Wednesday 27 July 2022

Good Pop Bad Pop Good Book


I’m back in the UK, in the old house, busying myself with sifting through junk. Well, not really junk, rather my past, which makes the task simultaneously more fascinating and more tricky.

I’m being accompanied by Jarvis Cocker. Not musically, but in a literary sense. I’m part way through Good Pop Bad Pop which is described as “An Inventory”. Another way that Jarvis puts it is “self excavation” - a sort of archeology of the self via artefacts rediscovered in the loft.

In Chapter 9 of the book, those rediscovered artefacts are FMCG brands, starting with a sliver of soap, worn down to the “distinctive brand asset” and not much more:

Jarvis kept this soapy remnant because the Imperial Leather design changed. Other examples he cites are Marmite, which used to have a metal lid and Rose’s Lime Juice, which had a glass bottle with tiny limes in relief. All of these packs and designs were tied up with memories.

And while I’m not a famous musician, so my Castrol and Rover tins will never end up in an art gallery or hard-backed book, I’ve got a few branded memories of my own.

Most people of my age are nostalgic for the crinkly orange cellophane of the old Lucozade bottle. And what about the Strepsils tin? The empty tin was repurposed by resourceful children for all sorts of things - I kept dried shredded sunflower leaves in one - maybe it’s best not to ask.

Jarvis Cocker’s analysis of why he would have kept a useless scrap of soap is about the aspect of his personality that resists change. He concludes (in one of my favourite passages of the book so far):

I am “over” my problem with change. I embrace change. (Maybe “embrace” is too strong a word: more like “I awkwardly shake hands with change.”) I can move on.

I’ll awkwardly shake hands to that. 

Thursday 14 July 2022

Take out your earpods and listen!


Back in the last century, when such things were aspirational and fashionable, I was a high-flying young advertising executive. I have undoubtably been in the British Airways Executive Club more years than those runningit have been alive, and made it to the dizzy heights of Gold Card Level.

Things have changed, to state the obvious, but I still hang on in there in the club, clutching my meagre points in the hope of having a “free” glass of fizz next time I fly to the U.K. However, given the grim news on cancellations and airport chaos, I’m not sure I risk booking a flight, let alone one with BA.

What are my Executive Club friends doing, meanwhile? Sending out cheery newsletters. OK, we all need cheering up, and they must have enough data collected on me by now to be able to make some reasonable guesses about what kind of content might be the most cheering. 

A recent newsletter offered me “inspirational stories from LGBTQ+ writers and explorers” as well as “luxurious and remote desert hotels.” I was invited to “take a peek at family-friendly pads” and to do the “which cabin bag is right for you” quiz and fill it with “this season’s must-have travel essentials.”

The ghastly, cliche-ridden trash journalism style is bad enough (written by AI?) but as for an attempt at empathy or customer-centricity or whatever marketers are meant to be good at? It sounds as if they are writing for a not-so-bright 12-year-old with stinking rich parents. Which I’m not.

Equally dreadful is a recent email from P&O Ferries who say: “We’d love to still be your preferred ferry operator for your next trip, and are truly passionate about showing you all that travelling by sea has to offer on board our ships.” Like heck you are. Why would I be enanmoured of a ferry operator that sacks hundreds of its staff without consultation, then replaces them with desperate people paid peanuts?

I don’t want to take transparency to extremes and know every last little detail of corporate comings and goings, but surely people can be treated like adults? 

I breathed a sigh of relief when I got this from Lufthansa’s Executive Board. By no means perfect (these things never can be) but at least they are talking the right language:

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.


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.


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.