At the heart of Europe: The promotional products industry in Belgium has many special features to offer – above all the bilingualism of the country – and which was faced with huge challenges after the recent terrorist attacks in Brussels.


“We have been conquered by everyone, we speak neither pure French nor Dutch, we are nothing,” the Belgian singer, Jacques Brel, said in an interview in the 1970s. Brel, who was of Flemish descent, but who grew up in French-speaking Brussels, was able to move his audience to tears with his affection ode about his Belgian home country, Le plat pays, and at the same time received boos from the crowd for songs such as Les Flamandes, which caricatured his fellow countrymen in a cutting way. All his life, the singer, who later took on the French nationality, had a lovehate relationship to his country of birth. “A really small country just next to France – like, a ridiculous country,” as the Belgian singer Stromae, who is hailed as the “new Brel“, recently put it at a concert in New York. Two similar opinions that don’t necessarily demonstrate a strong sense of identity. Indeed, what is “typically Belgian” is far less tangible than in the case of other nationalities. What is that country that lies between France and the Netherlands like, where two languages (actually three – French, Dutch and German) are spoken and which is shaped by many different cultures? First and foremost, it is a versatile country with a rich history and culture, an international country, the domicile of the NATO and the EU, perhaps even the “most European country” in Europe. Furthermore, a country with a lively economy in general and a lively promotional products industry in particular. To come to the point straight away: As in so many European countries, there are no reliable figures on the volume of the Belgian market for haptic advertising (see here also the interview with Axel Debruyne, the Chairman of the Belgian promotional products association, BAPP). The volume of the Belgian advertising market overall can be taken as a rough indication: In 2015, according to the statistics, Belgian companies invested around 3.8 billion Euros in advertising. In comparison: Over the same period, around 19 bil. was invested in advertising campaigns in Germany and 4.8 bil. Euros in the Netherlands.. Although Belgium has a varied economic landscape, is the domicile of two of the most important harbours in Europe, Antwerp and Zeebrugge, as well as a whole row of major industrial companies, such as AnheuserBusch Inbev, the largest brewery group in the world, the Belgian advertising market – and with it also the market for haptic advertising – is really small. The industry’s landscape is correspondingly small.


Belgium has two of the most important harbours in Europe: Zeebrugge and Antwerp (photo).

Although some of the biggest European distributors are located in Belgium, the “midfield” is on the other hand very sparse, followed by many very small commercial agencies. “Belgium is a country with small and medium-sized companies,” commented Guy Desseaux, CEO of the sweets specialist, BelgoSweet. “That has advantages in terms of communications, because many customer contacts are non-bureaucratic. On the other hand, it has an impact on the order volumes – the average order quantities in Belgium are low.“ Furthermore, the competition is tough, so one has to specialise in order to avoid interchangeability. According to a survey that the Dutch market research company, OneQuestion, carried out among 220 Belgian industry users at the end of 2014, innovativeness is the top priority for many promoting companies in Belgium – the price argument comes second on the list. Desseaux: “We have to adapt, we have to be specialists and we must go out of Belgium.” Indeed, Belgian suppliers focus strongly on exports – export shares of over 80% are commonplace. “Our export share is around 90% – Belgium is such a small country that we are left no other choice because our sales strategy incorporates exclusively the promotional products trade,” confirmed Erich Cormann, managing partner of the foam producer, B.W.S. “This applies for all Belgian suppliers. We receive subsidies from the Walloon government, for example to support trade fair participations, which are very helpful for supporting the export business.“ Close business ties exist to the partner states of the Benelux region, but many Belgian suppliers are also well-established in France, Germany and beyond.


What helps here, are not only competitive products, but also a high competence in languages. Multilingualism is obligatory for Belgian companies, is part of everyday life in Belgium. “Everyone speaks the two national languages or can at least communicate in them,” said Desseaux. Bilingual websites and communication material are also standard for most companies. In some cases the bilingualism implies financial investments – for example when marketing measures are necessary or legal texts have to be translated – the daily business is however to the largest extent uncomplicated, as Cormann reported. “In the past, for example, invoices had to be printed in Dutch and French, that is no longer customary today. In normal everyday business life, one knows one’s contacts and in which language one has to address them.” Other factors that result from the division of the country – for instance the gaps between Flanders and Wallonia – have a greater influence on the everyday business routine. Because with the exception of the French-speaking, but economically strong region of Brussels, the French part of Belgium is weaker in terms of its economy. “75% of the turnover we make in Belgium, is generated in the North,” reported Desseaux. “We also have several good customers in the Brussels region, where many international companies are based. The South is structurally weaker, but in some cases the situation is improving there too – for example in the Liège region.“ Cormann confirmed: “The Flanders region is more dynamic overall. The Flanders and Brussels regions account for 85% of our business share and the Walloon region for 15%. That says a lot.”

