Analysis: Germany's drive to kill the clichés

As the World Cup kicks off, Robert Gray asks whether Germany's comms chiefs have replaced hackneyed stereotypes with a more positive national image.

Remember the euphoria of Euro ’96? Baddiel and Skinner’s Three Lions song was on everyone’s lips as the international football circus came home.  The fervent hope was that a tournament win would bring ‘30 years of hurt’ to an end.

Unfortunately, it was not to be. England crashed out on penalties at the semi-final stage to old rivals, and eventual champions, Germany.

In an atmosphere of unsavoury and misguided jingoism ahead of the match, the Daily Mirror ran an infamous front page, which unleashed a barrage of bellicose clichés. Under the headline ‘Achtung! Surrender’, a mocked-up picture showed England players Paul Gascoigne and Stuart Pearce wearing World War army helmets.

Piers Morgan, then Daily Mirror editor, was forced to apologise after the Press Complaints Commission received more than 300 calls from angry readers. Yet the ease with which the tabloids resorted to militaristic platitudes and outdated stereotypes about Germany was disturbing.

Perception time-warp
Ten years on, and 30 years of hurt have become 40. The World Cup kicks off in Germany today (9 June), with England one of the fancied teams. Should England do well, the media will pump up patriotic passion, in all likelihood dragging out the hackneyed, disparaging war references to Germany once more.

As World Cup host, Germany is at the centre of world attention – but are those responsible for marketing the country doing enough to promote its modern face? Or are British prejudices – and our self-definition as war victors – just too deeply entrenched, even 61 years after the end of World War II?

‘I think it’s telling that the British media increasingly ask: “What’s our problem with Germany?”,’ says the press attaché at the German Embassy in London. But he adds with exasperation:  ‘About an hour ago, I had a media call, telling me that a group of England football fans want to bring an inflatable Spitfire to Germany – what did I think? I said: “Don’t ask me, ask the people taking it.” What kind of image of the UK do they want to spread in Germany?’

Air Berlin press officer Angelika Schwaff says: ‘The tabloids always find connections between football and the War. In Germany it’s said the tabloids only know words such as blitzkrieg. But we think the readers of the tabloids know Germany has changed. We can be funny, and Germany is a very modern country.’

However, the German National Tourist Office (GNTO) has itself turned to the past, using England’s 1966 Word Cup hero Geoff Hurst to front a poster campaign. Straplines such as ‘They thought it was all over… but it was just the start of my love affair with Germany’ have tied national marketing to the tournament, as much as organiser FIFA allows.

True to form, there was contrived tabloid indignation at the involvement of an England sporting icon in the promotion of Germany. The Sun went for the headline ‘Geoff Würst’.

But GNTO marketing manager Jeanette Schuchmann says that on the whole she has been ‘pleasantly surprised’ by the media coverage so far, pointing to in-depth supplements on Germany in newspapers such as The Guardian as painting a favourable and accurate picture of her country. And what of the tabloids? ‘If it’s good fun, we are all for it,’ she says. ‘What can you do? The more we protest at something,  it just adds fuel.’

The Independent travel editor Simon Calder, a big fan of Germany as  a destination, believes the country should rank alongside France, Spain and Italy as a holiday choice. He regrets that some people would apparently prefer to go almost anywhere rather than ‘this beautiful, welcoming and civilised nation’, because of memories of the war, and misconceptions about everything from the people to the food.

‘I have been following the sterling efforts of the German tourism authorities to address the problem: mentioning the war; not mentioning the war; focusing on anything from horticulture to lager – all to persuade us to explore the country,’ says Calder. ‘But compared with the power of “Two world wars and one World Cup, doo-dah”, it has proved ineffective. I’m afraid all they can do is keep plugging away, celebrating the nation and patiently waiting for a generational shift.’

Calder thinks that one possible strategy – successfully achieved on a few occasions in the Caribbean for countries such as Haiti – is to remove national identity from the promotion of cities, islands and regions.

So, the Black Forest, the city of Bamberg and the island of Sylt could each become a brand that is somehow divorced from Germany.

Pride and prejudice
But many travel PROs seem united in the view that Germany has not got its marketing quite right. BGB & Associates director Helen Coop believes Germany has not done enough to distance itself from stereotypes.

‘I think they need to start focusing on things that are unexpected about the country. Things such as VW, bratwurst and Heidi Klum [celebrated in recent book The Best of Germany] are all in their way traditional icons. But actually, Germany is a beautiful country that’s very modern, with great designers.’

VisitBritain director of strategy and communications Sandie Dawe applauds Germany for the clever way it has promoted its Christmas Markets, but otherwise believes the country has a ‘weak’ leisure destination brand and punches below its weight.

Its online marketing strategy, she thinks, is uninspired. Although she feels the occasionally negative reaction to Germany in the UK is more a reflection of British ignorance, she adds: ‘Germany has not inserted anything else strongly enough in our heads to scrub out these ridiculous stereotypes.’

Elsewhere, Travel PR founder Sue Ockwell believes the World Cup-inspired focus on Germany – with many travel writers having been dispatched to assess what there is for the visitor to enjoy – will push German cities up the popularity scale in future years for short breaks and cultural tours.

Let us hope she is right, and that the World Cup showcases the attractions of modern Germany in the way it deserves. Let us hope also that England beat Germany on the way to lifting the trophy in a match that is exciting, fair and completely free of anachronistic prejudice.

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