Little men who signal success

If you are one of those uncreative types who believes pedestrian traffic lights offer little potential as a niche lifestyle brand, then a trip to Berlin to meet Markus Heckhausen would do you good.

In most towns and cities around the world the little red and green men who commonly stand alert or appear to walk purposefully across the street remain just that – illuminated traffic symbols that improve pedestrian safety.

Yet in Berlin those little men – smartly dressed in hats and somewhat chubbier than their international brothers – have stepped down from their traffic lights and climbed onto T-shirts, shoulder bags, footballs, keyrings and corkscrews, providing the kick behind an increasingly popular range of fashion accessories.

Mr Heckhausen, a 45-year-old German industrial designer, is the softly-spoken entrepreneur who over the past ten years has coaxed the “Ampelmann”, or pedestrian traffic-light man, into his overtime role, setting up a successful family-run business in the process.

What started as a showroom in Mr Heckhausen’s small flat in east Berlin has turned into a chain of Berlin shops, an international mail order service and a big promotional drive in Japan – a country whose tourists often fall in love with the friendly little men during visits to Berlin.

His privately owned company, Ampelmann GmbH, remains small – turnover of €2.4m ($3.06m) in 2005 is expected to rise to €3m this year – but that suits Mr Heckhausen, who has seen his brand, which already boasts about 300 product lines, metamorphose several times in recent years.

“I’ve learnt the need to have patience, not to rush things,” he says over lunch near his office, nestled between designer shops and restaurants in a trendy quarter of east Berlin.

That ability to resist the temptation to expand as quickly as possible derives from the trust he has in his marketing icon – and from his own skill in exploiting the unusual mix of factors that have fuelled hissuccess.

These range from his innovative youth-oriented product designs, to his knack of linking his Ampelmann symbol – originally the pedestrian traffic light in former communist East Germany – with the emotional highs and lows of reunification felt by Germans, especially easterners, since the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.

Mr Heckhausen, who was born in Stuttgart and studied design in nearby Pforzheim, first saw an Ampelmann on a trip in 1985 through the Iron Curtain into east Berlin. “They were eye-catching and friendlier,” he says, less drab than the stick-men common in West Germany and elsewhere.

He spreads his arms, imitating the red “don’t walk” symbol. “This is also a much clearer ‘stop’ symbol, especially for kids,” he exclaims.

He came across the figures again in 1996, having moved to Berlin and while searching for design ideas. The symbols were still in traffic lights in the newly united city’s eastern half, but were in danger of being phased out, as part of Germany’s frenzy in the 1990s to remove east-west differences – with the eastern attributes almost always on the losing side.

Unusually for a west German, he found this problematic. “I thought this was a shame, to get rid of what was clearly a better design, just because it was eastern.” He poured his frustrations into his first Ampelmann design, a wall lamp that used original traffic-light glass plates.

The product was a hit, partly as it gave a positive expression to growing annoyance among easterners with the poor treatment they felt they were getting under unification.

When a light-hearted “save the Ampelmann” campaign also drew media coverage Mr Heckhausen knew he had a marketable product on his hands. “I saw we had the making of a cultural icon,” he says. An illustrated book followed, along with the first products that detached the Ampelmann from its traffic-light setting.

These were essentially souvenirs, however, and Mr Heckhausen soon realised that for them to become a longer-term project, he would have to “work more intensively with the figures, to turn them into a brand in themselves”, at a distance from the historical memories they evoke.

More product designers were employed to attach the symbol to youth fashion trends. The opening of his first shop, in east Berlin, in 2001 was a turning point, as the racks of T-shirts and other accessories had a stronger visual impact than the previous catalogues. “Customers could see the Ampelmann in his own world,” he says.

Even though his company does not make traffic lights, the decision by Berlin city council last year to save the Ampelmann – the figures are set to appear in traffic lights across the city – gave a fillip to Mr Heckhausen’s marketing. The little men have now evolved into a something approaching a symbol for Berlin’s sparky new image.

Yet the company is still evolving and challenges remain. Most immediately, it must be on the lookout for copycat companies that use the Ampelmann image without permission. “This happens at least once a month, especially with the T-shirts,” he says.

The image can be used under licence – drug companies sometimes use the “walker” to represent healthy living – while non-profit groups can use it for nothing. Requests from political parties have been turned down – “we can’t put ourselves in one political corner,” says Mr Heckhausen.

He has had to fight repeated battles over copyright, and in June won a long-running legal contest over rights to use the image on stationery and sports goods. The dispute was with an eastern German company, which argued in part that Mr Heckhausen, as a west German, was exploiting an eastern product. Mr Heckhausen rejects this east-west dichotomy, describing his company as an “east-west bridge with an international staff”.

He has no intention of ignoring the east, however. He has a contract with the retired east German traffic psychologist who in 1961 designed the first Ampelmann, and “over half” the product lines are manufactured in eastern Germany, he says.

The company’s own growing pains are another challenge. It now has 35 staff, and although his long-term girlfriend is a co-director, it has lost some of the informal intimacy of the early days when his friends and two brothers were involved. In this context, he reserves this strongest language for Germany’s labour laws, which he says are too rigid for such a small company. “So much paperwork, so much hassle. I get really annoyed,” he says.

Yet he is determined not to let such problems dampen his design and marketing enthusiasm.

“No, it doesn’t get boring, thinking about the Ampelmann all day. To really develop a brand is a once-in-a-lifetime chance,” he says, before listing his most far-fetched ideas, such as an Ampelmann hotel.

At least for this entrepreneur, business success does indeed come from being constantly creative – even when you just cross the street.

Get good advice and be lucky

Markus Heckhausen offers five tips for budding entrepreneurs:

■ If you have a good idea, follow it through. “You need to have the feeling that the idea is right, and if so, don’t give up if things don’t work out immediately.”

■ Be willing to make sacrifices. “I channelled sales revenues from one product into the design and marketing of the next. At times it was rather hand-to-mouth. I didn’t have money for luxuries like a big car.”

■ Don’t grow too quickly. “It was difficult, as a designer, to resist the temptation to try to put all my ideas into practice immediately, but that would have been wrong. Concentrate on a few things, build a solid approach.”

■ Get good legal and tax advice. “I could hardly afford this at the beginning, but the investment was worth it, especially given the copyright problems we have had.”

■ Get lucky. “That’s a commodity few business people can do without – that things come together in the right way at the right time.”

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