Monday 26 June 2023

10 Green Bottles


Drinks swirl in and out of fashion like nobody’s business. Thirteen years ago, I was commenting on the revival of Aperol and the appeal of Jägermeister. And in between, we’ve had the gin revolution, too. For every marketer trying to capitalise on the “sober curious” movement, there seem to be ten times as many rediscovering and relaunching alcohol brands from the dim and distant past.

It seems to be Sleeping Beauty Underberg’s turn to be kissed awake now. When I first came to Germany, Underberg was one of those odd things that I put down to cultural differences. Little green 20ml bottles, wrapped in a twist of brown paper, sold at supermarket checkouts like sweeties. Weird-fey imagery of mystical-looking meadows and fairies, like the cover of some tacky fantasy-romance paperback.

Underbergis a brand with huge prompted awareness (88%) yet it isn’t really top-of-mind. It was originally positioned as a digestif, but probably more known as a hangover cure. It has a mass of half-remembered dictinctive assets to work with, including a brand song (or march) which UK readers will know as Colonel Bogey (with a rather different text that Germans wouldn’t be too keen to revive). Underberg bottle tops are popular with collectors on ebay, as are bandolier-style Underberg belts.

The people at Underberg have taken this rich brand history and made something fresh, distinctive and appealling out of it, in my view. The brand has the advantage that it’s so ancient (it dates from 1846) that the imagery of that era can happily be used without running into too many dodgy associations. The “magic world of herbs” (evoked through illustrations evoking 19th century botanists and explorers) fits nicely with today’s desires for naturalness and no artificials.

The phrases “probably the most famous bitter in the world” and “only 5 human beings know the recipe” borrow from Coca Cola, Dr Pepper and Carlsberg. But that’s no bad thing - and, most importantly, what I think this new presentation does is capture the mystery and magic at the heart of this quirky and very German brand.


Tuesday 6 June 2023

Bloomin’ lovely!


Now here’s an idea that takes outdoor advertising to a whole new level. It’s spectacular, good for the environment and right on-brand. And it involves collaboration between one of Germany’s branding giants and a small start-up agency. Plenty of boxes ticked aleady.

The project, “Magenta Blossom” is a nature sponsorship for Deutsche Telekom. Fields near Euskirchen, an area as big as 56 football pitches, have been planted with millions of wild flower and herb seeds. Come August, the whole lots will bloom in the form of a “T” logo in the brand’s distinctive magenta colour, as well as the sustainability hashtag #GreenMagenta.


The agency involved are a (as yet) small outfit from Munich who specialise in uniting the interests of framers, nature and companies. They’re called GEOXIP   and are whizzes at precision sowing, amongst other things. As well as looking magnificent and colourful, all those blooms will atrract bees and help to regenerate the land, improving soil quality.

Everything will be coming up roses. Or similar.

I’m also wondering how long it will be before more of those stories about farmers selling advertising space on cows will recirculate. Moo. 

Thursday 1 June 2023

RETROWURST: Vegetarianism June 2005


For this month’s Retrowurst, I’m biting into a rather meaty topic. Or not. Back in 2005, I could count the number of true vegetarians that I knew in Germany on the thumbs of two hands. And I remarked that vegetarianism seemed rather less militant and in-your-face here in Germany compared to the UK. How have things developed in the last 18 years? Has Sauerkraut Strudel taken over the world? Or is Schlachtplatte still the order of the day?


The other day, I came across a rather unusual situation in Germany - at a lunch for twelve people, half of these decided that they wanted a vegetarian option rather than the roast pork (no surprises there!) that was on offer. The restaurant was extremely obliging and managed to conjure up six portions of something rather tasty involving aubergines in less time than it takes to say Schweinshaxe und Sauerkraut.


What was unusual was that so many of the party wanted a vegetarian option: maybe, predictably enough, all were female, but, interestingly, no-one was actually a “real” vegetarian – it was just that it was a hot day, we were eating outside and fancied something a bit lighter than slabs of roast pork and gravy. In fact, I can count the number of “real” vegetarians I know here in Germany on the thumbs of two hands, whereas almost everyone I know in the UK is either a vegetarian, a “demi-veg”, a poultry-and-fish only, whatever that’s called, trying to cut down on red meat, has given up beef since BSE or is going through some phase involving some combination of the above.


