Monday 8 July 2024

Synthetic, fake or just sh*t?


Fur, leather, meat - when you don’t want to wear or eat the real thing, there are alternatives. These are often described as “synthetic”, meaning that they’ve been been artificially produced in order to closely imitate the natural product. 

As well as the “artificial/not natural” connotations, “synthetic” also has associations of insincerity or affectedness. Fake. But fake can be a positive too, especially if presented as a clever alternative to using up natural resources, be they animal, vegetable or mineral.

I’m a bit slow off the mark, I admit. I only consciously heard the phrase “synthetic data” a couple of months ago in a seminar about “The Future of Measurement.” It was used in this context for data generated by AI to patch holes. This made me a little uneasy, but I brushed it off - after all, we’ve been patching holes in data via statisitcal modelling and analysis for as long as I’ve been in this business, and no doubt before that.

But the mention sparked a memory from another seminar, or something I read in the marketing press. That market research organisations such as Kantar are busy with R&D on “synthetic samples” which can generate “human-style responses.”

Does the euphemistic “synthetic sample” really mean fake people?

A year ago, Kantar were still moderately cautious about “synthetic samples”.  While AI has some great applications in market research (coding open-ended responses is an obvious example), the article points out some of the shortcomings of using AI as a substitute for human respondents. For example, look at the differences here:


I’m not surprised that the AI is more enthusiastic than real people about statements that sound AI-generated. Who in their right mind would agree to gobbledegook such as “my product is a way for me to bond/connect with others who share my passion”? Particularly if it’s bog cleaner or something.

The article concludes that: 

Our conclusion is that right now, synthetic sample currently has biases, lacks variation and nuance in both qual and quant analysis. On its own, as it stands, it’s just not good enough to use as a supplement for human sample.

And Kantar advise a blended approach based on real people and supplemented with AI.

Fast-forward a year and Kantar are far more gung-ho about it all. Theyve launched an AI Lab and appointed a Chief AI Scientist . And theres a new GenAI marketing assistant, too. 

Competitive pressure, the race to be first, client demands for faster, faster - or genuine innovation and leadership? Who knows - but Kantar are not alone. Mark Ritson has written enthusiastically about his chums at an outfit called Evidenza.AI

Evidenza say we survey AI copies of your customers to build finance-friendly sales and marketing plans ... we generate hundreds of synthetic customers based on your product category ... we test your messaging with synthetic customers.

Meaning, I guess, use AI to generate marketing communication and throw it to the customer copies to get a tick on that box. No messy humans involved.

Self-fulfilling prophecy? Can we look forward to synthetic sales, too?

Cory Doctorow takes it a few leaps further in his brilliantly-titled critical piece, The Coprophagic AI crisis. From warnings about botshit ("inaccurate or fabricated content shat out at scale”) and human-created content sinking in the cesspit ("As the web becomes an anaerobic lagoon for botshit, the quantum of human-generated “content” in any internet core sample is dwindling to homeopathic levels.) he goes on to consider the consequences should AI Search really take off:

The question is, why the fuck would anyone write the web if the only “person” who can find what they write is an AI’s crawler, which ingests the writing for its own training, but has no interest in steering readers to see what you’ve written? If AI search ever becomes a thing, the open web will become an AI CAFO and search crawlers will increasingly end up imbibing the contents of its manure lagoon.

Food for thought, and I feel distinctly queasy.

It’s another example of a contained system or black box that’s easy to control. Like home-grown problem: solution advertising.

And the answer is to get out of the system, go back to first principles, get inspiration from the internot. And remember that we are responsible for the data we produce and how it’s used. This stuff does matter.


Tuesday 2 July 2024

RETROWURST: World Cup Image Boost July 2006

 




Back in October, I regurgitated this Extrawurst, written originally in October 2005. It was all about Du bist Deutschland, a noble idea but rather worthy in the campaign execution. The idea was to give Germans and Germany a kick of positive self-confidence about the country’s place in the world. And I commented that the following year, the job was done by hosting the World Cup. 

This month, I’ve dug out the piece I wrote 9 months later, in July 2006. The World Cup had just wrapped up. As I put it then (rather pompously) “... the repositioning of Germany has been achieved on the pitches of Dortmund, Berlin, München et al.”

I don’t think the media had got completely obsessed with the word Sommermärchen at that point, but you can sense the euphoria in my writing. Rattling on about inclusiveness and a “new Germany” - warm-hearted, friendly, welcoming and open, progressive, modern and humanly efficient.

--------------------

Well, it is over a week now since Germany crashed out of the World Cup to Italy. Since then, we have had the “little final” against Portugal where Klinsmann’s boys trotted out their stuff once more to the joy of the crowd, the real final in all its head-butting drama and even a “little victory parade” in Berlin the morning after the “little final”. Klinsmann has announced he’s standing down, but no-one here seems to begrudge him his decision and his life. The sun is still shining, the cars and houses are still sporting their flags and everyone, but everyone, is still talking about how fantastic it all was.

 

Turn the clock back three years and it was all a different story. The German Embassy in London, together with the Goethe Institute held a conference on improving the image of Germany in the UK. Numerous marketing experts were invited to discuss how Germany could overcome the dire perception the country has abroad, especially in the UK. I don’t know the outcome of the conference, but I think we can assume it was all talk and no Lederhosen.

 

Similarly, I wrote at length about the internal campaign here which ran at the end of 2005 to try and re-kindle some sort of national pride in a negative, depressed, Angst-ridden people, haunted by a past that most of them were not responsible for. If you want to have a look, check out Extrawurst October 2005. Although I claim no abilities as a clairvoyant, I did suggest that perhaps actions speak louder than words and that maybe one thing that would get Germany back on its feet would be winning the World Cup on home soil.

 

Well, what do you know? They may not have won the cup, but they all have nice little bronze medals to be very proud of (has anyone noticed that bronze is what happens if you mix the colours of the German flag together?) and Germany is still in a state of euphoria. Somehow, we could have saved the money from Bertelsmann & Co as Klinsmann and his merry men seem to have achieved a miracle. Just as the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, so the re-positioning of Germany has been achieved on the pitches of Dortmund, Berlin, München et al. Who would have thought it?

