By Harry van Versendaal
In a white, minimalist bedroom, a man in boxer shorts is getting dressed. His sated partner lies in bed. The door opens, and an older, besuited man walks in. Calmly, the woman introduces her lover, and her husband promptly asks him to lunch. And then the slogan flashes on the screen: “We Greeks aren’t like this — why should our furniture be?”
As Greece tries to deal with a contracting economy and sky-high unemployment, local businesses are trying to gain an advantage over the competition by advertising their Greek credentials. This commercial for Neoset furniture, poking fun at the local company’s bigger Swedish rival, is only one of many new ads popping up on the radio, television and in the press that are pitching the Buy Greek message.
“Despite Neoset being a Greek company that has worked in the sector for over 30 years, it’s the first time it has ever come out so strongly in advertising its products’ provenance,” the company’s retail marketing coordinator, Marita Kazadelli, said in a recent interview.
“As a company, but also as consumers, we want to support Greek companies and Greek products, so in this way we show our support for Greek businesses, Greek exports, Greek workers and all the rest,” she said.
A whole variety of businesses from travel agents to the fashion industry are catching the trend.
One of these is Helmi, a Greek company that makes edgy clothes for women who until now, its officials admit, had let consumers think it was not local.
“For years our customers considered us a foreign company, an assumption which… we never tried to correct. Now, however, we are letting our consumers know that this supposedly foreign brand is actually Greek,” Helmi CEO Dimosthenis Helmis said.
A radio ad by Bic, the France-based company specializing in the manufacturing of stationery products, lighters and razors, claims that 97 percent of the company’s disposable razors are manufactured in Greece. Around 860 million razors were manufactured in Bic’s factory near Athens last year, 90 percent of which were exported to 153 countries, according to the company website.
But nowhere is the Buy Greek penchant more prominent than where Greeks already held a strong position: the dairy and food market.
Melissa pasta last year used its Greek identity as the central slogan for a big campaign celebrating the firm’s 60th anniversary.
People at the company herald the newfound patriotism.
“I think this trend is natural and that it was late coming. Turks always bought Turkish products, the Germans always bought German products, why did Greeks think Greek products were inferior?” public relations manager Tina Kikiza asked.
The company has for years had to combat the general wisdom that Italian pasta is the best. What many people do not know, says Kikiza, is that many Italian rivals depend on wheat imports from Greece for their products.
The company’s turnover has not been dented by the economic crisis, climbing from 45 million euros in 2007 to 70 million in 2010. It is expected to reach a similar level in 2011.
However, marketing experts are wary of the long-term implications of the Buy Greek drive.
“All products are now brands. Their image is important to their viability. So the question is not whether Greek products are better or worse, but what their being defined as Greek has to add to their brand image,” said Daphne Patrikiou, associate creative director at the BBDO advertising agency.
Strategies vary. Some companies — not always Greek-owned — have adopted a consistent corporate approach, emphasizing their contribution to the local economy. The more opportunistic have pitched their Greek credentials with one-dimensional advertising campaigns or with simply putting “Made in Greece” stickers on their products to encourage impulse buying.
To be sure, not all firms have an interest in advertising their Greekness. Those who have for years invested in strategic planning, like eco-friendly detergent manufacturer Planet or natural skincare company Korres, are rather laconic about their origins, reaping instead the benefits of their longstanding niche strategies.
“Being associated with a Greek identity may benefit a product in the short term, but it could backfire in the long run,” Patrikiou said.
Particularly for companies specializing in hi-tech products and devices, experts warn, a Buy Greek strategy could be damaging. Computer and technology retailer Plaisio has made a profitable business in branding its own PC series, but success is attributed to its value-for-money image, not its being Greek.
Made in Greece has never been associated with innovation, quality or style. And this one of the reasons why the country has for decades spent more than it made as consumers looked outside for good products.
But the situation really spun out of control after the country joined the eurozone in 2001. Thanks to the stable and trusted currency, Greeks were able to borrow cheaply. The balance of trade took a nosedive as Greece imported more goods than it produced.
In 1990, Greece’s balance of trade deficit was 446 thousand euros, by 2002 it had soared to 1.7 billion, while in 2006 it hovered at 2.1 billion. Meanwhile, Greek imports in 1990 were valued at 1.6 billion euros; in 2002 the figure went up to 4.7 billion and by 2006 it had skyrocketed to 5.9 billion.
