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.

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