 

Internally, it seems that the German Angst has packed up its bags and left (with Sweden, or, more likely, Argentina) and people are actually smiling and talking to each other. No-one is ashamed of the black, red and gold flag anymore and people are talking with enthusiasm about how wonderful the whole event was, how splendidly the team played and generally how much fun it was to have so many visitors from around the world. No-one is even that bitter or twisted about Italy winning: the Germans believe they are winners, too.

 

The German embassy could have spared their conference, too as well as the German Tourist Board’s rather limp efforts in the Tube with Geoff Hurst as celebrity endorsement for what a super place Germany is (it is, really!). Externally, people and papers around the world have been deluged with images of a new Germany: warm-hearted, friendly, welcoming and open, progressive, modern and humanly efficient. Those that actually experienced it all first-hand seem to be unanimous in their praise and the effect seems to have been particularly marked with the English fans and the British media. So much so that, by the end of the tournament, any England fan who tried to provoke by singing “Ten German bombers” or similar would have felt a complete yesterday’s plonker.

 

I am sure there are many, many lessons that we in branding and marketing can learn from Germany’s self-generated re-positioning. I’ll just go through one or two that seem to occur to me immediately.

 

First and foremost, as I hinted in October last year, it’s all about actions and doing rather than saying and telling. How a brand behaves, what it does and how a person experiences it directly is far, far more important than what the brand tells you about itself, which you may or may not believe - if you’re even bothering to listen.

 

Within a brand, you do have to be careful about choosing which of those facets of the brand to put on the public stage and I am more and more convinced that how to choose these is more a case of gut feel and experience than any amount of analysis or research. Let’s look at the managers of the German team 2002 and 2006, Rudi Völler and Jürgen Klinsmann. Although of roughly the same footballing generation, the two characters couldn’t be more different. Völler was a fine footballer but his appeal was mainly to German males. Unfortunately, his perm, moustache and very German old-school approach sent out the wrong signals to the world at large. Klinsmann, on the other hand, is known to have a more world-open approach and his lack of macho and aggression gave him appeal to the world at large with his earlier diving antics forgiven and forgotten! Or take two players at random – Oliver Kahn, the star of Völler’s squad who spent all but one game of the 2006 tournament on the bench, is an aggressive, snarling macho titan who threw a hissy fit when he wasn’t picked as number one goalie. Contrast him with Klinsmann’s favourite sub, David Odonkor, an agile, creative, African German whose sheer delight in running up and down that pitch couldn’t have been clearer.

 

Only plan so far: plan what can be planned. It is important for all the hygiene factors to be in place, but you have to leave room for luck, spontaneity and, importantly, people’s participation. People have to choose themselves whether they join in, and the brand has to grow of its own accord. We can only plant the seeds and guide the plant in the right direction. I heard that there were already plans for England’s victory celebrations in place before the kick-off of the first game. Mistake.

 

While we’re on the plant analogy, we can do a lot to provide the right conditions for a brand to grow and flourish. In Germany’s case the arrangements made for the fan fests, travel and policing were superb. And I didn’t hear any stories about the beer running out at crucial moments! Of course, there are other environmental factors that we can’t do much about, such as the weather.

 

One of the reasons for the success or turnaround of the brand Germany via hosting the World Cup was its inclusiveness. The motto about friends and guests really was lived-out: everyone felt welcome. There was never a feeling about football being an exclusively male domain or something just for those-in-the-know. Everyone really was invited, and it was extraordinary to see how many German women, including Frau Merkel, got caught up into the spirit of the whole thing.

 

An optimistic attitude carries a brand a long way. Before the WM, it was all doom and gloom here about Germany generally (the ageing population, the pension reform, the tax increases), the WM (hooligans, terrorist attacks) and Klinsmann and his team (hopeless) but Jürgen and the football fans carried on regardless, giving the critics and doom-mongers a sympathetic smile on the way.

 

Finally, I think you have to judge when enough is enough. From a P.R point of view, making it to 3rd place couldn’t have been bettered. I think that, if Germany had made it to the final, particularly through yet another “clinical” display of penalties, the new-found warmth for the country may have started cooling down as the old clichés about Teutonic invincibility crept back in.

 

And Klinsmann, too, has timed his exit well. He has saved the football team and the country. What is there left here for him to do?

--------------------

Well, in 2024, Klinsmann has deserted his homeland for California. But Rüdi and Olli are still doing the football dinosaur stomp around press and pitches. English fans are still being warned to go easy on “10 German Bombers”.

The tournament so far has been rather plagued by crappy trains, bad weather, tales of beer running out and rumblings about right wing extremism around Europe.

Germany has had bad luck in the draw. I’m wondering how much longer they’ll be in. And how long England’s good luck will last.

Reading about Summer 2006 has made me feel nostalgic for a pre-social media age. The focus was on the big screens back then. 

But ... it’s not over until the final whistle in a couple of weeks. 

9 games is plenty of time to make history.



Thursday 27 June 2024

Body Parts

 


I’ve spent the last quarter-century blabbing on to whoever will listen about the expression “the consumer” - here, here and here (and there’s plenty more). It’s dehumanising, depersonalising and creates a notion of “other” that we don’t need.

Unfortunately, I have no record of my valiant attempt around the turn of the century to convince P&G otherwise. Although this slide does survive from that Powerpoint of long ago:


I can still feel the disdain in those inverted commas.

It particularly annoys me when pronounced “the consoomer”. But that’s just me being pernickety and a bit of a bore.

This depersonalisation becomes even more yukky when “the poor consoomer” is dissected into various body parts. And pounced upon by over-avaricious marketers:

“Owning more hearts and minds.”

“Increasing our share of stomach.”

And with social media, and the focus on Attention as a metric, there’s a very nasty expression that conjures up even more grisly images:

“Capturing eyeballs.”

I shudder to think what new KPIs marketers for period products, condoms or loo roll have these days.

A couple of years ago, I heard mutterings about “The Ear Economy”, but that seems to have gone rather quiet now. Or I’m going deaf.

Yes, yes, yes. It’s only words and a figure of speech.

Does it really matter?

Probably. If only because each of us is far, far more than the sum of our body parts. 



Friday 14 June 2024

Hell’s bells!


