German Engineering...

How German-ness shapes and reflects on local brands

Christoph Prox
Kantar Added Value


All over the world, brands are shaping people’s everyday lives. Although the rules of branding are universal, there are, of course, differences: in Latin America, things are a bit more colorful and loud; in China, concrete proof of performance is especially important. So what distinguishes German brands? Are there any characteristics at all? And, if so, how are these to be explained?

Three properties are particularly noticeable:

1. Reliability

Brands give consumers security and trust; they guarantee a uniform and reliable quality. The concept of the brand therefore probably caught on with Germans very early. As proven by numerous scientific studies, we are people who tend to feel vulnerable. Especially in comparison to British or Americans, Germans are particularly concerned about uncertainty in times of change. There is a great longing for stability, and any change involves more fear than hope.

This is also evident in brand management, which is much stronger in German businesses than many international companies. The motto is "as much continuity as possible, as little change as necessary". Many German brands, from Allianz through to Nivea and Wella, have therefore been developed very carefully over time.

2. Self-similarity and iconography

German and international brand manufacturers often take an opposing approach to opening up growth areas: Anglo-Saxon and American companies in particular ask the question: "Where are new growth areas in the market?" For German branded goods, the initial question is more often: "How do I get the best out of my brand?" There is no right or wrong here. Both paths have advantages and disadvantages. The Anglo-Saxon or American approach is faster. The German way is more sustainable from a brand point of view.

In their growth strategies, Anglo-Saxon and American branded manufacturers usually proceed in such a way that the product first comes and then the brand. In case of doubt, the brand essence is interpreted somewhat generously and, if necessary, somewhat bent. Nevertheless, whoever is fast occupies new fields for themselves. The result is the growth of powerful, universal brands, but their identity often frays and becomes diffuse - one of the reasons why new, distinctly developed (or defined) local brands are experiencing a renaissance and making global players' lives difficult.

German brand manufacturers often focus on brand-specific growth. As Bernd Pischetsrieder once said in his time as CEO of BMW, "The question is not whether BMW can build an SUV, but whether BMW should build an SUV." Well, now BMW not only has an SUV, it has a whole portfolio of them in its X range. But the question is still the right one: does a new product not only generate additional sales, but can it contribute to the sustainable strengthening of the brand?

The principle of self-similarity is particularly important for German brands, possibly because branded iconography has always been understood as more than a purely aesthetic pursuit. Signals do not only play a role for branding, but often also serve as a promoter of brand promise. Almost all major German brands are characterized by a high level of autonomy and recognizability, and in the automotive sector, this is particularly clear.

A BMW, Mercedes, Audi or Porsche can be easily recognized without its logo, no matter what era it comes from. While there are design breaks in many international competitors, the individual series of German brands can be put into a chronological order without much effort. This is self-similarity, which strengthens the brand.

3. Substance over appearance

German brands do not tend to seek limelight, even if they are comfortably within the premium segment – think of brands such as BMW, Boss, Leica, Miele and Bulthaup. They are usually discreet in their performance, rather timelessly classic, sometimes bordering on bland. This is not least due to our role in the world after the Second World War. One lets performance speak for itself; restraint and humility are important. The "Made in Germany" quality promise is often even more credible as a result: no unnecessary frills, no superficial bling bling that might distract from the essential. It means absolute reliability.

This all becomes clear when we look at the airline sector – a business with plenty of scope for eye-catching brand activity, yet German airlines have said very little. Since the mid-1960s there has been a single, only moderate, redesign at Lufthansa, which came in 1989. Delta Airlines, United Airlines and British Airways had each completed five complete design revisions in that time, including several that were ineffective and short-lived, which would be unthinkable for a German airline.

Implications and outlook

German brands are increasingly being led by international teams, and sometimes, as in the case of Bayer and SAP, global marketing is not even run from Germany. In this respect, the properties described above will somewhat soften over time. As long as the brands keep their "Germanness", this should be considered as an opportunity. While we are proud of our German thoroughness, we must be faster. We can no longer allow ourselves to react to developments only when they have manifest in the market. Continuity must not become stagnation. Brands nowadays have to refresh themselves regularly, or risk falling into oblivion. When we internalize this, our brands have enough substance to continue to play in the first league in the future.