The 400-year-old Marketing Flop You’ve Never Heard of

Ceiling of Augsburg Town Hall

Listen to Brenda tell the story

They told me in college that marketing was invented in the U.S. The industrial revolution had produced a surplus of goods. Suddenly, stuff needed to be made more attractive to find buyers. Marketed.

The whole idea of marketing is associated with modern times. Medieval shoemakers weren’t worried about customers, nor were blacksmiths concerned about not selling their horseshoes. Unless there was a famine and nobody in the village had any money to buy anything, in which case they had bigger problems anyway. 

Over the past century, marketing has become crucial since the global supply of goods and services has skyrocketed. Many companies that knew very well how to sell their goods at home thought it would be easy to succeed abroad, too. But marketing a product in another country with a different culture and language is not always straightforward.

General Motors marketed a car called the Nova in Puerto Rico. What sounds just fine in English is quite the opposite in Spanish: no va literally means “it doesn’t go.”

I can just imagine the creativity required by the poor fellow trying to attract buyers:

“Check out our brand-new car – that you can’t actually drive! Come get your lemon while supplies last!”

Turns out those supplies lasted quite a long time. GM was eventually forced to pull the car off the market. And so it happened that its Spanish name became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Another example of cross-cultural linguistic laziness is the name “Coca-Cola.” It was originally translated into Chinese by rendering it in characters that spelled out “bite the wax tadpole”. Granted, this was a toughie, since anything translated into Chinese must somehow be expressed with whatever Chinese characters happen to replicate the sound of the original word. But the meaning of the characters should also match, not just the sound. Otherwise, you end up like a hungry stoner in the zoological section of Madame Tussaud’s. Or whatever other situation one would have to be in to bite a wax tadpole. If you think of another one, let me know.

But – surprise! Marketing was not invented by Americans. They just coined the term.

Nor did they invent the marketing flop. Germany has one prominent example dating from 17th century Augsburg. This city is famous for many things, but few realize that its most prominent building, the Rathaus, the town hall, owes its existence to a marketing campaign, one that failed in the most spectacular way.

rathaus augsburg januar 2011
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The Town Hall, Augsburg, was supposed to be an Imperial Hall. Wikipedia Commons

Looking upon this magnificent building, it’s difficult to imagine how it could have failed to please. It’s an architectural and engineering masterpiece. Its towers are in perfect harmony with the rest of the building, despite being added later. Nor did its architect, Elias Holl, need to make any structural changes to accommodate this huge additional weight. He had silently planned on the towers all along. But instead of socking the city with a staggering bill up front, he bided his time. Once they were enamored of the building, he casually posited:

“Hey, guys, how about a couple of towers on the roof?”

“Gosh, the building is shaping up nicely. Why not?”

And Bob’s your uncle. Or maybe Heinrich. Probably Heinrich.

When constructing the building, Holl had made sure to provide for any future towers with the right foundation all along. Tricky. Very clever. But by far not the boldest marketing ploy.

The real clincher was why they constructed the building in the first place. It wasn’t supposed to be just a town hall.

It was supposed to be an imperial hall. The Reichstag.

To be clear, the word “imperial” comes from “empire.” We Americans get fuzzy on all the empire vocabulary since we never had one. Not officially, anyway (looking at you and your stick, Teddy Roosevelt).

The empire in question here was none other than an institution with the unwieldy appellation of Heiliges Römisches Reich Deutscher Nation. (Whew! All out of breath here. They had a penchant for long titles even back then.) In English: The Holy Roman Empire.

Its imperial representatives met in the Reichstag, also known as the Immerwährender Reichstag, a name that translates as “everlasting diet.” The Imperial Diet. Since this expression calls up images of an emperor dining on celery sticks and low-fat yogurt, I’m going to overrule my 8th grade history teacher and call it “The Regularly Occurring Congress.” ROC for short.

Its emperor lived in – Vienna.

What? Vienna?! If the emperor lived in Vienna, why would they build him something in Augsburg? That would be like building the White House in Billings, Montana, and wondering why the president hesitates to take up residence there. Or building the French king’s palace far outside the capital city of Paris, in a place like…Versailles. Oops. Bad example. Although considering the consequences of the French way of ruling in the century following the construction of Versailles, it’s probably best not to look to the French court for governmental guidance in general.

The Augsburg city elders had good reason to think the Reichstag might meet in their city. Up until 1594, it had rotated amongst varying cities, including Augsburg. They hoped to keep it there permanently. Attendees to the ROC came with large entourages and stayed for months. They spent huge amounts of money on meals, lodging, office supplies and probably stress snacks. Any city hosting it would enjoy a considerable economic boost.

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The ceiling of the Golden Hall, Town Hall, Augsburg. Photo: Brenda Arnold

The elders of Augsburg were betting that by erecting a spacious, gorgeous building in the middle of town, complete with a spectacular Golden Hall for meetings, the emperor would designate it as the permanent location of the ROC. With six stories, so tall was this building that it was deemed to be the first skyscraper in Europe – quite a claim for something built in 1620. Certainly the emperor could not resist.

He resisted.

Augsburg was indeed a likely candidate for the Reichstag, It was the center of the fabulously wealthy Fugger bankers who were closely allied with the Habsburg kings and emperors, who incidentally should be immensely grateful that they didn’t live in an era where the dominant language was English. But before you dissolve in fits of laughter over the name “Fugger,” note that it rhymes with “took” – not with “duck.” Sorry to burst your bubble.

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Wedding portrait of Jakob “The Rich” Fugger and his bride Sybille Arzt by Thoman Burgkmair

Considerable populations of goldsmiths and silversmiths plied their trade in the city. Augsburg’s armorers supplied armies with cannons and other weapons. And armor. It was one of the most important cities in Central Europe.

But it had not counted on the unprecedented devastation of the 30 Years’ War. The notorious general Gustavus Adolphus and his Swedish army ransacked the city. The destruction was immense. The city lost two-thirds of its population. After being visited by hordes of soldiers, it was hardly in a position to host hordes of delegates. Worse still, the city never fully recovered from this terrible war.

Apart from tourists, Augsburg’s Town Hall now hosts weddings and civic events. Staring up at the richly ornamented, gilded ceiling, I can’t help thinking about all the effort, money and time that went into building it for an event that never came about.

I wonder: Have they recouped their investment?

Brenda Arnold

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