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My first day as a Soviet refugee: 100 years of marketing in one minute

On our first morning in Austria we ventured out to a grocery store. 30 years later, I still recall the sensation of seeing all those colors
Soviet food packaging

I consider myself fortunate to have spent the first eight years of my life in the Soviet Union because it provides contrast. While I left when I was still a child, I do have some memories of the place. I remember being the “plus one” for an older family member in the cheese store line. An extra pair of hands meant we were allowed an additional ration. I remember my parents buying fabric and taking it to a private tailor so that they could sew a pair of pants for me, an action that was technically a crime since private commercial enterprises were forbidden. One had to be careful committing such acts since a patriotic or jealous neighbor could report these activities to the authorities.  Looking back, I also remember a distinct lack of color when comparing a Soviet urban environment to that of America’s.

Since the Soviet Union was a centrally planned economy where all commercial enterprises were government owned there was an aspect missing in that system that is so completely embedded in American life, marketing. Soviet product manufacturers and retail outlets did not compete in creating the best product, nor was the goal to sell the maximum amount of stuff. On the contrary, due to constant shortages and lack of incentives to sell, it was more desirable to have as few customers as possible. For the most part, Soviet products did not have brand logos, attractive packaging or colorful labels. For example, milk was sold in plain glass bottles that one had to return, meat and fruits were wrapped in paper if even that was available, and products that one might find in the middle aisles of a typical American supermarket were not known to exist.

There were a few things in my surrounding that had color and I was constantly drawn to them. My grandparents, who were WWII survivors, kept canned food such as sardines under their bed. Those products had some branding and I would often line them up on the floor to look over the labels and the colorful print. Stamps were colorful and many people collected those, so was sports memorabilia, and of course branding of the government itself, flags, posters, pocket calendars, and brochures. As a kid any of those things were exciting to look at.

As refugees leaving the Soviet Union for either America, Israel or whichever place was going to take us, the first stop was Austria where we stayed at a tiny hotel in a sleepy town not far from Vienna. When exiting the Soviet Union, government authorities confiscated valuables including jewelry and currency which is why most refugees who left Russia during the Soviet period started their new life in utter poverty.

Jewish relief agencies provided refugee families with a stipend that we used to buy food. And so, on our first morning in Austria we ventured out to buy groceries. The street to the food store featured a contraption we had never seen before, a gumball vending machine. Gum sold on the street; this was amazing! Spending precious Austrian currency was out of the question. However, being industrious ex-Soviet citizens that we were, we discovered that five kopek Soviet coins which we still had as loose change fit inside the machines. Finally, Soviet currency had found its buying power!

At last, we reached the store. I recently spoke to my parents and we agreed that we remember the place being a huge supermarket. In actuality, it was probably no bigger than an average sized 7-Eleven. As we entered the well-lit establishment, I still remember, 30 years later, the sensation of seeing all the amazing colors at the same time. For the first time in my life I was hit by the branding and packaging of the centuries-old marketing industry. And it was a powerful thing! Some of the things that stood out were individual packaging of yogurts, soda, juices, and candy. Many of the packages had characters on them. I recognized Donald Duck on a juice box, one of the few American characters that were allowed inside the Soviet Union. Did the store owner know that if I had possessed this juice box back in my home city of Odessa, I would be the envy of the entire neighborhood? It wasn’t just the shape and the characters. The products had bright colors, artistic fonts, and pictures of what could be found inside. The sensation that I got when looking at all of this was that the food inside the packaging was going to be the most amazing tasting food anywhere!

I begged for the juice boxes with Donald Duck and the individually wrapped straws. What an amazing feat of engineering this was! Surely more amazing than Soviet ballistic missiles, which only had a red star painted on them, they did not even think to paint a happy Russian bear. Ahh if only they had the marketing genius of the juice box people! But it was not to be. Our meager finances would not allow for the juice boxes when a large plastic bottle of soda was clearly the more economically sensible purchase. Besides, the bottle had multiple purposes. After we finished the soda, the bottom was cut out to make an ashtray, and the top part with the cap screwed back on would be cut into a fine cup. In a few days, all the refugees in our hotel had cups made from the tops of soda bottles.

This is the power of marketing and branding. Like many things, you only really notice it if you never had it before, or if you’ve lost it. Almost two decades after we left, I went back to my hometown in Ukraine to see how it changed. It had completely transformed. Streets were covered with advertisements and billboards. Every kiosk and store was plastered with branding for the same international products you see everywhere else. It was indistinguishable from New York City. And the stores had everything, even juice boxes with individual straws. The marketing machine had taken over the whole world.

About the Author
Gennady Favel is the CMO and co-founder at the Jewish Parent Academy, an organization engaged in community building through education for Russian-speaking parents. He also helps Jewish organizations create more meaningful engagement with their target audience.
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