Tuesday 19 June 2012

Designing Nations: Italy, France and Peru

This essay is the first part of three adaptations of Alexander Gallé's 'Lectures in Lima' series.


Designing Nations: Italy, France and Perú
by Alexander Gallé
20 June 2012

A culture of creation

I'm going to start this lecture with a picture of a motorbike race held by the Benelli family in 1930.  Tonino Benelli, the famous motorbike racer, is the man standing centre-right in the back of the picture. 

The Benelli family started in the motorbike sector about 100 years ago, in the town of Pesaro, Italy.  They were neighbours of ours when I was a kid and, aside from finding it interesting to see their family name on so many bikes in town, I always found their story quite inspiring…

In the beginning, Benelli was just a motorbike repair shop.  Teresa Benelli started it in 1911 when her husband died.  She had six sons, a small pension, and figured this was the best way to make sure they would all have a job.  Five of her sons started working in the shop, they all learned how to fix motorbikes and the eldest son, who studied engineering, learned how to build spare parts.  

The youngest son, Tonino, grew up in this environment and became a race driver.  He won a few prizes on motorbikes that were increasingly improved upon by his brothers, until one day, 10 years after the company had first started, it occurred to them that, since they knew how to build every part of the motorbike themselves, they might as well start building their own bikes, under their own name.   Tonino rode Benelli bikes and became a national hero, while t
he company went on to become one of Italy's classic 20th century brands. 

It's a story you see echoed throughout Italy, in nearly every sector of commerce.  The list is long, very long: Alfa Romeo, Ducati, Moto Guzzi, Malaguti, Piaggio, Aprilia, Lambretta, Ferrari, Fiat, Lamborghini, Lancia, Maserati, to name just a few in the motoring sector.  The list goes on: Gucci, Prada, Ferragamo, Fendi, Cerruti, Armani, Max Mara, Dolce & Gabbana, Zegna, Versace, Fiorucci, Benetton, Campari, Martini, Carpano, Lazzaroni, Aperol, Cinzano, Cynar, Fernet Branca, Luxardo, Ramazzotti, Italian wines from Chianti to Barolo, to Montepulciano, to Sangiovese, to Nero d'Avola, Italian cheeses from the world-famous Parmigiano Reggiano to the ubiquitous Mozzarella, Italian hams and cured meats from Bologna to Parma, Italian pasta in all shapes and sizes from Barilla, De Cecco or Giovanni Rana, Italian pizza, Italian pesto made with Italian olive oil, Italian balsamic vinegar from Modena, Italian gianduia from Torino, Italian panettone, Italian Nutella, Italian biscotti di mandorle with Italian espresso coffee by Illy or Lavazza…  Everywhere, a culture of families making something with love and dedication, and staking their own good name and reputation to the product they make.

A simple idea: love

Back in the '70s, Italy had just experienced a good decade of economic growth, much like Perú has today, but the image many Europeans had of Italians was pretty bad.  If you mentioned Italians to northern Europeans, chances were they didn't think of Michelangelo, Leonardo, Verdi or Fellini, but of pasta-eating, siesta-sleeping mamma's boys and bicycle thieves.

Aldo Moro (the Italian prime minister of the mid-70s) is not remembered for being a great visionary in terms of nation branding.  The problems that framed his time in public office were much darker than that, as Italy had a serious problem with terrorism at the time.  In fact, Moro himself was kidnapped - and later killed - by the Brigate Rosse, a moment of shock for the nation, and for the world…

And yet, it was under Aldo Moro's leadership that the Italian Ministry for Culture was established. Moro even gave up some of his own prime ministerial office's resources to meet the new ministry's needs.  Note that he called it 'Ministry FOR Culture' rather than 'Ministry OF Culture'. The difference marks the way he saw culture, not as something the State should own, but something the State should foster in order to create an inclusive society, wherein all citizens buy into the idea of the nation.

The rationale was as follows: Moro is said to have been a big fan of American movies, and he was aware that America projected - through the movies of James Dean and Marilyn Monroe, etc. - an image of freedom and liberty which Italians bought into when they bought a pair of Levi's denims or a packet of Marlboro cigarettes.  

Out of this awareness grew the idea of making people – Italians as well as foreigners - fall in love with Italy, which provided the commercial rationale for academic studies such as semantics and semiotics.  Nobody called it nation branding in those days, of course, but that is effectively what it was.  

It's all the more interesting, because these academic studies of culture had their almae matres in Bologna and Urbino, predominantly left-wing cities and universities.  Yet it was their commercial application - the awareness of a 'cultural capital' - that gave Italy its greatest economic value of all, something all Italian companies could ride on, and generate added value from: a nation brand.  A simple, highly infectious brand, too: love, from which creation, craftsmanship, style and passion for design are all born.  