 

I’ve been harping on about Purpose for nearly as long as this old blog has been going. There’s this post, and this one here, then this one about all those Whys and Hows and Whats and their chums, or this about the lack of humility demonstrated by brands (or their managers), and musing on whether brands can save the world. Or not. 

Or you can do a search, or press “purpose” on the RHS, and you’ll undoubtably find many more.

Author Nick Asbury has been way smarter about his thoughts on Purpose, formulated them all into a coherent story, and published a book which was officially launched last night.

Here’s a review I did earlier.

----------------------------------

“Your business is none of my politics”

This book is the story of how the idea of a mandatory “higher social purpose beyond profit” gripped the corporate world, especially those involved in brand marketing and advertising. And the result: how purpose leads to bad marketing - and a worse world.

It’s a view, a perspective, backed up with substance, not an academic paper or text book (thank goodness). A lot of the argument resonated with me personally. Although I don’t agree with every word (which would be weird), this book has been an immense help to me in working out why I’ve felt some unease in my work as a freelance brand consultant over the last few years.

I guess everyone who works in brands or marketing has taken their own byway to Nick’s “Road to Hell”. Setting up as a freelancer in 2003, I was interested in how to reconcile integrity and responsibility with business. CSR was the buzzword of the time. Two ex-colleagues of mine from Saatchis, Giles Gibbons & Steve Hilton, had recently set up a consultancy called Good Business and written a book with the same title, described as a “radical manifesto for capitalism.”

To cut a long story short, I supported the concept of corporate (maybe not brand) purpose for many years, until I noticed that it had been hijacked and metamorphised into something else. In the book, this politicising of brands is covered in detail. I still remember the days when I worked for major brands who prided themselves on being “for everyone” and made a point of actively discouraging communication that could be perceived as political.

“The Road to Hell” is free of finger-pointing, preaching and ranting. It’s written with intelligence, charm, humour - and, most importantly, hope. There is redemption - it’s up to us to follow the pointers and find it. And not be too proud to retrace our footsteps.

I don’t buy business books often these days. So many of those lurking in airport bookshops tend to go stale very quickly. But “The Road to Hell” is one that will stand up to re-reading in years to come.

----------------------------------

As an interesting aside, that’s the version posted on Goodreads.

I tried with my friends at Amazon.

They told me to go to “H-word place” with my disgusting review.


No comment. 

Gone are the days when they lauded me as a Top1000 reviewer, but today they only really rate ratings.

Thursday 6 June 2024

RETROWURST: World Cup Beer June 2006

 



A bit of a funny this time - a World Cup with a difference ...

------------------------------------------------------

Well, it is certainly a funny old tournament with a few surprises so far. Whoever would have thought that Argentina, Brazil, Italy and Spain would get knocked out in the first round? Or that the Ivory Coast, Ghana and Tunisia would make it to the quarter finals?

Some results have been a bit more expected, with Saudi Arabia, Angola, Iran and Trinidad & Tobago making a rapid exit with no points scored, or France sneaking though to the semi-final. Or what about the England: Germany clash in the first round of the knock-out stages? Expected, perhaps, but for England to get through against such an overdose of German pride and tradition on their home ground? Commendable, but then the tragedy of being beaten by an unexpectedly strong Sweden in the quarter final…

 

The stars of the tournament, as expected perhaps, are the Czech Republic but the dark horse has really been Serbia and Montenegro who have knocked out Holland, Portugal, the Ivory Coast and those pesky Swedes on the way to their place in the final.

 

Well, you’ve twigged, haven’t you? I’m not talking about that World Cup. But can you guess on what basis this “alternative World Cup” is? It’s not too difficult: Germans as we know pride themselves on their beer and someone at Stern magazine had the bright idea of testing the beers of the 32 World Cup football finalists.

 

Despite some difficulties in securing products- with tales of bottles exploding en route and non-alcoholic beers being held up at the border for alcohol tax, beers were obtained for all 32 participating nations, except Togo, where the beer from the Ivory Coast went to test twice, once masquerading in a Togo shirt! The beers were tested blind by four Sternjournalists plus one beer expert from Austria (who apparently did the tasting in full Austrian traditional costume).

 

The beers that made it through the first round were:

GROUP A: Germany (Beck’s), Poland (Masuren)

GROUP B: Sweden (Old Gold), England (Old Speckled Hen)

GROUP C: Serbia & Montenegro (Jelen Pivo), Ivory Coast (Flag)

GROUP D: Mexico (Corona Extra), Portugal (Sagres)

GROUP E: Ghana (Akosombo), Czech Republic (Budweiser)

GROUP F: Japan (Asahi), Croatia (Karlovacko)

GROUP G: France (Kronenbourg 1664), Togo (Flag)

GROUP H: Ukraine (Obolon), Tunisia (Celtia)

 

The quarter finals were between England and Sweden, Serbia/Montenegro and Ivory Coast, Ghana and Czech Republic and France and Tunisia.

 

England got kicked out at this point, with semi-finals between Sweden and Serbia/Montenegro and Czech Republic and France, leaving this as a very European contest at this stage.

 

The final featured two teams from the former Eastern Europe, Czech Republic and Serbia/Montenegro. It was a close-cut thing, but the favourites won in the end with four points to Serbia/Montenegro’s three.

 

The comments that the judges made about the beers are interesting. The Argentinean beer, “Quilmes” was described as “like water with beer flavour” while the Iran beer, “Golden Delster” was described as “alcohol-free with milk sugar – and it stinks of old hay.” The English beer, “Old Speckled Hen” was described as “amber coloured, lovely note of hops, light toasted aroma” and England fans will be pleased to hear that this beer kicked out Beck’s (the beer, not the footballer) 5:2 at the quarter final stage.

 

Note, of course, that it was the original Czech Budvar Budweiser that won and not the pale US imitation. The USA, by the way, was represented by “Miller Genuine Draft” and failed to progress beyond the group stage.

 

On another note, the Germans were the masters of anti-hype about their team here in the build-up. The team that has now gained that so-familiar horrible unstoppable momentum of efficiency that always ends in tears at penalty shoot-outs were all-but-written-off at the start of the tournament (“we’ll be really pleased to get through the first round”) and Stern even published a consoling article for fans should the team make an early exit: Things Germany is World Champion of. Some of these are predictable: in export, in number of tax laws, in submarine construction – but did you know that the Germans are also World Champions in running backwards, donating to charity, robot football (well, perhaps we knew that…), spitting cherry stones or the quaintly-named Arschbomben-Springen der Damen (“Ladies’ Cannonball/Divebomb)?

