The European consumer remains desirable but elusive.
European consumers, I have decided, get a rather raw deal. Considering it is the existence of these 337 million dedicated shoppers, holiday-makers, car-owners, borrowers and imbibers which provides the main economic raison d'etre for the single market their needs get scant attention in the higher corridors of Community power. In Eurospeak, that invaluable guide to the strange language they speak in Brussels, which has just been published by Francois Gondrand of the French Employers' Confederation (Nicholas Brealey £14.95), the word "consumer" rates just a one-line entry, and that merely cross-refers you to "consumption", which fares little more generously. Even the acronyms are sparse and boring. Apart from BEUC (the French translation for European Bureau of Consumers Unions), COFACE (which somehow stands for the Committee of Family Organisations) and FLAIR (which disappointingly relates only to the Food-Linked Agro-Industrial Research programme) there is a scattering of stuff about health and safety and the information that ought to be printed on various kinds of labels. It hardly seems enough to cover the needs, rights, worries and aspirations of what is supposed to be the world's second most acquisitive society.
There may, however, be a deeper problem lurking here. It should be easy enough, at least on paper, to harmonise minimum standards for, say, quality of ingredients or the extent of a purchaser's legal protection against faulty manufacture. But the challenge becomes much more difficult if the customers in the 12 EC countries have - as they do - very different ideas about what they want, and are prepared to pay for. And that is the situation with which the big marketing companies like Unilever or Nestle are also desperately wrestling with as they try to pin down that elusive will-o'-the-wisp, the "typical" Euro-consumer.
A great deal of money is now riding on the search. One or two companies, most notably Procter and Gamble, have stolen a long march on their competitors by concentrating almost entirely on products that can be sold, with the same formulation, the same packaging, the same name and (language apart) the same advertising campaigns all the way from Inverness and Jutland to the southern tip of Calabria. When this works, it undoubtedly cuts costs, economises effort, and offers enviable benefits of scale. But it is not an easy trick to pull off. Many other firms, and indeed whole industries, which would love to find ways of achieving a similar success, are still desperately struggling, and in some cases have fallen flat on their faces.
The brutal fact, here as in many other aspects of human activity, is that it is a lot easier to start with a clean slate or a greenfield site, than to attempt to modify or build on earlier triumphs. Once housewives have been (expensively) convinced that the best fabric softener has a creamy texture, smells like lemon thyme and always comes in an orange bottle, it is a bold account executive who tries to convert them to the view that they switch to something that looks like spring water, conjures up visions of rose petals, and is available only in a white cardboard box.
That is roughly the challenge Lever Europe has been set. Unilever, its demanding parent, has always been big in fabric softeners, but in the past these have always been carefully differentiated between markets, so that the washing machines of Spain have been habituated to something called Mimosin, which is cheap and effective but not particularly environment-friendly, whereas Germany is used to a completely different (and considerably more costly) liquid which is promoted as biodegradeably kind to lakes, trees and wild life in general. Now the Lever team have been instructed to follow the P and G line, and substitute something that is universally acceptable. But resistance is horrendous, not least from the local managers who see hard-won market share going out with the newly-fashionable Euro-tide - and the battle between profitable uniformity and messy but popular diversity remains in distinctly uneasy balance.
The advertising industry is stretched on a similar rack. The agencies all know that big new launches, with their mega-budgets, are now overwhelmingly pitched to the pan-European end of the spectrum. But they uneasily recognise, at the same time, that 99% of all brands are still national, if not purely local in their appeal, and that there is a danger in forgetting this even when you are trying to sell one of the global blockbuster products, such as Armani. Nothing repels people more than a commercial which has obviously been dubbed from American - or English - English into Greek or Schweizer-Deutsch. And once the script has been rewritten to accommodate local actors and actresses, there is a strong temptation to go further and incorporate also a few local prejudices and quirks, to a point where the whole idea of a "universal" campaign is in danger of evaporating.
For the moment, perhaps, it would be better to treat the "European consumer" as a desirable but almost unattainable ideal, while actually concentrating on selling to, and legislating for, a dizzyingly varied crowd of rich Germans, cynical French, excitable Italians, sceptical Britons, and value-for-money conscious Spaniards, Greeks and Portuguese. Harmony is an admirable long-term objective, but practical people would probably be well-advised not to hold their breath while waiting.