4 posts categorized "Central & Eastern Europe"


Sum total of all the misunderstandings

I have listened to an interview with the writer Philip Roth on a BBC podcast (podcasts are great!) Roth has talked about fame and he quoted R.M. Rilke: "Fame is finally only the sum total of all the misunderstandings that can gather around a new name."

What we have here is a clear definition of a modern brand by Rilke: "Brand is finally only the sum total of all the misunderstandings that can gather around a (new) name." It is a definition that emphasizes the role of consumer co-creation in the brand development process (i.e. the sum total of all the misunderstandings). Rilke's name could have become big in the world of marketing if he had dropped the gloomy positioning and had been a bit more of a team-player.

Rilke's problem is not that of skills but of attitude. For instance, he also said something along these lines: "who would speak of victory, survival is all!". It is a very Eastern European thing to say. It is because of this defeatist attitude that we, Eastern Europeans, tend not to get to the top positions in marketing at multinational firms. Rilke might be right in a long run but I don't recommend to anybody to use this quote during a job interview for a brand managerial position. However, one can co-create with Rilke, change the sentence slightly and say with a winning smile "who would speak of survival, it is victory that is all!". Such statement will make a huge impression on the HR person present at the interview. Rilke


Red Ink

Slavoj Žižek quotes an old Eastern European joke in the introduction to his book Welcome to the Desert of the Real . The  joke goes like this: A Czech (or East German or Polish) worker is transferred to Siberia. He know that when he will write letters from Siberia to his friends at home they  will be read by the censors and so he tells his friends : "Let's establish a code: if a letter you receive from me is written in normal blue ink, it's true; if it is written in red ink, it's false." After a month, his friends receive a letter written in blue ink: "Everything is great here in Siberia: the shops are full, there is plenty of food, there are great and beautiful apartments, you can see all the latest Western films in the cinema and there are beautiful girls ready to go out with you - the only thing that you cannot get here is red ink."

These days, our shops are finally full in Eastern Europe (at least in the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary) and there are all the Western movies in the cinemas.  And advertising is wetting our appetite for more.  Advertising in Eastern Europe is shouting loud, celebrating products and services, assuming that people will keep their love affairs with brands that are pushing their primitive messages through TV.

Most of the manufacturers (both local and international) have bought into the cliche that, unlike  Western Europeans, Eastern Europeans must be treated with simple "push" advertising that "really sells."  These ads, packed with product benefits, might be good  for short-term sales but they don't  build an emotional connection between a brand and people.  The people featured in these ads have usually very little to do with the lives of people in the CEE region: they are just mannequins or people who are being used as metaphors for the products in the ads (or their  specific features). It is interesting how this approach has been used to tell the world about ourselves:

If there is ever a contest for ads packed with the most cliches about Prague, this ad must be a winner: blondes, alcohol, nice servants in wigs (is the servant standing for a reformed Czech taxi driver who is no longer stealing or beating his customers?) and Mozart (to signify culture). Has this ad been created to attract  more young English guys to Prague? Those that are stumbling out of their EasyJet planes and barfing before they reach passport control? Probably yes and the ad might do the job there - the guys might be encouraged to come to Prague on Friday evening, get drunk and get laid (if they overcome their shyness and need to do everything in a group ranging from 6 to 10), and then leave Prague Sunday evening, spending there $300 each. Is this ad going to attract to Prague the people that I have met in London - smart and affluent professionals? I doubt it - the ad might take away their  illusions about the creative potential of the people in Prague and Prague's genius loci

Our shops are overflowing with goods and we are getting fatter. The only thing that we are lacking is the red ink - to tell bits of truth about ourselves in an interesting way, as this (I believe) is the only way to build stronger brands - including the brand called the Czech Republic.


About Russia and the "Women go home" campaign

I feel as if I'm traveling back in time when I visit Russia, leaving the West with its citizens turned into consumers, its detachment,  irony and spiritual void and entering Russia, the soulful, pre-ironic land of material impoverishment.


I have traveled to Russia repeatedly the past seven years. Most of the business that we do in Russia is with women. Russian women are responsible for the boom in FMCG there,  buying into the dreams and promises of the great Western brands.

Often the dreams that brands are made of function as compensation for the hardship that women in Russia have to endure. They bear the double burden of family and work with fatalism, not expecting much from the men who might already be gone or/and drunk or dead.

The communist "engineers of human souls" realized a few decades ago that  birth rates are falling rapidly in the Soviet Union. The communist leaders did their bit of research and concluded that it was the participation of Soviet women in the workforce that led to the "masculinization" of women and hence to falling birth rates.  The official propaganda came up with the "women go home" campaign, encouraging women to become more feminine, submissive and tender. According to some Soviet psychologists,  the masculinization of women "had caused the feminization of men, wounding the men's self esteem, causing them to become idle and demoralized." (Cited in "Femininity and Double Burden) This is a tragically wonderful example of transfer of the guilt for impotence (both literally and figuratively speaking) from men to women.