 

It’s enough to make you reach for a Jelen Pivo!

------------------------------------------------------

I do wonder if this influenced me 14 years later, in the midsts of Covid, to hold an alternative Eurovision - with wine. And if I remember rightly - difficult in the circumstances - Italy won that one!

Thursday 23 May 2024

LinkedOut


 A German network pal of mine recently asked what gets people’s goat about LinkedIn, for a talk he was preparing. Although he called it a rant. 

Replies (in no particular order) included: toxic positivity and enthusiasm, humblebrags, Simon Sinek, “Great Leaders do ....”, banal everyday experiences dressed up as profound insights “My cat was sick in the kitchen today. Here’s what I learned”, or once-in-a-lifetime experiences dressed down as business tricks “I proposed to my girlfriend this weekend - here’s what it taught me about B2B sales”, being scammed - yes, you ghastly creatures that want your grubby hands on my pension, woe-is-me victim stories, self-righteous virtue-signalling posturing, AI-generated and AI-stolen bullshit content, a general lack of lightness all around ...

Phew. I recognised most of it, along with the cultish nature of the site as described here by Coco Khan. She bemoans that the site now has its own language - no surprises there as it’s all prompts and AI. It takes a bit of effort, but I refuse to sound like a 5-year old at a party with a bouncy castle and a clown ("super-excited and thrilled!”), to “reach out”, to blab on about authenticity and vulnerability or read posts that hundreds or thousands have already liked.

What made me sad was Coco’s description of her friend whose experience is rich and diverse, yet doesn’t fit neatly into the boxes of LinkedIn. Know the feeling. And she puts it well when she says: “It’s shifting how we see our accomplishments, what we assign value to and what we don’t.” 

I am not a brand, I am a free woman. Or something. 

But, as a freelancer I’m stuck with it. Sort of at its mercy.

I’ll play the game up to a point. But I’m happy to be LinkedOut when it comes to real life.

My German pal, who’s smarter than me with this sort of stuff advised doing some proactive culling to get the algorithm working more in my direction. And it was strangely satisfying.

Thursday 16 May 2024

Hung up

 


When I started this blog, I didn’t have an iPhone. It was iPod that brought me into Apple, followed by a MacBook and only then, the capitulation

I started using social media on a laptop, and as far as I'm concerned,  Facebook can stay there. I’ve never had the app on my phone, and it’s been a good decision. Ditto never joining Twitter. Although I’ll admit to having the Instagram app in my pocket. 

Have I missed out? Possibly. My biggest question is whether, had I leapt onto TikTok in the early days, might I have made something more of my children’s books? But somehow, I doubt it. I have a secretive nature (the clue's in the name) and I am now rather thankful that if I’m rising anywhere, it’s into obscurity.

The topic of mobile phones, social media and the potential damage they’re doing to people’s mental well-being, particularly the young, is hard to avoid these days. The sense of nostalgia for a world they never knew is strong amongst young people, as expressed in this article by Freya India. (Although I remember being obsessed with the 1950s and before in my teens, so maybe it’s part of growing up.)

There’s an interesting study out this week from More in Common  . The topline conclusion is that the Brits are more hung-up on their smartphones and more in favour of restrictions than people in France, Germany or the US. Here are just a couple of charts:



44% of Brits go for an hour or less without looking at their phone, compared to only 25% of Germans. That’s a major difference and one I can well imagine from my UK trips. 

Lots of questions, obviously.

Is it push or pull? It’s certainly more difficult to get by in the UK without a smartphone than in Germany, even with something as simple as paying for car parking. 

What are people checking their phone for? The weather? Messages from colleagues? News? Football scores? Or how many likes they’ve clocked up in the last 10 minutes?

Regulation and implementing restrictions is a huge area, and one where all parties - with conflicting interests - have to find common ground and work together. Government, social media platforms, telecoms companies, academics and health professionals ...

One thing the More in Common report does point out, which makes a lot of sense, is that all technology is not equal. This isn’t about technophobia, and of course smartphones have many beneficial functions. 

Surely it’s not too much of a challenge to make a helpful, useful phone for young people? With the functional stuff but less of the potentially dysfunctional? 

Thursday 2 May 2024

RETROWURST: World Cup Marketing May 2006

 


I was rather hoping this would come up: the 2006 World Cup, hosted by Germany. And what a fascinating insight into collective memory and how that works. I wrote this article in early May 2006, a few weeks before the tournament kicked off. It contrasts the doomful tone of the media (rubbish, no-hoper German team, hooligans, terrorists, worrying levels of flag-waving - where are the Neo Nazis?,  how’s the chap in the furry lion suit going to survive the heatwave ...

... with the cheap and cheerful to tacky and tawdry marketing and themed products (World Cup salamis and cheeses, an 11-bottle Schnapps team, the inevitable beach towels and Fußball sushi ...

---------------------------------------------------------------

I’m afraid I can hold out no longer: since the beginning of this year, I’ve wanted to make some sort of comment on the preparations for the World Cup from a marketing point of view but have resisted. However, a walk through the town centre at the weekend was all it took to tip the balance. In short, I could hardly believe the extremes of silliness that some retailers and manufacturers will go through to make a quick Euro.

 

Although the bulk of what I am going to describe here can be classified under tacky, frivolous and throwaway, the overall climate of opinion regarding the World Cup in Germany as portrayed in the media is far from positive or optimistic. As well as the perennial discussion about just how badly or embarrassingly the German team will play, there are worries about whether stadium safety standards have been reached, how to control the hooligans (not just English: there are also severe concerns about punch-ups between Germany and its neighbours Holland and Poland), whether German efficiency will suffer a blow in the eyes of the world with it all simply not being ready in time, the possibility of Al Qaeda attacks (with the memory of Munich 1972 still strong in many minds) and, sometimes in the same breath, how the poor chap who has to wander around in the 35kg costume of the mascot “Goleo” will cope in in-costume temperatures of up to 50°C! All in all, one doesn’t get the impression that anyone here is looking forward to it much if you just read the papers.

