Will Starbucks succeed in the Italian market, or will it blow as it did in Australia a decade ago? This question has been bandied about on financial columns and Italian bars alike for the past two years and we are not yet able to give a satisfactory answer to it. As it is, the American coffee franchise has recently opened its first outpost in Milan and it can be said to have started with a bang. The palm trees that were planted in Piazza Duomo as a publicity stunt have puzzlingly managed to enrage a vocal conservative minority, to the point that vandals actually set fire to three of them, thereby granting Starbucks a wider coverage than they could otherwise have hoped for. The attack also granted Starbucks widespread solidarity by the liberal public, who was already positively biased towards the brand due to their recent pledge to hire refugees in their American stores. What can we gain from the Starbucks case history? That you need to have your promotional material set fire to, in order to successfully market your brand in Italy? Not quite, but there are cultural and economic specifics that you should be aware of.
How to market your brand in Italy
What Domino’s did wrong
When Domino’s opened their first outlet in Italy in 2015, there was widespread skepticism as to how they were ever going to be able to “sell pizza to the Italians”. Simply put, they were not. To this day, there are multiple Domino’s restaurants in Milan, but that most definitely does not mean that the American brand has managed to make its dough successful on the Italian market. When a popular foreign brand only manages to set up stores in Milan, Rome and, at a pinch, Venice, it usually means that it is mostly relying on the steady influx of tourists to keep an evidently minor branch of their business going. Domino’s clientele is mostly international, which is more than enough to keep a restaurant in business in a city like Milan, but it would never allow it to prosper in the rest of the Country. If you are counting on American tourists desperately looking for a familiar name in a sea of foreign-sounding ones, you are not going to be successful in the average Italian neighbourhood and the resources you are investing trying to market your brand in Italy, should be probably allocated elsewhere. What Domino’s failed to take into account is, quite simply, that Italians are extremely protective of their culinary traditions and particular about products that represent their national identity abroad. No self-respecting Italian will ever be seen in public eating American pizza (whether they actually like it or not), quite the opposite: they will probably challenge each other to find the most obscure, traditional family restaurant, possibly one using recipes and techniques that precede the industrial era. If you are planning to market your brand in Italy by teaching Italians how to make pizza, you are in for a crushing disappointment.
What Mc Donald’s did right
Mc Donald’s started opening shops in Italy in the mid-eighties – starting with a region in which the Italian national identity is arguably weaker than elsewhere – and its expansion was almost universally met with vibrant protests by Italian restaurateurs and citizens, maintaining that fast food culture was the arch-enemy of Italian culture as a whole. To this day, the burger giant has not been successful everywhere in the Country, but its logo is definitely a familiar sight in every single Italian region and its clientele is mostly Italian. Why is the quintessentially American multinational giant not perceived as an invader on Italian soil? The brand’s financial power and omnipresence in tv shows and feature films was certainly a factor in its success, but it might not have been enough without a careful handling of cultural differences. First and foremost, Mc Donald’s signature dishes (burgers and chips) are not traditionally Italian and it is definitely more acceptable to buy what is perceived as “American food” from an American chain than it would be to buy pizza or pasta from them. There is no Italian tradition of burgers and chips, which means the general public is ready to accept that the Mc Donald’s way is probably the better one (which might explain why Italian burger chains were never as successful). On the other hand, Mc Donald’s has long since adopted a policy of cultural integration, offering nationally-themed burgers everywhere in the world. If your business is strictly connected with your identity, that might be the strong point you need to emphasise, in order to successfully market your brand in Italy.
How to successfully market your brand in Italy, if you are not Mc Donald’s
Do you need to be a multinational financial giant to have a chance at making it in the Italian market? No, you don’t, although it would certainly help your chances, but you do have to be aware of the current state of Country’s economy and of cultural differences. While Italian economy is still on an uphill slope, it has started growing after a prolonged recession, which means this is an ideal time to invest in the Country. Depending on your specific field of interest, it might be worth looking into individual regional or European incentives for specific industries. If your product of service is mostly online-based, you should be aware of the fact that online purchases in Italy are still comparatively lower than in the rest of Europe and in the United States. However, the popularity of online retailers has been spreading steadily over the past decade. This means that it would be advisable, if your business allows it, to have physical offices or stores or any kind of direct point of contact with the general public, while at the same time building your online customer base. If you are an online retailer, identifying as specific a niche as possible is a smart move, as it is going to secure a steadier share of the market than low-end products, where you would have to fight the competition of internationally established names. Whether your business is web-based or not, you should always be aware of local cultural differences, particularly if you are operating in a field that has a solid tradition in Italy, such as fashion, food or wine. Make sure you have trusted Italian staff and advisors to help you spot inconsistencies, weak spots or controversial points in your product, your communication and – particularly – your marketing strategy. Most of all, you should be aware of the fact that regional differences matter enormously in Italian culture, which means that what works in one region is not guaranteed to work in another.
Keep it personal
Personal relationships will always get you far, not so much because you will be operating in a close-circle or recommendation-based system, but because you will be associating with someone who has already gained trust and earned a reputation from your potential clients and partners. Finding the right distributor or retailer for your product or the right business partner might be the difference between making or breaking your chances to market you brand in Italy. If you are planning introductory meetings with potential partners, make sure to brush up on the local business etiquette, which might differ slightly from what you are used to, and always make sure you have someone to translate for you, if you are not fluent. While in most business environments English will be accepted as the universal lingua franca, there is always a possibility that senior institutional figures will not want or be able to communicate in English and you might miss out on key points in the conversation if you fail to come prepared. If you are planning on starting a business in Italy and staying long-term, definitely consider learning the language: it will open up a universe of new professional opportunities and fulfilling relationships for you.
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