting directions that I’ve spotted recently are as follows:

 

The eastern Wellness kick

Germany is still obsessed with Wellness with just about everything from socks to bed sheets commanding a few Euros more if it has the “Wellness” description slapped on it. Examples of this direction in the tea market include Meßmer’s Quelle (Source) range; Quelle der Erholung (rest/recovery), claiming to be ausgleichend und wöhltuend (balancing and well-doing) with chamomile and linden petal, Quelle der Erfrischung (refreshment), said to be belebend und erfrischend (invigorating and refreshing) with Lemon Grass and Honey bush. Teekanne have a couple of ranges in this direction: Harmonie für Körper und Seele (Harmony for Body and Soul), with varieties Träume Schön (Sweet Dreams, relaxing), Hol dir Kraft (Give you strength, invigorating) and Einfach Schön (Simply nice, purifying) and another range with more of an Eastern positioning, Zeit für Wellness (Time for Wellness), including Honeybush & Hibiscus, Peppermint & Lemongrass and Orange Lapacho tea.

 

Around the World in 80 Teas

Meßmer in particular seem to be on a bit of an Atlas of the Tea World exploration at the moment with a large range of teas from around the world, including Masir tea, with mint and honey, described as “fresh and sweet” and Ovambo tea, with red bush and vanilla, described as “sweet and mild”. More varieties can be found on the website www.messmer.deor in any German supermarket.

  

Sex and the Citea

This is one of the more amusing new trends and one that all the brands have leapt on. Rather than using characters from Sex and the City (rather inappropriately) in the TV advertising as in the UK, German tea brands are trying to bring romance and passion into the product itself. Messmer have a “Moments” range including Moment der Liebe (with Cherry and Rose petals, said to be full-mouthed and fruity) and Moment des Glücks (with banana and clover blossom, described as sweet and fruity). Milford have a range including Süße Affäire, Süße Verführung and Süße Romanze (Sweet Affair, Sweet Seduction and Sweet Romance) while Teekanne really get steamy over the kettle with Pure Lust (Strawberry and Rhubarb-Cream), Sweet Kiss (Cherry and Strawberry) and Heiße Liebe (Hot Love, with Raspberry and Vanilla). More details about the Teekanne range can be found on www.teekanne.de – but you’ll probably have to take a cold shower afterwards!

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A revisit of all those tea websites has shown that the tea merchants are still playing the same (presumably successful) games, seventeen years later. Yes, there have been a few new market entrants, of the Yogi Tee ilk, their business further accelerated by the pandemic, by the self-care obsession and the cosiness trend, no doubt. 

Maybe the most interesting development is our own rather charming tea merchant in downtown Bruchköbel. This emporium is going from strength to strength it seems, despite lockdown. A quick glimpse at the website will tell you all you need to know when it comes to why: authenticity, storytelling, digital and physical channels well-used to their best advantage, great choice and a pretty unique offer. 

But ... PG Tips is still almost impossible to find outside the internet. We did have an “international food store” here until a couple of weeks ago, but sadly it has had to close. Some teas simply remain elusive.

Friday, 18 February 2022

Slave to the algorithm

 


I was a latecomer to Wordle, and snuck in just before the puzzle was taken on by The New York Times. It has kept me amused for a couple of weeks, even if I’ve been kicking myself for breaking my winning streak due to US English spelling (not-twigging-of) a little while ago.

Yesterday, though, I was completely bemused. I put in a five letter word, nothing obscure, and was told that this word was not on Wordle’s list. 

The word in question: “slave.” I genuinely wondered if this was a hiccough in the software, so tried on another device. Same result. Intrigued, I searched for an explanation and found news articles to the effect that there are various words that the new owners of Wordle don’t allow - the word for a female dog, for example, or “words associated with racism” such as “slave”. 

There were, no doubt, words for the idea of “slave” long before the English language evolved. When I think of the word, yes, the Atlantic slave trade comes to mind, but I also have associations with earlier history, Roman times, and the present day - I’ve often been asked to sign documents assuring potential project partners that my little one-woman show does not involve slavery in any part of the value chain.

Then there are the more abstract uses of the word - as in that glorious 1980s anthem by Grace Jones. Metaphorical uses, figures of speech, analogies, word-plays. It’s a word with many uses, meanings, nuanaces, contexts.

