Germany: Cologne is not just a perfume
23 October 2009
It’s no happy coincidence – Eau de Cologne, or cologne, world renowned for centuries, has benefitted from the ideal geographical location of the city that gave it a name. Cafébabel reports from the town that is not just about your granny's 4711.
If Giovanni Maria Farina, the Italian creator of the first Eau de Cologne, knew about the success of his creation that he first considered producing in the city in 1703, he would be spinning in his grave. Forvere plagiarised, whether to the highest quality or cheaply put together to mask strong body odours, Eau de Cologne has become generic, representing nothing more nor less than a light perfume (containing a few essential oils) that only the elderly, generally speaking, continue wear. Once shipped down the Rhine, and now taking off from Köln Bonn Airport, the product is exported around the world, to remind us of the city’s existence. "Nowadays, people don’t connect the town and the perfume," says the current managing director of Farina House, Johann Maria Farina, who runs his forefather's business, using the traditional recipe passed on over the generations. Comfortably ensconced in his office which adjoins a mini-museum celebrating the family successes, he narrates the company’s history in this its 300th anniversary year. The confusion caused by dozens of counterfeits has damaged the status of the original, despite decades of lawsuits.
Not a classic German city
Today, the cathedral which stands a few feet from the Italian perfume house has replaced the factory as the city, and Germany's, main tourist attraction. Drawing in an unbeatable six million visitors a year (nearly 65% of which are German) Cologne Cathedral is the Germany's most, Cologne is increasingly promoted as part of a cross-border strategy to attract foreign visitors. Rather than joining forces with the other big German cities, namely Hamburg and Frankfurt, with it vies for most visited German city, Cologne is running partnerships with Amsterdam and Brussels. "We attract more foreigners than Hamburg, nevertheless, we need to reinforce the message to an international audience," says Claudia Neumann, head of public relations at KölnTourismus.
Cathedral aside, the city's character has been shaped since the Middle Ages, when it was a crossroads for European commerce, positioned ideally on the Rhine and benefitting nowadays from an excellent transport network. It was part of the attraction for various foreign investors, like the beloved Giovanni Maria Farina. "In the eighteenth century, Cologne was not constricted by the empire or subordinate to any state, and therefore was very attractive as a commercial hub, for all entrepreneurs," explains Farina’s heir.
The result: People of 184 nationalities live in this youthful town (the University of Cologne is the second biggest in Germany, with 60,000 students), and 20% of the population is non-German. This idea of an "open" Cologne is often exported beyond the German border. Paradoxically, however, this reputation is also worrying to local leaders, who look to attract investors. "People here are more Italian than German," says Victor Vogt, head of international business at the Cologne Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Outlining the strengths and weaknesses of his city, he says "Cologne is suffering from the effects of the economic downturn because its GDP is more than 50% reliant on exports. We are developing a new strategy to present the city as a centre of commercial activity in Europe and across the Atlantic. We know that Cologne doesn’t have the same status as Paris and London though. In order to be competitive, we must unite forces with our neighbours, Dusseldorf and Bonn. They are already renowned as global forces in business." Multinationals like Sony, Toys ‘R Us, Barilla and Microsoft have all, however, chosen Cologne as their base in Germany. Office with views over the Rhine.
Whether in the chemical industry which is its biggest employer, the automotive industry which is experiencing great difficulties, mechanical or electronic engineering, radio and television which make the city the German media capital, Cologne’s strategy is not to sell out ‘as a cheap commercial destination’. The city’s strategy is to market itself in order to attract companies to establish their corporate headquarters there. That is notably seen in the city’s architecture. This is visible at the moment, on the banks of the Rhine, a few hundred metres from the immense Früh am Dom brewery, where thirsty foreigners take their seats, cranes stand alongside unfinished steel and concrete giants. Before long, they will be home to luxury offices with views over the river.
Second to none; the same strategy that Farina House has chosen to follow. "Luxury is a niche market, and it’s true that our perfume is not available to just anybody," maintains Johann Maria Farina, who employs fifty people locally. His small company (Cologne’s oldest if you take his word for it) continues the family tradition, even though its finest hour has long passed. Not far from the brewery and the souvenir stalls, is an Eau de Cologne, packaged in a turquoise blue bottle, which still manages to tempt clients. It is a different brand, from another House, with a more aggressive marketing style. Even the smell is different; the Eau de Cologne 4711, created in 1792, is the unopposed challenger of the Farinas, and is proud of the fact that it is exported to more than sixty countries. To each nose to its own …