Finding the GDR in the Supermarket

Back in the GDR, shopping for groceries must have been some sort of adventure trip for anyone coming from the West. Coca-Cola, Nutella, Mars, Nivea? None of those big Western brands were for sale in the former East Germany. Instead, the country created its own brands or continued already existing companies that were based on GDR territory. There were around 700 of them, some pretty much one-to-one copies of famous Western brands, others authentically GDR. A 2012 study found that about 100 brands managed to stay alive in the new Germany – and a lucky few even have a spot in the supermarket.

Nudossi: Nutella, but almost 3 times better

Its nickname “Ost-Nutella” (East-Nutella) actually doesn’t do Nudossi justice – because even though it came on the market four years after Nutella, it’s more than just a copy. In GDR times, the tubs of hazelnut spread were a rare commodity. Store staff would rather keep the Nudossi for themselves or friends and family, even though it was rather expensive. The sweet taste was something unique in a country that always had to be creative due to lack of resources. Still it seemed like everyone’s favourite breakfast spread wouldn’t survive the fall of the Wall, since in 1991 the factory closed its doors.

Some fortunate twists of fate, partly caused by a TV station, brought Nudossi back to life in 1999. The original factory in Radebeul (Saxony) went back into business and Nudossi conquered its place next to Nutella in the supermarkets. Ever since, it’s like a David versus Goliath, with at least one impressive win for Nudossi: a consumer’s test found in 2009 that the ingredients of the “Ost-Nutella” were of much higher quality than those in the original version.

A quick look at the label says it all: Nutella contains only 13% nuts, whereas Nudossi has 36%. Now a luxury, back in the GDR a necessity: nuts (coming directly from Georgia, part of the Soviet Union) were cheaper than artificial flavourings. And why change that golden recipe?

Florena: Nivea of the East

Ask anyone in the East of Germany to name a cosmetics brand and no less than 10% of all people will name Florena. Florena equalled cosmetics in the GDR, especially when it started producing a moisturizing cream in round, blue-white metal tubs (‘Universalcreme’) in the 1950s. Sounds familiar? It isn’t hard to see why Florena was called ‘Nivea des Ostens’ (Nivea of the East), referring to the popular cosmetics brand from West-Germany.

But don’t be fooled by appearances: Florena is much older than the GDR and the name was already patented in 1920, with the original firm dating back all the way to 1852.
Nivea, or rather its parent company Beiersdorf, wasn’t too happy with its little brother from the east and tried to force Florena into changing the look of its ‘Universalcreme’ – but in vain.

It turned out to be a perfect example of ‘If you can’t beat them, join them’, because from September 1989 Florena was actually manufacturing products for Nivea. This period of cooperation didn’t last long, since a little less than 2 months later the Wall fell and a year later the GDR ceased to be. But Nivea had found Florena and, to put it nicely, decided to adopt its little brother.

Florena is now 100% part of Beiersdorf, but production is still taking place in the East; in the small town of Waldheim (Saxony) 300 of the 9,239 inhabitants work for Florena. The ‘Universalcreme’ still exists – although it looks a little different from the Nivea one nowadays – but there’s also Q10 hand lotion, moisturizer with shea butter and cleansing milk with waterlily.

Rotkäppchen: the bubbly success story

Google ‘Rotkäppchen’ and your first hit won’t be the German version of the famous fairy-tale Little Red Riding Hood, but the website of ‘Rotkäppchen Sektkellerei’ (Rotkäppchen wine cellar). Rotkäppchen is a prime example of a – very – successful East German company, which even took over its West German competitor Mumm in 2002.

Together the ‘Sekt’ brands (the German equivalent to champagne) have a market share of 54.9% and Rotkäppchen covers 38.3% of the market (2015; Literally every supermarket sells Rotkäppchen, mostly the affordable varieties. There are also more exclusive bottles and several wines.

Central Berlin Rotkäppchen
Building on a strong heritage. Image courtesy of Daphne Damiaans

But things weren’t always looking sunny for Rotkäppchen. In 1990, during the final days of the GDR, it was still leading the market. Just a few years later it wasn’t clear whether the brand would survive the Reunification at all – people preferred to drink Sekt from the West. What followed was a management buy-out in 1993, after which the new owners tried to create a new position for Rotkäppchen in both the West and East of Germany. They succeeded, selling no less than 115 million (2014) bottles of Sekt per year.

Pure (n)ostalgia or something more?

Why did Rotkäppchen manage to become a German brand rather than a shadow of the past? Is it nostalgia? Not according to the management and spokespeople of Rotkäppchen. Quite the contrary, actually: they think it’s because they never tried to brand their sparkly wine as an ‘Ostprodukt’, a product of the East. They say Rotkäppchen has a long and strong history, dating all the way back to 1894 and not just to the GDR. True or not, fans of GDR products – be it out of (n)ostalgia or out of historical interest – can only hope that the other remaining eastern brands will be able to find their way towards a bright future. Go Nudossi!