The target for the "women go home" campaign were clearly men, who felt empowered by the campaign's goal - the subordination of women. In reality, the women were very much at home already as they still are today. The universe of Russian women begins and ends at home: women define themselves through home, family and interpersonal relationships. While many men are losers and drunks and living with them is hard, life without men seem even harder. No man equals no family  and "having a family" is the ultimate goal for many Russian women. On a more practical level, it is almost impossible to survive in Russia as a single mother. Single-mother families account for most of the poor households in Russia because of: a) the low individual income of single mothers;  b) their inability to compete with men on the labor market; and, c) the insufficient amount of private and public transfers to compensate for the absence of the second income source in the family. The need - to get and keep men - has been exploited by manufacturers and brands in Russia. Here is one of the crudest example (I have showed this ad already here but it is worth seeing again).

The need to appear feminine and attractive under any circumstances have been long internalized by Russian women. "Beauty requires sacrifice" and the sacrifice is performed daily: a typical Russian women would never leave her house - even to go shopping to a corner store - without a make up. They would be horrified if they could see some of the women in London who do their make-up on the morning trains to work, totally oblivious of the other passengers, males or females. Russian women are all but oblivious to the gaze of the others. The "locus of control" is not located within the free individual but with the community outside of oneself (which implies less freedom and individualism in the Western sense but  also less loneliness and alienation).

Perfect beauty in Russia involves a touch of mystery and enigma. The mystery comes from inside and is connected with the notion of "inner beauty" and "soul" - which are still so important in Russia. In relation to men, it is the mystery that is supposed to constantly re-fuel and renew men's desire. There is an unconscious fear on part of some women, that if a man "sees through a woman" he loses interest in her.

Times are changing, even in Russia. Changes are happening the fastest in Moscow, while things are slow in the provinces. It is in the provinces where time seems frozen. There are typical small towns full of older ladies (most of the men are dead) walking slowly along the empty playgrounds (the birth rates continue falling in the post-communist times). There is no Ikea furniture inside of the apartments in the province (there are Ikeas in Moscow already); their chairs and tables are old, dark - and real. The sense of authenticity is strong, coming from the things that have been touched and used for years, from the books on the shelves (yes, the Russian classics) that were read, experienced and "re-lived" and from the sense of fatalistic reconciliation with life itself.   

Whatever little I have learned about her - the Russian woman - I learned by talking to them in their kitchens, snooping around their living rooms and bathrooms. I also learned a lot from the "perfect crowd" of great researchers, sociologists and other experts that I have the privilege to meet and work with in Russia.   









Source: "Feminity and the Double Burden: Dialogues on the Socialization of Russian Daughters into Womanhood",  Natalia Roudakova and Deborah S. Ballard-Reisch


The Coast of Utopia

The Coast of Utopia is Tom Stoppard’s new trilogy about 19th century Russia and its radicals: Bakunin, Belinsky, Herzen. Nina Raine has joined Stoppard for rehearsal of the trilogy in Moscow and has written an article for the Guardian. Nina Raine describes a scene that happened during the rehearsal:

Herzen, his wife Natalie and their friend George are discussing Marx:

H: But Marx is a bourgeois from the anus up.

N: Alexander! I won't have that word . . .

H: Sorry, middle class.

‘I don't understand when you're having fun and when you're being sincere,’ Stoppard interjects.

Ilya [the actor playing Herzen] is baffled: "Is it a joke?"

The Russians then explained to Stoppard that the joke doesn’t work because they until recently they didn’t use the phrase “middle class”. There are no spaces between the opulent palaces and the old, dilapidated factories on the banks of th Neva River in St. Petersburg. However, materialism is on the rise in Russia. The Russians (and the Czechs) have successfully distanced themselves from the communist propaganda in the past. They paid lip service to it only when needed: in public, at work - and then they laughed about it and its promises of happiness and future paradise, in the privacy of their homes. During communism people took refuge in jokes, alcohol and classic Russian literature.

The Russians also laughed later on when they saw, in the beginning of the 1990’, the first TV ads and the promises of happiness through shining hair, miraculous yoghurts and life-transforming fruit juices. And then they succumbed. It was stronger then them, their minds were invaded by shining hair and radiant skins. The image of artificial woman with applying anti-aging cream with an empty smile, strangled the subtle portrait of the lady with a dog. They have their Chekhovs and Tolstoys on the bookshelves but I bet that the jars with the anti-aging creams get opened hundred times more often than the books. (The bottles of vodka seem to get opened at the same rate through the centuries).   

Actor and director Sergei Kokovkin says, in the Guardian article, that something is missing in the Russian actors. “The spiritual fire has been blown out,” he says.

The spiritual fire burned through Russian literature. The literature and theatre have always been about passions and excesses – high and low, heaven and hell (sorry, middle-class).

Most of the Russian (and Eastern European) advertising has no fire or passion in it. It is boring and obvious. Unlike in the UK, there seems to be thick, dividing lines between the academic, artistic and the advertising/marketing communities in Eastern Europee. The advertising community alone is not willing or able to challenge their clients and create engaging, emotional and unique communication that would tap into the “Russian soul”.  Ads are being created mechanically, according to old formulas; divorced from the wider and deeper circle of culture (There are exceptions to this, obviously).

This is an example of a crude and obvious ad that exploits passions without creating any:

(via Russian marketing blog)