epp111_bel_4Whether Belgian blonde, red or brown, whether fruit beer or ale, devil’s or Trappist beer: There are not only plenty of sorts of Belgian beer, it is also extremely tasty. The reason: The majority of Belgian beers are only sold in bottles, since they mature in some cases over the course of two to three years they gain flavour nuances in the process. Yet beware: Belgian beer is stronger than one might think at the first taste. Four times as strong, for example some beers have an alcohol content of 13% – more than some white wines. Incidentally, Belgium has a social democrat, who was not exactly known for his hard-drinking, to thank for its diversified beer culture: As Minister of Justice of his country, Émile Vandervelde passed a law in 1919, which prohibited the sale of spirits in bars, in order to prevent “the degeneration of the working class through the consumption of alcohol”. Precisely as a result of this decree he generated a demand for beer with a higher alcohol level. Today, Belgium is not only where the headquarters of the biggest brewery group in the world, Anheuser-Busch InBev (among others Beck’s, Budweiser, Corona, Leffe), is located, but overall around 140 further breweries that produce more than 1,000 beer sorts in total and which make a turnover of well over 2 billion Euros annually. As such the beer brewers are one of the country’s most significant branches of industry and one of the most important buyers of promotional products.
One of the outstanding characteristics of Belgium is its multilinguism. There are three national languages: In addition to French, which is the main language in the Walloon region and Dutch which is spoken in Flanders, German is also considered to be a national language, since it is spoken by a small minority in the East of the country. Things start getting complicated in the region around Brussels, where Dutch and French officially enjoy the same standing, however de facto one of the two language groups often feels that they are at a disadvantage. This leads to excesses like in the Metro in Brussels, where the announcements are made alternately in the two languages so that nobody feels like they are being discriminated against. A specific quota was laid down for the music played in the underground in 2011, after complaints had been received that not enough Dutch or French songs were played. Numerous words that only exist in Belgium prove that the national languages certainly don’t exist isolated from each other, but that they are indeed often mixed: For example, when the Walloons mean the “Lord Mayor”, they don’t say “maire” like their French counterparts, but instead “Burgemeestre” – which clearly evolves from the Flemish word. Vice versa the Flemish don’t refer to a lorry as a “vrachtwagen” – the Dutch word – but use the French word “camion” instead. Please find below a vocabulary list, which serves as an introduction to bilingual Belgian business – in order to avoid possible sensitiveness, it is strictly printed in alphabetical order.
epp111_bel_5Greasy, hot, delicious: Belgium is the absolute Mecca for chips fans. Because here the chipped potatoes are fried twice – normally in beef fat – which makes them particularly crispy on the outside and particularly soft on the inside. And this is where the friets (in Dutch) or frites (in French) were actually invented. At least according to the legend, they were already eaten on the Maas as a replacement for fried fish as early as 1650. Today, according to the official estimates, there are about 5,000 chip shops throughout Belgium, which 96% of the approx. 11 mil. Belgians visit at least once a year. Almost half of the population even pay a weekly visit to the “Fritkot” and enjoy up to 20 different sauces with the national dish – from Joppie sauce, to Sauce Andalouse, through to Tartar sauce. The combination between chips and mussels is also especially popular. When a Swedish furniture chain in Gent offered “moules and frites” for just five Euros, it caused kilometre-long traffic jams. 
eppi111_belgienreportBelgium is not only the homeland of famous painters from Peter Paul Rubens to René Magritte, but also of numerous creative comic illustrators: In the city centre of Brussels around 50 murals present famous Belgian figures like The Adventures of Tintin, Lucky Luke, Gaston, the Marsupilami and of course, the Smurfs. In addition to Detective Tim and his loyal companions, Snowy, Captain Haddock and Professor Calculus, who were brought to life by the illustrator Hergé, the small, blue forest inhabitants created by Peyo are among the country’s most well-known comic export bestsellers. Translations into dozens of languages, numerous film and TV adaptions as well as a wide selection of classic and exotic merchandising items have been drawing attention to the comic heroes beyond the Belgian borders since the 1960s. Anyone, who would like to admire the entire collection of sketching talent and the inventiveness of Belgian comic artists from Hergé with his unmistakable “ligne claire”, to Morris, through to Peyo, can view the complete works in the Comic Museum in Brussels and subsequently treat himself to the odd volume of comics or fan items in the “Slumberland“ shop.