I’m a writer, and I’ve commented before about the homogenisation of language, as well as the cultural poverty (am I allowed to say poverty?) society is walking into with predictive text and suggested words and phrases. It’s bad enough when suggestions come as to which words you might like to use, but when words themselves disappear from lists and dictionaries? I know language changes all the time, but I am not talking about weird obscure historical words that have had no application for the last five hundred years here.

It’s just a game. OK, it is. But if it’s a game where I have to question every five-letter word and wonder whether it could offend someone, effectively censoring my own vocabularly, then I think I’d rather go back to the Internot and find my ancient Scrabble board game where I can use whatever words I see fit.


Friday, 11 February 2022

Whose money is it anyway?

 


One of the areas where I’m pretty sure my age is showing is my sadness in the decline of bricks and mortar financial and related services. I’ve written about some of my experiences involving my UK bank here and here, and I fear the situation is going to get worse before it gets better.

The pandemic has provided a perfect hatching ground for yet more fraudsters and dodgy schemes intent on getting their grubby mitts on unsuspecting people’s money. I heard recently about an acquaintance who very nearly parted with a huge sum in the direction of fraudsters doing a very good impersonation of the Allianz

The sad fact of the matter is that it’s difficult to trust any organisation when you can’t see their offices, or the people working there. The internet is smoke and mirrors in digital.

The situation in Germany is nearly as bad, although I do at least have an advisor/contact person assigned to my account who I’ve met in person, although I suspect that’s a rare privilege as I’m self-employed. Less cheering is the knowledge that, due to Automatic Exchange of Information, UK institutions are passing all sorts of info about me to to the German tax authorities, which would be all well and good if there was some way of finding out which information was being passed over, and a way of checking if this information was correct and relevant - clue: it isn’t always, as I have found out to my cost. 

I know it’s not easy for the banks. The high street branches are a huge cost drain, and they are kind of trapped between security on the one hand and providing good custmer service on the other. But surely this is the kind of challenge that, if you get it right, you’ll really rise above the others and profit?

My experience of banking is that there are more and more hoops for me to jump through now to get anywhere near my own money, yet it’s also increasingly difficult to get to talk to a human being when I really need to - and no, I don’t want to chat on Facebook about financial matters. With the advances in technology, this makes no sense whatsoever.

I’ve got used to the tangle of user names, passwords and memorable information to get me past Go. I am even coming to accept that every second time I want to bank online I’ll have to utter a four digit code at a machine (and that worryingly often, it’s not accepted). But yesterday, I encountered something new. I wanted to move some money from my bank account to the NS&I, where I have Premium Bonds and a couple of other savings bits and pieces.

As I attempted to do this, a grid with about nine little icons flashed up at me.

"Why are you doing this?” demanded the grid.

I was quite taken aback and had a quick look through the options. “Moving my money” seemed to answer the question. Immediately another pop-up in red told me that the bank would never ask me to move money, which was odd as it was nothing to do with the bank, rather my own free will. But choosing this option resulted in not being able to get any further.

I wish I’d done a screen shot of all this as I can’t remember what else there was, but eventually I picked “Savings and investment” which seemed quite safe, but also came with dire warnings about fraud, and had I checked out the company I was investing with, and so on and so forth. I did think briefly about the guy and the Allianz-masquerade, but really. NS&I?

All in all, what should have taken a few seconds took considerably longer and left me irritated and almost as if I’d tried to do something illegal, or ill-advised, or naughty. 

And, strangely, I wasn’t asked to “rate my experience” on this occasion. I wonder why. 

 

Thursday, 3 February 2022

RETROWURST: Armani meets Aldi February 2005

 


It’s difficult to believe that the - some would say game-changing -  collaboration between Karl Lagerfeld and H&M was 18 years ago. In February 2005, I wrote about the phenomenon, variously known at the time as “Armani meets Aldi” or “Prada meets Zara” - the growth of luxury and discount at the expense of the poor squeezed middle, be it fashion, retail, cars or even yoghurts.

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This month, I’m going to write about a general trend that I’m sure is prevalent in other markets too, but I thought you might like to hear how this is affecting the German market in particular. It’s the trend variously called “Armani meets Aldi” or “Prada and Zara”, which is best symbolized by legendary designer Karl Lagerfeld putting out a collection for H&M last summer. Now, the collection will probably never be repeated (apparently Lagerfeld was upset that H&M produced his designs in sizes a little bit bigger than those to fit the average stick insect, which is rich coming from him as he used to be quite a porker himself!) but what the whole action represented was an important milestone in the development of this trend.

