When I met Jonathan, a brand manager at a large global conglomerate, at a recent party, he was surprised that Germans are so easy going and relaxed and not all reserved and stiff.
I met Jonathan some days later and we talked about his experience: "Either Germans are too stiff, correct and overdo it in correctness or they are cool fellows who are easy to deal with! Where is this divide coming from?"
It was this conversation that prompted me to delve into German and Anglo-American cultures to look for the differences between these cultures that would help me to understand Jonathan’s surprise. For me as a German, his observation felt like "yes, this is how it is supposed to be" and I struggled to understand why this was a surprise for him.
A simple comparison of the large events in the different histories brings out massive differences that have formed different behavioural codes. Brands can learn from this history and differing behavioural codes to develop targeted strategies, which will be successfully received by German consumers.
To cut a long scientific explanation short, Germans have a strict divide between their public and private behaviour.
In public, which also includes their working life, they try to behave in a very correct manner and to not show their emotions. Indeed, to blend in is always better than to stick out, if one does everything correctly, no one will have a reason to complain. In private, Germans are like every other private person in the world, relaxed and open warm-hearted.
The Anglo-American cultures - and especially the Brits - are in contrast very good at combining private and public behaviour and have created an ‘in-between behaviour’.
No one would say Brits are less professional, but they can be much more relaxed in their business environments. One can dress more casually - if not working in the city - hold meetings in a café and those who have an extra special idea or wear a super special dress are welcomed as being creative.
So often these cultures clash. When I work in Germany for one of the large international companies where a lot of different nationalities work, the business language and behavioural codes are English and people address each other with their first name to create a relaxed and creative atmosphere.
Interestingly, if foreigners leave a meeting and only Germans remain they switch back to their original behaviour, addressing each other with their family names, and hierarchies are once again intact.
So, why do the Germans have this strict divide between public and private behaviour? Well, there might be a number of reasons for this, but history surely points us in the right direction.
Brits have a relatively steady and safe political history when it comes to internal affairs and there is a national identity deeply rooted in history.
When you try to find the roots for the British national identity, you can go back as far as 1215 and the Magna Carta (as David Cameron recently discovered on the Letterman show).
Yes, there have been fights and restoration and other turmoil, but these did not largely effect the concept of a national identity in Britain. Indeed, there is a feeling of ‘bend not break’.
The German map for the same period (from early medieval times until 1871, when the country united under Bismarck), resembles a Jackson Pollock creation with hundreds of different sovereigns in super micro states, each one with different legal systems, religious ideas and political tendencies.
These micro states were sometimes just as large as a village with a castle but meant if you travelled half a day by horse, you would possibly cross three or four different states where religion, law, political ideas would be handled very differently.
It was difficult to voice your opinion or follow your religion if you had no ideas if the sovereigns liked it or you would face punishment. So there was the idea that one does better not to speak loudly in public and that it is better to obey hierarchies and rules.
What you do in private is absolutely your own thing. This is captured in one of Germany’s most well liked folk songs from the 1780s that is still sung today: Die Gedanken sind frei. The lyrics say: "The thoughts are free as no one can guess them…, no one can shoot them, the thoughts are free!"
So what does this strict divide between public and private behaviour mean for brands looking to target the German market?
I moderate creative workshops in many parts of the world, but with German consumers it is always slightly different - a brand that tries to appeal to Germans must take a longer road to the hearts of the consumers.
While in many other markets consumers can be wowed by great design or a great product idea itself, Germans love to pre- and post-rationalise before they make their mind up. A brand must first convince the public ego with rational explanations before it can appeal emotionally to the private ego.
Germans don’t like to be too big or flashy as this usually raises questions. Often a rational and toned-down approach that does not highlight comparisons with other products or services is better received. Just to be clear, German consumers love a great product or a beautiful design as much as every other consumer, but they need this little extra step to help bridge the divide.
How can this be done? Often it is not a big thing, it is often just a tiny part of the brand communication, but it can be essential.
Claiming to have the most indulgent-creamy chocolate will not convince a German consumer, but if this emotional quality is connected to a rationale, eg, to explain that because of the special procedure in the production process, the chocolate is pure indulgence, it can help to pave the way to the German heart.
So, if you’re looking to break into the German market, brands must ensure that they provide a rational excuse as well as an emotional appeal.