The German e-commerce market is among the largest in the world, offering lucrative opportunities for foreign companies. Whether you’re looking to localize your website or adapt your Amazon listings for the German-speaking region, you’re smart to expand into this growth market. But have you thought about how to address your audience in your German marketing copy?
When it comes to marketing in Germany, things aren’t as clear-cut as they used to be. German, like French, Spanish, and several other languages, has two versions of you: the formal “Sie” and the familiar “du.” In the past, the rules were simple. The familiar “du” was reserved for addressing children, family members, friends, and close acquaintances. Whenever you were talking to strangers, colleagues, superiors, or even older adults you didn’t know very well, the proper address was the formal “Sie.”
There were some gray areas, of course. I remember being in 10th grade in my German high school, when our teachers had to ask how each student wished to be addressed in class. Up until then, teachers would use the informal version of you to talk to us. But around age 16, we had crossed over into “Sie” territory, and if any students wanted to be addressed with the formal you, teachers had to abide by their wishes. Alas, most of us stuck with the informal “du” throughout high school, unless we disliked a certain teacher and wanted to make things difficult on purpose.
Outside of school, though, things were pretty black and white. If you knew a person, you’d use “du.” If you didn’t, you’d use “Sie,” unless there was a verbal agreement to switch from “du” to “Sie” at some point. Customarily, the older person had to “offer the du” to the younger person.
How to address customers in modern German marketing copy
According to these rules, German marketing copy should address readers or listeners with the formal you. After all, companies are typically talking to unknown audiences. Yet anyone who has paid attention to marketing in Germany in recent years will notice that the old rules appear to have gone out the window.
Just look at some of the latest marketing slogans and taglines in Germany. Many companies are now choosing to address their customers in a familiar way.
- McDonald’s recently launched new plant-based options in Germany under the slogan: “Iss, was du likest” (Eat what you like).
- The German beer brand Warsteiner chose the claim “Gebraut für deine Momente” (Brewed for your moments) for its latest TV spot.
- Ticketmaster adopted the slogan “Dein Ticket für echte Emotionen” (Your ticket for real emotions) for its new TV campaign in Germany.
- Even the German health insurance company BARMER decided to stray from its typical formal tone in its latest campaign, “Wir machen euch stark” (We make you strong).
Clearly, German familiarity is no longer just for family.
One of the pioneers in breaking with the tradition of formality was IKEA. The Swedish furniture giant started using the familiar “du” in its German ads and marketing materials in the early 2000s. Apple followed suit a few years later, and by now, many companies have adopted an informal tone when talking to German consumers.
Forgoing the traditional “Sie” in favor of a more personal style can be a deliberate choice in order to make a business seem young, hip, or bold. But not everyone is thrilled about this trend. Especially to older generations of Germans, an informal tone can come across as inappropriate and even rude. Considering that almost half the German population is over age 40, companies need to be cognizant of the dangers of choosing a “du”-approach.
On the other hand, the formal “Sie” can seem outdated and out of place in certain sectors. The German fitness industry, for example, tends to favor the informal you in marketing and advertising campaigns. Fitness chains such as Fitness First or McFIT are examples.
Beware of using the wrong tone
For international businesses, this creates a slippery slope. There are inherent dangers of using “du” in the wrong setting, and unless you are a native German, you may have a hard time knowing when it is okay to cross the line from formal to familiar. When in doubt, it is safer to stick with formal pronouns rather than risk offending your target audience.
Some modern businesses try to find a Goldilocks approach by pairing the formal address with fresh, bold copy to create a more personable style. Such copywriting requires a nuanced understanding of the German language and culture and is best left to native speakers. If you are looking to shape your company’s German voice, I’m here to help. With more than 17 years of experience in writing German marketing copy, I can guide you towards the right tone. Contact me for a free consultation today!