A unique brand story from a small Berlin Brand and inspirational example that excellent retail flagship are not just created by multi billion corporations.
A couple of decades apart, two designers cross Berlin streets and leave their mark. The first designs a lasting cultural icon for a nation behind the iron curtain. The second saves it from oblivion by turning it into an iconic brand.
Function joins affect, and history permeates the inspiring brand story of Ampelmann Berlin. And as if that were not enough, Ampelmann’s retail flagship store is an inspiring ‘must visit’ for retail pros.
Designing the Would-be Icon of a Nation
Since the first pedestrian traffic light was introduced in Denmark in 1933, symbols to signal pedestrians to wait and walk were developed in many countries. Nowhere, however, did as much technical, functional, and psychological research go into the design process as in the former GDR.
Its iconic ‘Ampelmännchen’ (cute German for ‘little traffic light guy’) saw the light of day in 1961 when designer and traffic psychologist Karl Peglau (1927-2009) created his at once quirky and highly functional design.
In his book, Peglau says of the design’s post-GDR success
“Presumably it is due to their special and almost indescribable aura of human sociability and warmth that so many people feel pleasantly touched by these symbolic figures, and that they find in them a piece of honest identification with history, which authorises the Ampelmännchen to represent the positive aspects of a failed social order.”
While this relatability is key from an affective and psychological perspective, functionality takes precedence. The comparatively larger lit area makes for higher visibility and thus better pedestrian safety. Peglau furthermore describes the functional guidelines for his design as follows:
Turning a National Icon into a Cultural Brand
When the wall came down, the world changed, and with it, Berlin. Alongside the dismantling of former GDR institutions, many East German brands gradually disappeared from the retail landscape. Ampelmann underwent the opposite development when designer Marcus Heckhausen took the unique traffic light icon under his wing.
Against the backdrop of the reunification of two Germanys and a vibrant alternative art scene in 1990s Berlin, Heckhausen saw something worth celebrating and preserving in the GDR Ampelmännchen. His initial design of a lamp made out of rescued authentic traffic lights was a success. An art project soon became a book project, a lasting partnership with original designer Karl Peglau, a shop, and a cult(ural) brand.
Long story short, Marcus Heckhausen became the founder and CEO of beloved Berlin brand Ampelmann. And with such a compelling brand story, it’s no surprise that Berliners and tourists alike have fallen in love with the brand. So much so, in fact, that Ampelmann not only runs a series of own stores and retail flagships but has even reached Japan where the first store opened in 2010.
Enjoy this short animated history of Ampelmann’s unique retail story:
Free Ad Spaces All Across Berlin
No revenues are reported for Ampelmann, but publicly accessible records suggest a healthy 44% equity ratio and growing profits. The unique retail venture has grown to include a retail flagship, seven locations in Berlin shopping centres, train stations and prime tourist locations, three cafés and a restaurant.
There is no way of getting around Berlin without taking note of the Ampelmännchen on almost every major crossing, it downright forces you to look straight at it for minutes at a time, several times a day. That’s significant primetime value right there, with no zapping channels and no ad block to interfere.
And despite this rather tedious habit of keeping you waiting on cold and rainy streets, the little guy on the traffic light has become a Berlin icon and a brand that everyone seems to adore. After all, it does promise respite from Berlin’s weather with a hot cup of coffee too.
No one is all that fond of a red light, but the pure joy of seeing the heavily anticipated little green guy march on at Berlin’s 17.000 traffic lights absolutely makes up for that. For Ampelmann as a unique retail brand, this translates to free ad spaces at top locations, day and night, come rain or shine, all year around.
An Excellent Retail Flagship Experience
The brand story is definitely unique, but more surprisingly the retail flagship experience isn’t short of best practices. Earlier this year, I shared some global best practice examples in store operations. Some of what I experienced at the Ampelmann retail flagship could well be added to that list.
The flagship retail location ‘Unter den Linden’ predominantly consists of historic buildings. Retailers are therefore heavily restricted in their creativity where the appearance of storefronts is concerned. Ampelmann nevertheless found ways to catch the eye of passers-by to the extent that the retail flagship store is impossible to miss.
As the brand story is so unique, store designers could easily succumb to overdoing on storytelling and forget all about being commercial retailers. And the Ampelmann retail flagship is laced with bits and pieces about the brand’s history and quirks, and how it is closely linked with the history of Berlin. But the store developers and visual merchandisers did an excellent job at balancing storytelling with being good merchants. Their commercial work certainly reached me. I left to share their story and bought some merchandise.
Ampelmann’s store engagement efforts are smart and light-touch. Commercial, branding, and entertaining aspects are well balanced throughout.
The global traffic lights and their stories stand out, and it struck me how entertaining traffic light stories from across the globe can actually be.
Like me, you’ve probably seen hundreds of often terrible souvenir shops showcasing an overload of overpriced, for lack of a better term, junk. On occasion, we’re desperate enough to buy regardless. For who wants to return from that trip without a little something (that no one needs) for friends and family.
Ampelmann, while a souvenir shop, offers a very different experience. Not only are the stores much more selective in what they exhibit than the average souvenir shop, the product quality is mostly high while prices are surprisingly reasonable. Smart & appealing the co-branding with well-known brands such as Moleskin. So watch out, that you don’t end with four items on the ticket, like me.
The visitor is made to feel welcome, without any air of pushiness. Three staff members are available to support the consumer on their journey through the store. Shoppers are made aware of special offers and the cashier service is friendly. The check-out is efficient, and a second till opens immediately when a line begins to form.
A Great Retail Flagship
Growing up in the Western part of a divided Germany, I certainly never had a personal relationship with East German traffic lights. I’ve even visited Berlin two to three times a year and walked past an Ampelmann store dozens of times (and past the traffic lights countless more times). When I visited the store for a professional check I left ‘touched’ by the brand and with a shopping bag in hand. Isn’t that’s precisely what an excellent retail flagship is meant to do? Don’t forget to visit, next time you are in Berlin!
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(Featured Image: Photo by LucasGM58, CC BY-SA 4.0)