I tried to find some figure on the internet to support this apparent absence of vegetarians and found that, actually, there are more vegetarians in Germany than in the UK, in terms of pure numbers and that around the same % (about 7-8%, depending on which survey you look at) in both countries are actually vegetarian. These figures seem to contradict people’s experience: for visitors from the UK who have a vegetarian inclination, Germany does not seem a particularly vegetarian-friendly place. I often hear complaints that even innocent-sounding soups, fried potatoes or salads turn up with pieces of bacon or other meat in them and that there don’t seem to be very many vegetarian options on menus, let alone vegetarian restaurants.


My first observation on this apparent paradox is this: in Germany, vegetarianism is perfectly acceptable but the vegetarians themselves are not as vocal and “militant” as they may be in the UK. In good restaurants, vegetarian options are always available, but you have to ask for them. The chef will then prepare something almost tailor-made to your tastes and to what is in season. In Italian, Turkish or Greek restaurants, the usual meatless choices are there for the taking (or eating-in) but no menus are emblazoned with V-Signs or other symbols of militant vegetarianism. There are no trendy vegetarian cooks on the TV or blatant “veggie-only” brands of ready-meals in the freezer cabinet. Vegetarians in Germany hide their light a little under a cabbage leaf. What vegetarian restaurants there are tend to be in a bit of a 1970s sackcloth and sandals time-warp- humble, worthy and unassuming. Although vegetarianism has grown since the BSE crisis, there just doesn’t seem to be the “noise” about it that one finds in the UK. Perhaps it doesn’t help that one of the German-speaking world’s most famous vegetarians was He Who Must Not Be Named.


In contrast to the unassuming vegetarians, meat-eaters in Germany are a proud and loud lot. The Germans are totally unapologetic about meat, and no-one is regarded as a pig or a glutton if they manage to devour three or four large steaks at a barbeque - and that’s just the women! A good proportion of red meat in the diet (as long as it is from pigs or cows of German origin) is regarded as normal and healthy and certainly not something to be ashamed of or to try and cut back on. There is a total lack of squeamishness about meat and its origins here. Whereas meat is trimmed and shaped and then wrapped in layers of plastic in the UK supermarket, traditional butchers here still enjoy a roaring trade; meat is minced, sliced or carved with skill and pride before your eyes in Germany. No-one gets too upset about bones, meat on the bone or identifiable parts of the animal here. At one wedding I attended, the main dish was Spanferkel or roast suckling pig (and no, there wasn’t a vegetarian alternative although one could have gnawed on a pretzel or two) and the pigs’ heads were put on display and even photographed amid the other decorations on the buffet table, something that my UK sensibilities found a little odd. Small Gasthofs and pubs will regularly hold something called a Schlachtfest, where meat and sausages from a newly slaughtered pig will be consumed with great gusto. And I remember another occasion where a vegetarian friend of mine from Switzerland turned an interesting shade of green and almost had to leave the table as he watched a group of slim young girls (the types that look as if they survive on lettuce leaves and grated carrots) devouring boiled pork knuckle off the bone in an Apfelweinkneipe in Frankfurt.


So there you have it – it is not so much that vegetarianism is absent or frowned-upon in Germany- it is simply that it can’t make itself heard above the raucous meaty cacophony that is integral to German life. Perhaps it is because the German meat industry has, as yet, proved itself to be BSE free or perhaps it’s because the Germans are so much closer to the land than we Brits, but the day of getting the average German to swap his Schnitzel for a courgette crumble looks to be in the far-distant future, if at all.


The first thing that struck me, reading this again, is that I have zero memory of that aubergine lunch, which is rather worrying. Perhaps I made it up. The second thing that’s interesting is that there’s no mention of “vegan”, “plant-based” or “climate change” whatsoever in that article.

Diet has become political in the last 18 years, here in Germany too, with the Greens in power. And this makes it difficult to figure out what is actually happening. I found plenty of articles in UK news sources to suggest that Germans are going vegetarian en masse. But on closer inspection, these are mainly based on interviewing young trendies in Berlin, and an excuse for dreadful punny headlines involving the word Wurst. Who on earth would resort to such cheap journalism?

What reasonable-looking data I could find suggests that vegetarianism is around 10% of the population in both the UK and Germany. And I’d probably have to summon fingers and thumbs on both hands now, especially when it comes to my son’s friends. But on the other hand (hang on, I’ve used both already in the last sentence), meat consumption in Germany is still pretty high compared to the UK and not really falling that much.

I suspect that, as usual, the answer is “both”. More flexitarians and people dipping into veganism and vegetarianism when it suits them, but also more people enjoying the increasing variety of meat and meat products offered. 

And one brand that has got catering for all down to a fine art is Rügenwalder Mühle - a trusted brand that’s been making sausage and cold meat products for nearly two centuries, but is also knocking out credible vegan products faster than you can say Bierwurst.