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economy : Like Wehrmacht officers in Hollywood

German companies in the USA still have a lot of catching up to do when it comes to image maintenance. BY WALTER PFAEFFLE, NEW YORK

Volkswagen had an idea at the beginning of the 1980s. Why not use a powerful German word to cheer on the falling sales, asked the then Chairman of the Board of Management Carl Hahn. The adjective "Excellent" had to be retained - for quality and reliability. Hahn hoped that the word would soon be used by the Americans like "Kindergarten" or "Kitsch" - both words have been part of American usage since the last century. For a short time, VW Jettas and "Rabbits" with "Excellent" stickers scuttled across US highways. Still, they sagged Sales stopped and VW quietly stopped the advertising campaign. The VW subsidiary Audi suffered a serious breakdown at the end of the last decade. It is still used today in PR training courses as a case study of how it should not be done. A woman sued the Ingolstadt car maker for manslaughter. Her Audi 5000 was in front of the garage door Accelerated by himself and run over her son. An ambitious New York prosecutor brought Audi before the Kadi. Then the TV magazine "60 Minutes" took up the case, and Audi was done for a few years in America. Sales of the car shrank by more than Half of it. Basically nothing was revealed, no technical faults on the vehicle were found. The Audi bosses acquired a bad image for another reason: They made the mother responsible for the death of her child; she accidentally stepped on the accelerator instead of the brake. But Audi's defense was taken as follows: You Americans are too stupid to handle a real car. According to American communications professionals, both examples show what can happen when German companies misrepresent their self-portrayal on the US market. The Germans gave the appearance of arrogance - like Wehrmacht officers in old Hollywood films. BASF had a similar experience several years ago The chemical giant had been attacked in South Carolina for pollution. The Ludwigshafeners were wrong, but did not understand how to deal with the problem with the right PR. From then on, the national origin played a role in magazine reports. Because of his appearance - blond, blue-eyed , two meters tall - and with his German accent, the then PR chief, Dietrich Rogala, was portrayed as the German tank commander. Volkswagen has learned from the two breakdowns; the VW Jetta and Golf are selling better than ever, and Audi's sales are growing steadily, because the Wolfsburg-based company has better cars and has shaken off their local mentality. a car that is successful in Europe must also reach the Americans is no longer valid. The German-American Chamber of Commerce has just published a study aimed at helping inexperienced companies to leverage their communications funds in the United States. Large corporations are already doing so. The study's author, communications expert Daniel Mahler, gives a number of companies good marks. He highlights BMW, which in the state of South Carolina, where the Munich-based company has been producing since last year, operated "excellent neighborhood communication", financially supported churches, schools and museums and sponsored cultural events. Mercedes-Benz was pursuing similar strategies in Alamaba. Nevertheless, according to Mahler, there is still an "unbelievable need for action" in the self-portrayal of German companies. This has an impact on public opinion, in other words: German companies have bad press in the USA. A survey of 200 American top decision-makers also showed that Germans have long had to share earlier advantages such as product quality and efficiency with the Japanese. "Made in Germany" no longer works like it once did; When it comes to values ​​such as willingness to innovate and take risks, customer service and environmental awareness, Germans lag far behind Americans - at least in the eyes of the public - and according to the study, the Japanese are more successful in copying the strengths of American companies. Does the German past have an image-damaging influence? Robert L.Dilenschneider, head of the agency of the same name for strategic communication, does not believe that. In the case of high-quality products, "made in Germany" still makes sense. "The Americans know that Germany has a strong economy, that German efficiency and quality work are among the most important the best in the world, "says Dilenschneider. What is more important, however, is that German companies see themselves as" global players "in competition with the best and align their communication strategies accordingly. The high share value of Procter & Gamble, for example, is a product of communication, Dilenschneider believes. When it comes to identity, project manager Mahler advises: Be as international as possible and as German as necessary.

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