A lighthearted look at Italy’s ‘Alternative’ credentials, and what brands can learn from them
On paper, it doesn’t add up to much. It’s only just over 150 years old; its national language is spoken by fewer than 65 million people worldwide; in military terms it ranks behind Egypt and Turkey1. Its political system is notoriously unstable; this month, the country goes to the polls to elect what will be its 64th Government since 1945! In pure economic terms, it shouldn’t be admitted into the G7 club of leading nations. But not only is Italy a full member, last year, it held presidency of the same, hosting a memorable summit in Taormina, Sicily2 (remember, the one where all the world leaders went for a ‘passeggiata’ except Donald Trump, who followed in a golf cart3).
G7 personifies Italy’s prowess on the global stage; it’s less to do with conventional power – military, economic, political etc. – and more about its ‘softer’ alternative. Italy has turned soft power into an art form.
Since Catherine di Medici taught France’s Henri II to use a knife and fork in 1533, Italians have been undisputed masters of refinement and culture, culminating in the Renaissance period where Paris did everything to replicate the Italian ‘good life’, from architecture to cuisine. This ‘soft’ dominance was reflected across the arts; for its initial 200 years, opera was only sung in Italian, irrespective of the nationality of the composer or audience; even today, musical terminology from ‘falsetto’ to ‘soprano’, is lifted direct from Italian.
Italy’s soft power prowess can be seen across a range of subjects. In terms of sports cars, for instance, Ferraris, Maseratis, and Lamborginis are considered the essence of ‘Italianism’ irrespective of the share ownership of their respective companies. And there are no equivalents in Europe; neither France, nor Spain, nor, even Germany, have produced a genuinely high-performance sports car brand to compare. The UK, one could argue, has produced Lotus, McClaren, and Aston Martin; but the first two are not produced on any commercial scale, and the latter is now owned by a Kuwaiti investment fund4. Once again, Italy continues to punch above its weight.
Another ‘anomaly’ can be seen in the highly competitive (and fickle) world of fashion; Milan maintains its position as the fourth leg of a global calendar, despite the fact that the city is dwarfed by New York, London, and even Paris in every other ‘conventional’ measure such as wealth, economic activity or influence. Italy also has a higher number of luxury brands per head of population than any other country in the world; according to a Deloitte report published last year, Italy accounts for a staggering 26 out of the world’s 100 most valuable luxury brands5.
The soft power masterclass continues when we consider Italy’s cultural assets. Italy, the 72nd largest country in the world in terms of square kilometres, actually possesses more L’UNESCO World Heritage Sites than any other country6!
In culinary terms, Italy’s pizza has become probably the most ubiquitous restaurant meal in history; I challenge you to find a city – no matter how remote – where you can’t purchase a pizza margherita!
This list goes on, from Christopher Columbus to Copernicus, from Leonardo Da Vinci to Michael Angelo, Italians have left their singular mark on the world; a mark which modern Italy is still exploiting.
So what can brands learn from Italy’s unconventional success? First, I think that not everything of value can be quantified in terms of sales, market share, acquisitions or revenue. Soft power is equally relevant in business; the way firms behave, the way they treat their staff and customers, the style and grace with which they operate. In Italians terms, such ‘gesti’ (gestures) are just as important as the price or the product itself.
Secondly, businesses should enjoy what they do. Italians certainly do. My wife is from Napoli and I’ve never met a single member of her family or social circle who does not simply adore the idea of being Italian.
This year, however, Italians can look forward to meagre economic growth of just 1.6%, compared to 1.7% last year. That’s not a growth rate many businesses could tolerate.
Combining the previous two points, the reality is that most Italians don’t really care. I said that this was a lighthearted look at Italy’s ‘alternative credentials’. Most Italians have many more pleasurable things to worry about!