 

However, if you watch a TV commercial break or pop into your local supermarket, it’s quite a different story. Let’s take TV and radio first: if you watch a typical commercial break at the moment, you’ll be hard pushed to find a spot that doesn’t reference football in some way. On radio, it’s even worse. While many companies might think twice about producing a TV spot that they can only run for a couple of months, radio is quick and cheap in comparison. The other problem is that everybody – absolutely everybody – is leaping on the bandwagon. The official sponsors and those that have a logical connection to football or at least sport are all fair enough, but unfortunately everyone wants to play the game with connections that get spurioser and spurioser, to misquote Lewis Carroll.

 

The TV and radio breaks are bad enough but at least you can turn off or zap through them. What you can’t avoid doing for the next few weeks – unless you’re into Home Shopping, which, incidentally, hasn’t really caught on here – is do your shopping. I thought that you might be amused by just some of the products that are “available for a limited time only” from the local stores here. As well the stuff we all expect, like heavily discounted TV sets, football shirts (Germany, Brazil, Italy & Argentina – very rarely Holland or England!) and caps, goals and balls and flags, there are rather a lot of nasty novelties where one wonders what the people had been on in the innovation sessions where these were conceived:

 

The local bakers all seem to have got hold of baking tins that give rolls the appearance of a football and fast-food outlets such as Nordsee are using these as buns for some of their products.

 

As this is Germany, you can’t move for masses of specially produced beach towels with FIFA logos, maps of Germany, German flags and Goleo himself (so you can experience those 50°C temperatures yourself, I suppose.)

 

Salami in the shape of the World Cup itself or a football boot. Well, I suppose it could have been cheese, talking of which: slices of cheese with a footballer design in darker/orange cheese - I am the only one who finds a connection between football and cheese rather unsavoury, it seems!

 

A pack of 12 hard-boiled eggs coloured black (4), red (4) and yellow (4). This is called “Fanblock” which I suppose is what happens to your insides if you eat them all at once.

 

Lebkuchen made and coloured in football shapes and designs.

 

A “team” of 11 mini-Schnapps bottles in different fruit flavours, complete with a free whistle, presumably to call help when you can’t walk or speak properly any more after these.

 

A cake mix to bake a special “Fußballtorte” or Football cake.

 

But perhaps the overall prize for the nastiest idea should go to the deep-frozen 8 Fussball-Sushi, including a pair of chopsticks. These really are Sushi in the form of footballs and look so unappetizing that I think you’d need to drink the entire Schnapps team before even considering eating them!

 

I can’t really see anything improving in the next few weeks as the shops pile up more and more of this junk and compete with each other for the tackiest products and displays. In the meantime, I am going to keep a close eye out to see if anyone is actually buying any of this stuff but I have a nasty feeling that, once the final and the tournament is all over and the poor chap in the Goleo outfit climbs out of his furry sauna for the last time, then all these tacky products will still be sitting on the substitutes bench, or at least the discount corner, waiting in vain for their chance to shine.

---------------------------------------------------------------

Well, I didn’t see that coming ... Die Welt zu Gast bei Freunden turned out to be a Sommermärchen - a Summer Fairytale. Italy won the thing, but the Germans - team and people won everyone’s hearts and third place. The best-organised World Cup ever. A month long festival of sunshine, football, optimism, family fun. People still talk about it with a misty-eyed reverence normally reserved for Woodstock or similar. 

Kaiser Franz is no longer with us, but I wonder how much of the golden memory will shine on when Germany host the Euros, kicking off in June.



  

Thursday 25 April 2024

Brands-with-a- small -“c"

 


There are a couple of words in the English language that are often suffixed - in speech - with a small “c”. One of these, catholic-with-a-small-“c”, means “universal, all-embracing, broad-minded, tolerant.” The other one is conservative-with-a-small-“c”. And this means - surprise, surprise - “tending to conserve (keep from harm, decay or loss, with a view to later use), averse to sudden changes".

In 2024, both of these words have a pretty bad rap. Blame the capitalised versions, but which brand today would dare to list “catholic” or “conservative” amongst its values?

No, brands today all want to be “progressive” - as an aside, this probably sounds more palatable than “activist” for some of the more conservative stakeholders. Progressive, advancing forward, open to new ideas, innovating all over the place, righting wrongs, acting with purpose, making agile leaps ...

And that’s fine, particularly for brands in tech, mobility, high fashion - and similar categories.

But I do wonder if, in this swarm of bright and buzzy continuous reinvention, a brand that’s unashamedly conservative stands out?

After all, people do look to brands for stability, reassurance and dependability. Particularly in categories like food and drink, banking and insurance - or even babycare and petfood. This comes from a sense of continuity, hanging on to what works, maintaining a consistent distinctiveness.

It’s well-known that the “modern mainstream” are less enamoured by progressiveness than the marketing community. Movement and change is not always in a positive direction.

And isn’t being conservative, by its very nature, more in line with sustainability? Conservation rather than constant updates, upgrades, pivots, redesigns and relaunches?

But doesn’t this all sound rather undynamic and stuck-in-the-mud? Far from it - after all, a conservatory is what allows tender plants to thrive.

And there’s a wonderful quote, often attributed to Gustav Mahler, Benjamin Franklin or Thomas More, but probably from French Socialist leader Jean Jaurès :

Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation (or passing-on) of fire.


Friday 5 April 2024

My name on it

 


For all the talking I do about personalisation, it’s only when I receive brand communication deliberately directed at me, and me only, that I realise its potential impact.

It’s six years since I was pleasantly surprised by a direct mail flyer from a local sports store - which, incidentally, I’ve kept to this day. 

My latest encounter happened today. I’ve recently been reviewing my insurance policies (always fun in Germany). Allianz have sent me a couple of little personalised videos about my revised policies.

To be honest, they are only personalised to the extent that my name appears from time to time, as in the screenshot above. And I know only too well now that there’s no magic about this with AI these days. But they’re well put together and quite entertaining (a dummy called “Johnny Crash” demonstrates the Accident Insurance - well, it made me giggle). 

I know this’ll become standard, and quite likely, I won’t notice this sort of communication in future. So why am I blogging about it?

