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A taste for the old East Germany

New Trabant prototype is unveiled
The Trabant returns, but this time it's electric

The fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 thrilled most East Germans - though not manufacturers, whose goods became suddenly uncompetitive. But 20 years on, reports Lucy Hooker, some former East German brands are going strong.

Madeline Achterberg still harbours a fondness for many aspects of life in the old East Germany, especially the food, even though she wasn't even born in 1989.

"These things have a special spirit to them. They have a feeling of telling stories and Christmas," she says. "They have a story behind them."

Her family lives in Munich now, but when they go back, they return with bags bulging.

One shop in central Berlin is devoted purely to east German products and ordinary supermarkets stock dozens of goods, such as popular Spreewald pickled cucumbers, Werder ketchup and Vita Cola.

Spreewald cucumbers
Pickled comfort food: The Spreewald cucumber

Thanks to investments in technology, smart new packaging and improved marketing they are now often impossible to distinguish from Western rivals.

For a while, though, East German goods appeared to be in deep trouble.

By 1989, the citizens of the GDR were not only bored with the lack of consumer choice, they had also been tantalised by the advertising they could view on West German television.

Able to travel to the West for the first time they gave vent to a vast pent-up enthusiasm for Western goods, returning home with their Trabants piled high with jeans, video recorders and bananas. They turned their backs on the products they had grown up with.

Retro-chic

When the West German currency the Deutschmark was introduced in early 1990 the problem was compounded.

"Overnight nearly all eastern products were kicked out of the shops. No-one wanted to buy them," says Nils Busch-Petersen, head of Berlin's Retail Association.

"It was a disaster for the enterprises which were producing ordinary good quality products."

Many people came back to their old partner, as often happens with love affairs
Nils Busch-Petersen, head of Berlin's Retail Association

Then the unexpected happened. Eastern consumers seemed to change their minds.

"They had of course a great love affair with Western products," Mr Busch-Petersen says.

"But many people came back to their old partner, as often happens with love affairs."

Erika Mendel, a 70-year-old retired engineer from Berlin, says she tried some of the Western brands on offer and found the quality poor.

She buys the GDR washing powder she's always used, and cosmetics, liqueurs and many foodstuffs. Her husband drinks the East German brand of beer he has always drunk.

"I know it was always good and is still good now," she says.

"So I buy the products from the east - not always, but I do buy them."

One of the brands that survived the turmoil of reunification relatively unscathed is a sparkling wine known as Rotkaeppchen or Little Red Ridinghood.

Torsten Heine
We tried to make them look like the old shoes but give them the technical details and comfort of shoes nowadays.
Zeha partner Torsten Heine

It is still sold at modest prices and sales have soared. A few years ago it took over its West German rival Mumm.

But while Rotkaeppchen is reluctant to be identified as a former GDR success story, others revel in their Socialist-era image.

Rotstern (Red Star) chocolate occupies a niche quite distinct from rival Halloren, another company from the east which emphasises its origins in pre-Communist times.

Even the Trabant, the butt of so many jokes, may be about to grace Germany's roads again, in a new electric reincarnation.

It enjoys the retro-chic of being an old Eastern bloc brand, as does the Zeha sport shoe, once proudly worn by East Germany's athletes.

Bearing the trademark Zeha double stripe, the new Italian-made version of the shoe is now the height of fashion - though no longer sold at Socialist prices.

"We started to research what happened to the brand. And we found out after the wall came down they had to close down because they lost their market. So the idea came up to give it a second chance," says Torsten Heine, one of the partners behind the resurrected Zeha business.

"We really tried hard to keep the product pretty authentic. We tried to make them look like the old shoes but give them the technical details and comfort of shoes nowadays."

Familiarity

But what will happen to these brands once the generation which grew up with them is no longer shopping?

"Today they only sell the products that were good in old Germany. Just the best things of the GDR like Vita Cola," says Julius, who was born the same year the wall came down. He's convinced many of these brands will survive.

Some customers make the connection between supporting local products and protecting jobs. But for most it's still simply a matter of familiarity.

"It's psychological," says 25-year-old Cora, who still likes to buy one particular kind of east German chocolate.

"Actually it's not better or worse than normal brands. It's more a childhood thing. But of course it's good quality too."

These brands will only survive if they can attract new customers, but many of the companies that have made it through the last 20 years now have the marketing skills to meet that challenge.



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