Switzerland – Turkey direct: international adventures in advertising

When I moved from Germany to Switzerland three and a half years ago, I kept telling myself: It’s a foreign country. They speak the same language, but it’s not Germany. I am a foreigner. You need to tell yourself, because you tend to forget much too easily. When I moved from Switzerland to Turkey several months ago, there was clearly no need for any reminders. On this continent, life can’t be much more different from life in Switzerland.

People have some strange ideas about this country. Presidential candidates have been caught thinking that Turkey is ruled by a terrorist regime. A lot of folks wonder if it is safe to travel to this country, and almost everybody is surprised to find out that you will find more scarves on women’s heads in central European cities than in Istanbul.

The reality is astonishingly different. These days, Turkey is the second fastest growing economy of the planet, clearly outscoring Russia and Brazil. Among the seven economically most successful metro areas of the world, three are located in Turkey — Izmir, Ankara and Istanbul. No Russian city in the ‘top 40,’ only one from Brazil nowhere close to the ‘top 20.’

But there’s even more that make Turkey a truly unique place. Yes, of course, it’s a Muslim country, however contrary to many other Muslim nations, government and religions are clearly separated from each other. Some people think that Turkey is something like an Arab country. They couldn’t be more wrong. Arabic is not spoken. Turkish uses more or less the same letters we do. No hieroglyphic challenges, no writing from right to left — learning Turkish is not more difficult than learning Swedish and definitely easier than learning Russian.

Everybody knows that Istanbul is situated on two continents and that two bridges cross the Bosporus to connect the European part of Istanbul with the Asian part, right? Last week, I told a colleague in New York who was preparing a meeting in Istanbul, and who was worried about the notoriously bad traffic in the city: “It’s not really that much of a problem if you don’t have to cross one of the bridges during rush hour. But we will stay away from Asia next week.” Obviously, she found that last remark quite hilarious. Actually, many of my new colleagues live in Asia and work in Europe, changing continents twice daily.

As a foreigner in Istanbul, you are always regarded as a tourist — and in a way, you can learn a lot about direct marketing, too. Take the shoe shine boys, for example. From all I have found by now, they are not really shoe shine boys. They are con artists. They will walk quickly to pass you with their equipment under their arm and once they are a few yards ahead of you, they suddenly “lose” a brush. They will act as if they don’t notice and as a courteous stranger you immediately pick it up, call after the boy and hand it back to him.

You know that you’re on the hook when he is really grateful, shakes your hand, tells you that your courtesy obviously entitles you to a free treatment of your wonderful shoes, and while you are wondering whether the little guy is putting anything else but water on your not necessarily wonderful, but certainly not cheap shoes, you hear him talking about how his family is living in the far eastern Asian part of the country … you can imagine the rest.

It’s a clever trick. He is sure to get your attention with the dropped brush. His conversion rate is phenomenal, even if only with foreigners not yet been exposed to this particular stunt. It’s a plausible strategy if tourism is flourishing, bringing thousands of innocent new tourists to town — which is clearly the case today.

My shoes did survive the procedure, and the small amount of money that changed hands in the end didn’t really hurt my budget. Compared to him, I am incredibly rich. Some day, he might understand that he could turn me into a loyal customer if he tried a different strategy, moving into a shoe shine boy version of CRM. But don’t count on me to explain. I might end up getting more water on my shoes.

Folker Wrage is CCO at McCann Erickson Istanbul and a 34th John Caples International Awards judge. Learn more about the Caples Awards.

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