I felt well-disposed towards these films, and there’s a simple reason for that. Context. My insurance representative spent two hours with me last week, in my sitting room, getting to know me and my insurance needs. Yes, he was selling me insurance, but that’s his job. By the time these films arrived, I’d already signed the new contracts and had the feeling that there’s someone working for Allianz who knows what’s necessary about what sort of person I am and what makes me tick. 

Contrast that with some bright agency spark “powered” by AI who decides to “serve” me brand communications out of the blue, featuring a short-sighted old bag with pasty white skin.

There’s personalisation, and there’s putting people in irrelevant boxes.

Tuesday 2 April 2024

RETROWURST: Sekt April 2006

 

In this uncharacteristically bubbly article from April 2006 (why so many exclamation marks? What had I been drinking? Oh.) I gave a quick slurp-down of the German Sekt market. Its commodity-commonplace nature. Its sweetness and general perception of harmlessness (as recommended to breast-feeding mums). Its alarmingly low prices. And the dominance of the star of the former DDR, Rotkäppchen.

--------------------------------------------------------------------

Over Easter we’ve all probably over-indulged, either in chocolate or perhaps in hot-cross buns – or maybe in the subject of this month’s Extrawurst: sparkling wine. 

 

While sparkling wine still has a bit of a luxury status in the UK, Sekt, (from the Latin for dry) as it is known here, is more of a commodity. On the flimsiest of excuses for celebration, bottles of Sekt seem to appear from nowhere to anstoßen or drink a toast. While Champagne and sparkling wine seem more related to each other in the UK, the two are worlds apart here: real Champagne is drunk only on the most exclusive of occasions whereas Sekt is very much an everyday product.

 

Sekt has been produced in Germany since 1826 when a Herr Kessler brought back his knowledge of Champagne production to set up Germany’s first Sektkeller. There are various quality levels and descriptions for Sekt in Germany, for example, whether the process includes a Methode Champagnoise-type turning or not, which is all strictly controlled by the E.U these days, as you can imagine.

 

As well as quality variations, there are a wide variety of dryness and sweetness levels, most of which seem impossibly sweet to UK tastes! The range goes from mild to halbtrocken to trocken to extra trocken to brut to extrabrut. I would strongly recommend UK tasters to stick to extra trocken and above!

 

Sekt is drunk on all manner of occasions and is generally regarded as a “harmless, fun little drink” such that people who don’t normally drink will also take a glass. Sekt is even recommended to breast-feeding mothers to increase milk production. As well as the normal 0.75l bottles, small bottles of Sekt (0.2l, known as Piccolos) are also popular, seen as a reasonable size for someone to drink alone, perhaps in the evening when the other half is having a beer.

 

Although sparkling wine from other lands is available in Germany – for example, Cava, Prosecco, Crémant or Krimsekt from the Ukraine – home-produced Sekt takes the lion’s share of the market. A recent development on the German market in Hessen where I live is “Pomp” from Kelterei Höhl, which is a mix of Sekt and Apfelwein (the local speciality which tastes like a very tart cider). It does taste better than it sounds!

 

The popularity of Sekt is not unrelated to its price. Although Kaiser Wilhelm II introduced Sektsteuer or “Sekt Tax” to finance the imperial fleet (which is still continued as far as I know, even though the Kaiser, his fleet and his empire are long-since gone) a bottle or two of Sekt is hardly going to break the bank for most people. While a bottle of a premium brand such as Henkell Trocken will set you back €4.99, Aldi have a Riesling Sekt for €3.49 or a standard Sekt for €2.49, which is well under £2.00! 

 

Some interesting websites relating to Sekt include www.sekt.de , which is a site from a collection of the major producers, plus the individual sites of some of the main brands such as www.fuerst-von-metternich.de , www.deinhard.de , www.henkell-trocken.de and www.soehnlein-brillant.de .

 

However, maybe the most interesting Sekt brand of them all is the one that claims brand leadership: Rotkäppchen.Rotkäppchen means “Little Red Riding-Hood” in German and the brand itself is characterised by the red metallic top on the green bottle. Rotkäppchen is an extraordinary brand as it is one of the very few DDR brands which has not only survived the re-unification of Germany but has also won the heart of the former West German consumer.

 

Rotkäppchen is a commodity Sekt: the basic wine comes from Italy, France and Spain as well as Germany and there is no fancy turning or bottles here: the wine ferments in big vats with the addition of yeast and sugar. Having said this, the brand does have a history and heritage that long pre-dates the DDR: Rotkäppchen was first produced in 1894 in Freyburg an der Unstrut in Saxony. In the DDR days it was very much seen as a luxury, but a luxury that was affordable now and then even amid extreme socialism. In those days, Rotkäppchen was selling about 15m bottles per year- that’s about a bottle per head per year.

 

After the Wall fell, so did Rotkäppchen’s popularity to an all-time low of 1.5m bottles per year in the early 1990s. The former East Germans turned their backs on their old friend, demanding “proper” West German Sekt, while the former West Germans turned their re-unified noses up at what was seen as a cheap-and-nasty party fizz for the socialist masses.

 

Rotkäppchen’s saving grace was a management buy-out in 1993. The management team, led by the current MD, Herr Gunter Heise, really turned the brand around through clever marketing and their inherent faith in the product and brand. While the advertising and the presentation of Rotkäppchen may look a little Ferrero-Ambassador’s party to us cynical Brits, the brand has really caught onto the German middle classes’ yearning for “a little bit of Heimat glamour and luxury”. There is a sense of escapism back to an age of romance and beauty, albeit with a fairy-tale familiarity that is very appealing to a country terrified of an uncertain future. And all of this for a mere €3.99 per bottle!

 

Rotkäppchen is now Germany’s No. 1 Sekt brand, selling 66m bottles a year. 50% of the sales are accounted for by the halbtrocken variant which says a lot for where it has found its customers: the middle-of-the-road female pillars of German society (of which there are many!) with a sweet tooth and the yearning to play the mysterious lady in the red dress if only in their dreams.