The overconsumption of foreign goods also had a cultural aspect. After a long stretch of political instability and poverty, the newly empowered Greeks — often powered by provincial attitudes — developed a soft spot for foreign goods. The figures were backed by anecdotal stories of Greeks infamously storming London’s Harrods and Selfridges on weekend shopping sprees.
The situation prompted a reaction by the now defunct association for the promotion of Greek products. A Buy Greek promo made at the time mocked Lakis, a tacky character showing off his flashy designer buys — all foreign imports. At least Greeks created their own word for the trend, “xenomania,” meaning the extreme love for all things foreign — a regular topic of high school essays during the 1980s and 90s.
These days, the Buy Greek message is mostly spread by private firms and business associations, while a number of Facebook pages and citizen groups have also added their voices to the campaign. The Greece520.gr website for one aims to inform consumers that products carrying bar codes starting with 520 are made in the country.
The costly truth
The campaigns seem to be paying off. The National Confederation of Hellenic Commerce recently said sales of local products have gone up 44 percent this year as Greeks turn away from dearer imports.
“It seems crazy to me to buy American rice when I can buy Greek-grown rice,” said Katerina Petraki, a mother of two who works as a food inspector.
In the case of foodstuffs, Petraki says, she usually prefers Greek products — including the supermarkets’ increasingly popular own-name brands. They are just as good, she says, and at the same time you support homegrown products.
“I mean, I know it’s a profit-driven ideology — but why not support it? After all, it will help us become more competitive,” she said.
But not everyone appears convinced. Products made here often cost more and some consumers won’t hesitate to opt for cheaper foreign-made items to help their own finances.
“I haven’t started buying more Greek products because of the crisis. I buy what’s on sale. I look at the price, not the origin,” said Maria Andritsou, a civil engineer who has been unemployed for over a year.
“Until now I used to buy Greek flour. Now I buy foreign-made,” said Andritsou, the mother of a 3-year-old daughter.
People like her dislike the idea of having to accept poorer quality or more expensive products in the name of alleged benefits to the national collective. Such misplaced patriotism, she says, would be like a reward to substandard local suppliers.
“Greek manufacturers have overcharged for so long. Why should I support them now?” she said.
The costly truth is that concepts like home economics and consumer education have long been mostly alien to the average Greek. Consumers rarely did any market research, thus discouraging price competition among local retailers. Greek products were as a result more expensive than their foreign counterparts, which made little economic sense given the cost of transport and logistics.
Consumers often complain it’s hard to know if their money goes to the right place. Product identity in the globalized marketplace of complex ownership structures and competing loyalties can become uncomfortably fuzzy.
The fact is it’s not always clear where products are manufactured or who profits. The Misko pasta factory is controlled by the Barilla Group, Marinopoulos has been taken over by Carrefour, even Metaxa, the world-famous brandy maker, is now owned by France’s Remy Cointreau Group.
But commerce is not necessarily a zero-sum game. Although owned by Barilla, Misko still makes the brand’s products using Greek raw materials. For obvious commercial reasons, Barilla has kept the famous Misko brand logo featuring a Greek Orthodox monk riding a donkey. But, more importantly, the Italian giant operates one of Europe’s biggest pasta factories in Viotia.
Foreign companies like Ikea, Bic or the AB Vassilopoulos supermarket chain, which is controlled by Belgium-based retailer Delhaize, are keen to stress their contribution to the local economy, since they employ thousands of Greek staff and pay taxes to the Greek state.
“We don’t see ourselves as a foreign supermarket,” AB’s communication manager Alexia Macheras said, noting that the company is the fifth-biggest employer in Greece with more than 11,000 staff.
She said AB has for years supported local production by promoting homegrown goods while running campaigns to support Greek foods, clothes and tourism.
I want that Pony
Despite upbeat early statistics, experts insist that Greekness alone is not enough to shape people’s long-term purchase preferences and ensure sustainable growth for the companies.
“Consumers can see through advertising practices and remain rather skeptical toward them. They need a stronger sell to adopt a habit. A product’s national identity is not a strong sell on its own,” Patrikiou said.
Business gurus have a tendency to urge us to see crises as opportunities. Reports last month said that former Greek car manufacturer NAMCO is due to begin production of a new version of the poor man’s SUV, the Pony, which hit the country’s streets in the late 1970s and early 80s. If Greece were to exit the eurozone and return to a devalued drachma, beloved products like quality German cars would be out of reach for local consumers, who would have to depend heavily on locally made products. It would be interesting to see then how many people here would give up their dearest BMW or Mercedes for the more humble Pony.