This morning, I woke up in the heart of Sternschanze, Hamburg. Sternschanze is more out less the epicentre of alternative and counterculture living in Hamburg, already a thoroughly liberal metropolis. But it’s not really just what it used to be.

When walking the streets to find some breakfast, some thoughts re branding dawned on me: first, Sternschanze today is not merely the alternative hot spot of town, but has grown up to attract both tourism and one of the best self-curated collection of small shops and restaurants you might think of. I’d be thoroughly surprised if you’d move there and not find 90% of what you need to shop for in this little neighbourhood. Some might call that selling out, I think it’s a great way of maturing for such an autonomous little piece of a city, especially because it avoided attracting large and rather soulless retail chains. It’s all there and it’s sold by local shops. Bravo.

Second, by following the alternative mantra of, kindly put, being sceptic about anything commercial, branding might be the last topic that comes to mind when thinking ‘Schanze. However, by adhering to this sceptical mantra, the Sternschanze neighbourhood feels like the most branded experience you might have in any town. Even though there is no style guide and no corporate guideline, the communicative system appears thoroughly robust. That robust, in fact, that it tolerates the odd international corporate brand and integrates it into the mix. At ‘Schanze, ‘Schanze is the star and everybody knows. There’s no need for guidelines if everyone gets what this place is about.

Third, taking observations a bit more abstract, ‘Schanze branding is crafty and gritty and beautifully detailed. In short, it is the a-word. Not because anyone tried to give you the impression of authenticity, but because it just simply is. Marketing people seem to have forgotten that authenticity is nothing you can create in a world as thankfully critical and sadly cynical as this. If you got together the ten best visual communication specialists, they would not be able to capture and recreate this. They’d lack plaster glue, grime, dust, dirt, posters (so many posters), and spray can paint – and, of course, the key ingredient, credibility. Also: ‘Schanze’s visual experience is awesomely and seemingly endlessly detailed. Look at any 10 square centimetres and you will find more detail and content than any Apple campaign.

Let’s wrap this up. Maybe it just took me a moment longer than expected to find a breakfast place open before 9 (found one!), but it feels like no overstatement to conclude:

– For branding of today’s and future brands, think experience (d’oh, by now)

– For building experiences, don’t only consider process, but also spaces. Look beyond retail architecture and consider your favourite neighbourhood for intellectual inspiration on how that might work.

– For designing a specific experience, consider the full range from micro to macro experiences your target group loves about their preferred neighbourhoods.

Just my 2 cents over breakfast. What are yours? Off to start the day. Have a beautiful day!