The Berlin Wall fell during this month, 25 years ago. This infamous wall, a symbol of the Cold War, had stood stubbornly for nearly three decades. It had divided the city of Berlin into two, kept families and friends away from each other, cutting across streets, buildings and even graveyards. It was a grim wall of death; over 200 people had been killed while trying to cross over it. So when it was finally breached on November 9, 1989 by crowds of protestors swarming through, there were spontaneous eruptions of joy, not merely in Berlin, but across the world. People danced in circles, played loud music, stood jubilantly on top of the wall and chipped away at its cold stones. The collapse of the wall was the victory of freedom over imprisonment, of togetherness over isolation — emotions that are at the core of humankind.

Coincidentally, another famous metaphor for isolation and freedom also came together this month, around the same time as the 25th anniversary of the fall of the wall. My all-time favourite music group, Pink Floyd, released its latest album The Endless River , which is already topping sales charts everywhere. The cover photograph of this album shows a young man in an open shirt coasting towards freedom and the sun, across a sea of open clouds. Contrast this with Pink Floyd’s famous album, The Wall , which spoke in haunting psychedelic tones of personal isolation behind one’s own mental wall. Whether it be the Berlin Wall or our own personal walls, human beings resent being locked in or divided from each other, and they cherish freedom and belongingness over almost everything else.

Marketers and the Berlin Wall Many marketers have understood and leveraged this fundamental human impulse for freedom from bondage, for shattering walls that divide and getting back together. In pursuing this route, some brands have literally celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall, as it has come to be recognised as a modern symbol of dividing people, and evokes the longing for freedom so well. Others have chosen alternative routes to break down these walls.

A wonderful and topical illustration of a marketing campaign that has chosen to build itself around the fall of the Berlin wall is a recent advertisement by AirBnB. This is the famous internet site that provides people the opportunity to rent out their homes and apartments to others. The new 75-second AirBnB advertisement, titled Wall and Chain , commemorates the 25th anniversary of the breaking down of the Berlin Wall. It is an animated film, and one of the most touching pieces of communication that I have seen for a long time.

Based on a true story, this advertisement tells the tale of two former guards of the Berlin Wall, now reunited by a chance encounter at an AirBnB house. An old man, Jorg, who had served as a guard on the Western side of the wall, cannot put that unsettling experience out of his mind even after several years of retirement. His daughter Katherine takes him, during 2012, on a journey to visit his old place in Berlin. They book a home to stay in during this visit, through AirBnB. Their host at this home, Kai, turns out to be a former guard on the Eastern side of the wall. The film reveals a touching encounter between Jorg and Kai, and how this meeting finally puts to rest, in Jorg’s mind, the ghosts of the wall. It strikes an immediate emotional chord, even as it conveys a deep message about the psychological walls that people carry with them. It tells us how travel, as well as opening up one’s mind and home (preferably through AirBnB, of course) can break down many of these walls.

A surprising brand ambassador Another well-known marketer who has leveraged the Berlin wall cleverly is luxury brand Louis Vuitton. In 2009, this French fashion house, known for its gorgeous bags and glamorous models, made a surprising choice of brand ambassador – the former Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev. An advertising campaign showed Gorbachev driving past the Berlin Wall, several years after its fall. The wall appeared in the advertisement painted with the graffiti of liberation, and next to Gorbachev sat his Louis Vuitton travel bag. The former President had apparently said that he wanted to be pictured by the side of the Berlin Wall because one of the proudest moments of his life was when the wall came down. The marketing metaphor here was clear — Louis Vuitton bags stand for the glorious freedom of all senses that accompanies luxurious travel, and what better symbol of freedom than the man who played such a key role in the fall of the infamous wall?

Football across the border Around the same time as Louis Vuitton’s advertisement featuring Gorbachev by the wall, a famous Indian brand had launched its own marketing campaign closer home, promoting the breaking down of walls. This was telecom major Airtel, and the thematic campaign depicted how barriers can break down when people freely talk and connect with each other. A memorable film, which I recall vividly to this day, showed a small boy eating at his home located on the border between two countries, when a football suddenly lands up on his balcony. He steps out to find a boy on the other side of the border, asking him to pass the ball back. He hesitates for a while to talk to this person, who is clearly in the enemy camp. But soon enough, the innocent human desire for connecting and playing with the other boy wins. He crosses the border, and a joyous game of football begins, breaking all the barriers created by the barbed wire border. The reference to India and Pakistan is unstated but clear. Once again, a powerful message about the innate human desire to break down every wall. I am told the campaign performed very well for Airtel, significantly raising positive perceptions about the brand.

Another interesting take on breaking down walls came from the Italian clothing brand Benetton, in its marketing campaign titled Unhate . This campaign featured global leaders in passionate lip lock kisses with their biggest enemies or adversaries. One advertisement showed US President Barack Obama kissing the Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Another depicted the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas embracing the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. One image in this campaign, that of the Pope kissing an Imam, was released and quickly withdrawn after being condemned by the Vatican. The advertisements made their point very quickly, albeit somewhat controversially — that walls can be broken if hatred is cast aside, and replaced with the equivalent of a simple powerful kiss. The campaign went on to win the prestigious Press Grand Prix at the Cannes Advertisement Festival. It also reinforced brand Benetton’s image of being at the cutting edge of liberal values and freedom.

These examples show us that marketers can, with some imagination and effort, break down every wall that constrains the human mind or spirit. If brands do so in a credible manner, they can connect with their consumers very positively, emotively and powerfully — because people typically want to break through every wall that they face in their lives. Freedom from these walls is a state of mind that all of us aspire to, and it is interesting to note that different product categories offer us the possibility of such freedom through the specific functional benefits they offer. For instance, cars give people the freedom to travel, holiday resorts give us freedom from the routine of our lives, mobile telephones give us freedom from isolation, washing machines give us freedom from household chores, condoms give us the freedom to engage in safe sex. Brands can then layer onto these functional benefits of freedom the emotive benefits of breaking one or more walls.

Speaking on the recent anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Pope Francis said: “Where there is a wall, there is a closing of hearts. We need bridges, not walls.” Marketers can help demolish some of these walls and build a few of these bridges, whilst simultaneously using this wonderful metaphor to promote the functional and emotive benefits offered by their products and services in a constructive and engaging manner.

Harish Bhat is the author of Tata Log: Eight modern stories from a timeless Institution. These are his personal views. He can be reached at bhatharish@hotmail.com

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