 

The trend itself is characterized by the growth of the luxury and discount sectors of many markets and the consequent shrinking of the middle. It’s estimated that in 1980, the middle-price segment represented 49% of sales but it is predicted that this will fall to 20% by 2010 at the expense of growth from the luxury and discount sectors. In contrast, discounters are estimated to have accounted for 38% of sales in 2003. Companies such as Porsche and Gucci on the one hand and Aldi and Lidl on the other are enjoying growth, while the traditional middle segment, such as retailer Karstadt-Quelle or car manufacturer Opel is suffering here in Germany.

 

The consumer behaviour that is fuelling this trend can be variously described as “trading up/trading down” or “mixing”. Instead of spending our cash on the ‘safe’ middle, we are ploughing what we’ve saved at the discounter into the new luxury segment. This behaviour can be traced back to a number of factors in Germany; shopping at the discounter was a necessity for many, including new groups of people hit by the last recession from which we’re just beginning to emerge. Another factor is the new responsibility that people are beginning to take for themselves; instead of relying on the tried and trusted ‘safe’ brand names, I’ll decide for myself in which areas I save and in which I splurge! This feeling has now translated into a perception across all bands of society that it’s no longer prestige just to buy expensive things; those who are really clever and ‘in the know’ can tell you exactly which manufacturer produces which Aldi goods! The discounters have not been slow to pick up on this trend and are broadening their offer accordingly. Aldi, for example, makes €1bn from clothing alone and is the 7th largest textile retailer in Germany.

 

Within areas other than retail, brands are picking up on the trend. A good example is the Korean car manufacturers Hyundai and Kia. These brands are deliberately attacking the value end of the car market with emphasis on quality and design. Hyundai recently ran advertising under the headline “Es gibt wieder richtige Volkswagen” (“Now there are real Volkswagens (peoples’ cars) again”). Both these Korean brands are enjoying double-figure growth in a stagnating market. In all branches, those that offer design at a good price are winning, from H&M to IKEA.

 

Part of the problem of the middle market is that the discounter products are, in many cases, as good. It is really not worth paying a little bit more for a brand name, especially when Aldi is a strong brand name in itself these days. The middle-market brands can no longer rely on their brand name; they must find a way upwards to the new luxury market and offer something worth having. The new luxury market is based on the principle of offering ‘specialness’ in fields where the basic price is not so high. In this way, Danone’s Actimel yoghurt can sell quite happily at a price premium of 100-200%. It is expensive (but jusitified, due to the L.Casei bacteria!) but affordable.

 

Some of the traditional middle-market brands are beginning to incorporate ‘luxury’ elements into their offer or communication in the hope of winning back customers. It is certainly true to say that the boundaries of what is discount, what is mass and what is luxury are becoming more and more blurred but it is questionable whether these actions which are not unique or an integral part of the brand concept will be powerful enough to buck the trend. For example, the mass-market mail-order catalogue Otto now has collections from Heidi Klum and Claudia Schiffer (have they not noticed that the old Supermodel trick has been used to much better effect by H&M for the last ten plus years?). C&A now have TV advertisements with super-high top fashion production values but at the end of the day, you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

 

Maybe the German middle-market brands should learn from M&S in the UK; increasingly, this is all about personalization, not about buying into a ‘blanket lifestyle’. It is about picking and choosing to suit oneself across categories, styles and price-bands. It is also about substance and attention to detail. A final example of the ‘new luxury’ is the Internet shopping site www.brot-und-butter.de .Here we see “everyday products but not everyday quality” (the cynical could add something about ‘not everyday prices’, too!).

This has all the elements of specialness, individualism, authenticity and a touch of luxury that I can afford. I imagine that it won’t be long before Aldi offer a similar selection of ‘special everyday’ products to go with the €12.99 champagne!


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17 years, a financial crisis or two and a pandemic later, it’s still the same story, although I’m wondering how much of the sad old middle there really is left to squeeze. One thing that’s changed is that all this mixing and matching has become the norm, with luxury and discount hardly seeming such unlikely bedfellows any more. Which makes it perfectly acceptable for Aldi and Lidl  to do their own luxury-style streetwear collections

Hang on. Luxury brands and streetwear? Well, maybe something has changed.

Digitalisation and the move to ecommerce and beyond has been taken up with more aplomb at the two ends of the price spectrum than the slow-moving and more traditional mid-market.

It reminds me in some ways that in the UK, it was always said that the upper and working classes had more in common with each other than with the middle class.