Berlin offers sobering lesson for 'Brand America' ambition

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Berlin-If there is a notion more facile, more simplistic, more numbingly idiotic than the idea of "the brand," one is hard-pressed to imagine it when wandering the streets of the capital of "new Europe."

Brands connote permanence. They imply presence. They signify cultural relevance. They suggest the enduring, alluring power of persuasion. Yet all these preconceptions are upended in this city of 3 million.

Permanence? In Berlin, even that which looks old was constructed yesterday.

Presence? Among the most potent structures here is an object that no longer exists, the Berlin Wall.

Cultural relevance? The most crowded coffee house on the Unter den Linden is not the indigenous Cafe Einstein, but the Starbucks abutting the Brandenburg Gate.

The power of persuasion? Berlin knows that danger better than any other city on earth.

Obviously, to use this tragic, vibrant, reborn metropolis as an excuse to ruminate on branding borders on kitsch. But as I write, Berlin is bustling, preparing a weekend-long celebration to welcome 10 additional nations and 75 million people into the European Union-men, women and children to whom the media are referring promiscuously as citizens and consumers. But why should the conflation surprise us? Before the Wall came down, the ultimate symbol of freedom for many in the East was a pair of Levi's.

The new European Union that now stretches from Portugal's shore to Estonia's Russian border has U.S. consumer-products companies salivating at the opportunities for growth. It also has them mightily concerned, because this concentrated market of 25 countries, with its 450 million people and $12.1 billion gross domestic product, now fairly dwarfs the U.S. With its labor mobility, trans-regional media and consolidating retail sector, the new EU better positions European companies to challenge U.S. brand marketers for dominance.

But Berlin recommends wariness over euphoria. Dominance is easily upended. Only a decade ago, that Starbucks across from the Hotel Adlon was unknown outside the American Pacific Northwest; today it represents a brand that, as The Wall Street Journal reports, has "more cachet" than Coca-Cola. The Skoda automobiles that were, 10 years back, a laughingstock from Czechoslovakia today shine in a showroom windows, a success story for Volkswagen. (And those souped-up "Pimp My Ride" East German Trabants attracting the goggle eyes of passersby from Slovakia? Might it be the brand that topples BMW's Mini from the throne of retro cool?)

Berlin suggests caution for exactly the opposite reason, as well. The cliche notwithstanding, change is not the only constant. Even in an environment of continual transformation, there is permanence-not all of it worth celebrating.

The Jewish Museum that cuts a jagged scar through the city's Kreuzberg district tells a jarring story, not just of the Holocaust, but of the centuries of pogroms that preceded it, which, in the museum's implicit narrative, made the terror inevitable. That corrosive nationalism lives on-in the Middle East, in parts of Europe, even in the U.S.

In this country, we are raised to believe that the modern-the open marketplace of ideas, beliefs and products-will always triumph over the tribal. Berlin reminds us that there is nothing inevitable or universal in this principle underpinning "Brand America.""

Randall Rothenberg, an author and longtime journalist, is director of intellectual capital at consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton.

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