--------------------------------------------------------------------

Well, despite a Prosecco surge that must have started not long after I wrote this, and rather more pink fizz around, very little has changed. The prices are still pretty good:

Henkell Trocken 2006 €4.99, 2024 €5.49

Rotkäppchen 2006 €3.99, 2024 €4.99

Aldi’s Riesling Sekt 2006 €3.49, 2024 €4.69

Aldi’s standard Sekt 2006 €2.49, 2024 €2.69 - Aldi also have a Secco Vino frizzante for €1.99 

And Rotkäppchen is still leading, having also branched into non-sparkling wine and the very popular alcohol-free sector.

Perhaps the “harmless” image was a deliberate ploy all along to pave the way for the sober-curious or whatever they’re calling themselves these days.

Hic!


Friday 22 March 2024

A drink in the Black Forest

 


I first travelled to the Black Forest around the time of this musical masterpiece (or at least, the Herb Alpert version). My parents bought me a little plastic cuckoo-clock-style house, which you could peer into and click a button for changing colourful landscapes - dark pine forests, snow and sky, sweeping lush pastures with perfectly positioned cows.

I didn’t return for more than two decades, which is when I most likely first encountered the wonderful Pils from Rothaus brewery - Tannenzäpfle. The pine-cone beer. The beer has been around longer than I have, and originally featured an illustration of a the typical Schwarzwaldmädel beloved in the wholesome Heimat films from the 1950s. These were a kind of escape into a world that never really was, an attempt to console the German population and blot out some of the stains of Nazism from the national psyche:


The label was redesigned in 1972, with a graphic version of the young lady - nicknamed “Biergit Kraft” by brand fans. I recall that this characteristic bottle was the beer available at the primary school’s “garden” at our local Hof und Gassenfest, along with Baden wines and Schwarzwald sausages, further imprinting the idyllic imagery in my mind. It’s a brand that’s a long way from edgy, gritty, urban pubs or laddish humour. In the past, sponsorships and a bit of outdoor aside, Tannenzäpfle hasn’t been a huge advertiser. But who needs to be, with a label like that?


But that’s all changed. The first big brand campaign for Tannenzäpfle has been developed by Kreuzbergkind (you can’t get less Schwarzwald, or more Berlin than that agency’s name!)

It’s all based around the idea of “Always calm.”



It’s a nice campaign - I like the calm pace, the slowing down, the serenity.

But I wonder: is it a little bit too goody-goody? Substitute other methods of crafting, and it could be for mineral water, or outdoor clothing or something like Bionade. It’s missing the quirkiness of “Biergit Kraft” and her pine cones. 

Pass me a another slice of Schwarzwälderkirschtorte while I consider.

Friday 8 March 2024

Just neat

 


One reason that so much advertising looks identikit these days is the obsession with representation and “people who look like me.” I’ve discussed this in relation to static images already here and here. With film, taken to its logical and literal extreme, the result is invariably one of those generic creations that resemble what we used to call a mood film. No story, just a series of vignettes showing different people all using the brand. 

But with a distinct move back to more entertaining and humorous advertising, it’s time to look behind that mirror. After all, Alice found some pretty weird, neat and entertaining stuff there. And Just Eat have done just that with a delightful series of short films. Close your eyes and listen - you can probably identify with the conversation in at least one of these films. 



Maybe the voices even “sound like you” - or someone you know. Now, open your eyes - someone who “looks like you”? Unlikely, unless you get your kicks dressing up in a furry bunny costume at weekends.

These Wes Anderson-style puppets are the latest in a run of pretty impressive advertising from Just Eat. I am unfamiliar with the brand as I don’t live in the UK, but I know a good thing when I see it as far as creative goes.

Animals and brand mascots have always been a useful trick in the ad magician’s box. 

Cute cats and dogs behaving (almost) naturally - either for “natural fit” brands (real life, like Arthur the white cat, or cartoon like "Cats like Felix like Felix”) or for brands where the association is built (the Dulux dog, the Andrex puppy).

Anthropomorphised animals of all sorts - again, either real or animated/puppets - the Cresta and Hofmeister bears, the Duracell and Caramel bunnies, the CompareTheMeercat bunch, the PG Tips chimps, Tony the Tiger from Frosties ...

Or the vaguely humanoid product mascots - Bertie Bassett, the Michelin Man, Mr. Peanut - although these may be more vulnerable to changing times, as M&Ms have demonstrated.

Given the popularity of cat, dog, wombat, capybara, llama, guinea pig and marmot films on social media it’s a wonder that casting a few furry friends instead of casting around to find someone that “looks like me” hasn’t been revived earlier. 

Friday 1 March 2024

RETROWURST: Ten years in Germany March 2006

 


My latest delve around the Extrawurst archives has made me feel uncharacteristically glum. For this month’s Retrowurst was a personal reflection on how life in Germany had changed in the ten years since my touchdown one chilly March morning at Frankfurt airport, in 1996.

Partly because optimism was my default setting in 2006 and partly because those days really were more hopeful than the current grim era, this article makes me yearn for those days gone by. I characterised the changes I observed as Germany moving from its rigid, rulebound, stuffy character to something more flexible, changeable and fluid. 

Shops were opening up on Saturday afternoons and evenings! 

Women were on the up, even mums in the workplace, with Angela Merkel and the “extraordinary” Ursula von der Leyen in charge! 

A vibrant, southeast-Europe-influenced youth culture, galaxies away from the 80s USA-influenced dull rockstar stuff was thriving!

And that’s not all!

--------------------------------

Around about now – I can’t remember the exact date as I’m not yet that German – is the tenth anniversary of my arrival in Germany. Seeing that there seems to be an overkill of anniversary-celebrating in advertising here these days (this is the “can’t-think-of-a-better-idea-so-let’s-use-our-31st-anniversary-and-some-funny-nostalgia-footage-from-the-70s” school of advertising) I thought I’d join in, be a little self-indulgent and let you know what I see as the biggest change factors in Germany since I’ve been living here.

 

Overall, I suppose it can be summed-up that the Germans are being dragged kicking and screaming away from their rigidity, their rules and their solidity to a more flexible, changeable, fluid way of living. Of course, the rules and rigidity are still there (someone from the local Ordnungsamt could apparently come around at any time and ask us to dig up our laurel hedge because it’s not a plant local to Germany – just let them try that and I’ll give them what-for about flora racism!) but there have been some encouraging signs that things are becoming a little less stiff and stuffy.