Political fragmentation

The times when there were violent or even bloody conflicts, are over thank goodness – the separatism that flares up again and again has not succeeded in gaining the upper hand yet. Brel, who was against nationalism also took a clear stance on this theme: “Vive les Belgians, merde pour les flamingants (roughly: Long live the Belgians, down with the Flemish nationalists),“ is an excerpt from the song La la la. In order to prevent the state from falling apart and to maintain the balance between the language groups, on a political level Belgium has relied on a culture of compromise and negotiating for over a century already. There is not one national party – politics, the government and administration follow a decentralised, regional principle. This is on the one hand a textbook example for democratic organisation, but nevertheless leads to crises and conflicts on the other hand. For instance, after the new elections in 2010 that had been pulled forward, it took an incredible 541 days until a new state government was formed. In December 2015, the Belgian delegation travelled to the climate summit in Paris without a set objective: The Flemish and the Walloons hadn’t been able to come to an agreement on the distribution of the pollution rights and the share of renewable energy on time – as a result some environmental associations awarded Belgium the title “Fossil of the Day“.

The most recent example for the consequences of the lacking cooperation between the three regions of Brussels is the Brussels “tunnel crisis“: In January 2016, the important Stéphanie tunnel in the capital city had to be blocked off all of a sudden due to its state of disrepair. For the metropolis that finds itself in an almost permanent state of traffic chaos and which is one of the most congested traffic regions of Europe, a logistical catastrophe. The reason: Conflicts about the financing of the restructuring and as a result of the long-standing postponement of urgent necessary roadwork. In Brussels where the Flemish and Walloon governments are forced to cooperate, the structural problems become particularly evident: The responsibility is divided up instead of dealing with the tasks jointly. “With 1.14 million inhabitants, the region around the capital city, Brussels, has 19 Lord Mayors – this alone underlines the absurd and often paralysing situation,” explained Cormann.


Several commentators maintained that precisely this was responsible for the terrible terrorist attacks that rocked the Belgian capital city on March 22, 2016. This is extremely doubtful, however it is undeniable that the terrorist attacks hit the country to the very core and the people and companies are not only having to battle with their fear that further terror acts might follow, but also with the economic consequences of the attacks. The Belgian government had already declared a state of emergency a reaction to the series of attacks in Paris in November 2015, the Federation of Belgian Enterprises (FEB) estimates the damage to the local economy arising from this to be around 350 mil. Euros. According to the European Economic Forecast, the European Commission is reckoning on a 0.2% decline in the growth of the Belgian economy down to 1.2% for 2016 – among other things as a direct result of the terror. “The tourism sector in Brussels is suffering strongly from the effects of the attacks. And as if that wasn’t enough, the unions take advantage of every occasion to strike,” noted Cormann. Belgium, it seems, urgently needs some good news again.

Good news  

Red Devils: The Belgian national team is considered to be the insider tip for the European Championships.

Red Devils: The Belgian national team is considered to be the insider tip for the European Championships.

Such news is on its way, i.e. from the web: After Donald Trump had described the city of Brussels as a “hellhole” in January 2016, hundreds of users posted photos of idyllic places, culinary delights and spectacular buildings in the capital city subtitled with amusing, in some cases cutting comments on Twitter under the hashtag #hellhole. For example @laurenDTV shared the photo of a huge waffle with chocolate sauce together with the message “Greetings from hell. We have lots of waffles. Hell is nice,” @shamrockraver posted a picturesque city panorama together with the comment: “Yeah, guess any place with history before 1492 looks like a #hellhole.” The users were also active after the terror attacks in March, conveying a sense of optimism. And optimism, as Van Bavel noted, is on its way: “It looks like Belgium is showing signs of growth again. The bombings in Brussels delayed the recovery that some of other European countries are already experiencing. However, we are confident that growth is around the corner, which will be good for Belgium and of course for our industry.”

The Belgian national football squad also might bring good news – not least for the promotional products industry – because the “Red Devils” are considered to be the secret favourites for the coming European Championships. “The Belgian flag is only flown high when it comes down to football,” Cormann said. The enthusiasm for football of many Belgians, but also the commitment with which they defend their country against intolerance and the accusation of negligence, proves that the Belgian identity does certainly exist. Belgium is open, tolerant and cosmopolitan, a state that has succeeded in uniting two ethnic groups. Last, but not least, with its association BAPP (the Belgian Association of Promotional Products), the Belgian industry proves that cooperations don’t always go wrong, but indeed that they can work. The Flemish and the Walloons are working together on shaping the Belgian and European industry and are jointly discussing projects, which can bring haptic advertising forward. A first-hand assessment of the Belgian market will follow in the second part of the portrait on Belgium in the coming issue of eppi magazine – here several significant promotional products agencies will voice their opinions. Prior to that, the following pages serve to give an initial overview of Belgium’s diversified promotional products scene.

// Till Barth

photos: Thomas Gebhard, © WA Media; Anheuser-Busch InBev; Shutterstock (9)

Read more: The Belgian promotional products market, Part II: Belgian distibutors

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