 

From my own point of few, one of the biggest changes that symbolise this relaxation in attitude is the change in opening times for shops. When I first came here, everything shut on Saturday at 1 o’clock except for one Saturday in the month when shops shut at 4 o’clock. To be honest, I could never be bothered remembering which Saturday it was and always braved the crowds of formidable Hausfrauen in a sleepy haze every Saturday morning. The only places where there was an exception to this rule were petrol stations, where one could buy emergency items – I remember being viewed with complete disdain as I bought a packet of rice at five-thirty on a Saturday afternoon – or the kiosks where one can buy beer, cigarettes, newspapers and rather nasty wine. Needless to say, these have a rather dubious clientele, and you wouldn’t want to be spotted by your boss buying a couple of bottles of beer from one: it would send out all the wrong signals! 

 

Weekday evenings were also not much better, with most shops closing at six, so you’d often have to rush out of work shortly before six, brave the queues, then dash back in to do another hour or two. Gradually, though things have changed. It’s now perfectly possible to buy food and drink until 8 in the evening without being made to feel like a social inadequate and although Sunday opening still seems a long way off, life is a lot less stressed.

 

Maybe now that they’ve been released from queuing at the Tengelmann checkouts on Saturday mornings and have more time to do something useful and interesting could be one reason that women are (at last!) on the “up” in Germany. I can always remember how completely amazed I was when I arrived here of the conservative, chauvinistic attitude of traditional Germany towards women. I think that, from the outside, one imagines that Germany is a typical modern “Northern European” country, maybe a bit like the Scandinavian countries, in terms of its attitude to women. But my own experiences and those of friends continually proved this otherwise. Young women in Germany are perhaps lulled into a false sense of security: opportunities really are equal in terms of higher education where as many young women are at university as young men. In fact, the men are a little bit “behind” at this stage as the National or Social Service (one year to eighteen months at age 19) is only compulsory for men. And opportunities on the lower rungs of the career ladder seem to be quite fairly spread, too. But it is once women have children that the problems start.

 

It is an alarming statistic that only half of women born in Germany in 1960 with a higher academic qualification have children. Children are still viewed as a career-killer for women: companies simply do not offer opportunities for senior women executives to combine family and career, childcare is inadequate and the school-system is still based on half-days where the children from 6-19 finish at noon without lunch.

 

However, with Angela Merkel in power, together with her Minister for Family, Seniors, Women and Youth, the extraordinary Ursula von der Leyen (a doctor, very photogenic, seven children!), the groundswell of opinion seems to be changing. Injustice in the workplace is becoming a topic of public debate and there seem to be real efforts to drag Germany out of the 1950s (and before) in terms of attitudes to and provision for working mothers.

 

Talking of Angela Merkel brings me on to the next point. Not only is Angie female, but she is also from the former DDR which is a bit of a double whammy. When I first arrived here, the “East” were still very much the poor relatives and somewhat resented. Former West Germans grumbled about the amount of money they were shelling out to the East in taxes and the former East Germans – “Ossies” – were regarded very much as figures of fun: somewhat naïve characters with dreadful fashion sense left over from the 1980s and music taste to match. A few years later, around the early noughties, there was an acceptance that the “Ossies” were here to stay and wave of Ostalgie or “Eastalgia” swept the country with T-shirts sporting logos of former DDR brands, the revival of many “cult” brands and websites devoted to the whole era. Cities such as Dresden and Leipzig were actively pushed not just as tourist destinations but also as potential hosts for forthcoming events.

 

These days, however, the difference, such as it was, is hardly noticed. The roads in former East Germany are every bit as good as those in the West (thanks to all those taxes, presumably) and in events like the national song contest (a bit of homage to Eurovision) it’s hard to say whether the Neu or Altbundesländer are more innovative and cutting edge when it comes to music and fashion.

 

On the subject of fashion – not that I’m an expert on youth culture anywhere at my age – it does certainly seem that the influence of the US on young people here has waned. While certain US-originated styles do seem to have an influence, the youth here take those styles and customise them locally. One good example is Hip-Hop which is more often heard here in the German language on the radio than in the original. Interestingly, it seems to be Southeast Europe that has an increasing influence on German youth culture. With large immigrant populations from former Yugoslavia, Romania, Albania and of course Turkey, German middle-class youth has real life “ghettoes and gangsters” in the neighbourhood with plenty of language and dress codes with which to shock traditional parents.

 

While the kids are getting nicely integrated into Southeast European ways, the rest of the population seems largely happy with closer ties within Europe as a whole. While there was plenty of grumbling about the Euro and how everything had been marked up (ooh, it’s just the same in Euros as in Marks – no pun intended) for the first couple of years, one has the feeling now that people are beginning to see the benefits. It certainly seems to have eased traveling within other Euro countries for many people: driving through Europe these days you hardly notice the borders and you often find yourself asking what country you’re in!

 

The common currency and a few common “enemies” – not least the war-mongering politicians of certain nations - do seem to have united the people of Germany closer with their immediate neighbours. There is a definite feeling of Camaraderie or I suppose I should say Bruderschaft around, especially in places like the Ryan Air airports. The cheap air travel has also contributed to this Eurocentricity, and popping off to Jerez, Montpelier or Milan for the weekend has become as affordable as taking the family to the nasty theme park half an hour down the road. 

 

These are just some of the signs I’ve seen over the last ten years of Germany losing its stuffiness and rigidity. I’m sure there are many others and I’ll keep my eyes and ears open too over the next ten years.

-------------------------------

Well, 18 years on, I am German. The shops are still firmly shut on Sundays and Segmüller still runs dire 131st anniversary radio ads. Some things carried on getting better, such as the lot of working mums, but sadly, too late for me. 

National Service has been abolished, but how long before it’s revived in the current war-ridden mess?

What’s of concern is that some things seem to be going backwards - or rather towards a new and different form of stiffness, rigidity and lack of openness. One rule book has been torn up, but there’s a weird new one in place, written by fear. The former East German states are strongholds for the AfD and other extremists of various shades.

And a thousand and one articles about Germany - The Sick Man of Europe. The less I say about Ursula von der Leyen, the better.

Maybe the answer is to dig out my 2006-tinted glasses and philosophise that perhaps a step or two backwards is inevitably the way forward.