Every product in the world has an Italian version you can fall in love with.  If you've ever watched car critics review an Alfa Romeo, you'll know exactly what I'm talking about.  Every other car may be analysed for its comparative advantages and faults, but when they come to review an Alfa Romeo, they just sigh, turn up the opera music on their car stereos and talk about how much they love the car.  

The crowning moment of this exercise was, of course, the World Cup of 1982, when Italy's 'Azzurri' won the title, and many Italians finally fell in love with their own country, developing a wonderful and relatively authentic relationship with their nation that would last for many years. Italians of a certain age remember with nostalgia and affection the tour of glory taken by the winning team, with Enzo Bearzot (the national coach) and Sandro Pertini (Italy's popular president, who was 86 years old at the time) on their shoulders.

Viral ideas vs. Statist programmes

Now, while it may appear that this sort of exercise should need a lot of work and money from government, Italy's example shows that the opposite is true: a simple, infectious idea doesn't need large committees and matching budgets.  What you need more than anything is a grassroots-level, decentralised impulse.  An infectious idea - the simpler, the better - is all you really need to start it.  People and companies get behind the idea, giving them a line along which to position their own brands and products.  After that, you just let it grow, subtly helping it along as it grows.  Italy's brand development was very organic and spontaneous, in that respect.

To illustrate this difference, let's compare, for example, the success of Italy's cuisine – a simple, popular cuisine rooted in a history of poverty - with that of France.  France, too, made a real effort to brand itself when Mitterrand came to power in '81.  But through a lethal combination of overpoliticising, lack of accountability to taxpayers and design by committee, a lot of money was spent by central government with remarkably little return on investment.  

That's not to say it wasn't successful.  An entire generation of women will remember the films 'Jean de Florette' and 'Manon des Sources', which were effectively feature-length adverts for the Provence region of France.  Since the 80s, there are entire regions of rural France that are populated with English bourgeoises who, having seen those films, seek to live the chic rustique lifestyle.  Their kitchens are lined with copper pans, their dinner plates are padded with straw.  French cuisine was, in the '80s, universally regarded as one of the very best. 

The point is, however, that the cost of France's nation branding exercise was enormous, precisely because it wasn't based on an infectious idea entrepreneurs could take and run with, but on statist doctrines and top-down, centrally-run programmes.  Jack Lang, Mitterrand's Minister of Culture, spent a colossal sum of money on the French film industry throughout the '80s, 10 times more than Britain.  It may have seemed very impressive producing so many films at the time, but looking back, it's clear the country got remarkably few bangs for its buck from its nationbranding program.  Again, looking at the food sector, French cuisine may be critically acclaimed, but it has failed to capture the hearts of the rest of the world the way Italian cuisine has.  There may be a couple of French restaurants in every major city of the world, but there are a couple of Italian restaurants on every major street.

More importantly, open any urban family's kitchen cupboards in the world and you'll find at least a couple of Italian food products.  The focus on gastronomy may have seemed obvious for France, but in terms of exports the return on investment will only appear if food products are themselves also manufactured and branded in one way or another.  Many of the recipes used in French restaurants around the world do not actually call for products imported from France.  When a person orders a canard à l'orange, a tarte normande or even a simple café au lait in a French restaurant in New York, no product or brand is used that actually comes from France, no French brands are exported from France to New York.  When, on the other hand, a person orders a prosciutto salad or an espresso coffee in an Italian restaurant, chances are high that the prosciutto will actually be from Parma, and the olive oil and vinegar from Modena.  If the restaurant is any good, the coffee will be Illy or Lavazza, too.  Therein lies the difference.

Marca Perú

Now…  We've discussed the differences between the great pioneers of nation branding.  Let's look at Marca Perú.  

Clearly, this brand identity is a success.  You don't need a Cannes Lion to realise that it has hit all the right notes: rarely has a nation's brand icon been so widely adopted by its people themselves.  A year after its launch, you can walk on any street of the most popular neighbourhoods, and find a few people wearing a Marca Perú T-shirt or cap. 

But, in the spirit of openness to a learning experience, let's try to look at some of the things we could improve in the overall strategy.  

Let's compare, for example, Perú's position today with that of Italy during Aldo Moro's leadership.  Italy, as mentioned earlier, had an endless list of manufactured and branded products to offer the world before starting this project.  When 'Made in …' becomes a desired brand property and you've got everything from beer brands to fashion brands to car brands ready to ride on the added value you're creating as a nation brand, you're going to do very well in all sectors of your economy, not just gastronomy and tourism.   

Tourism and gastronomy are, in other words, the low hanging fruits on the tree: the first ones you reach for, but by no means the only ones.

Aside from this, Perú's trade sector is mostly based on the export of raw materials and on the import of designed or manufactured products.  Perú exports unbranded metals and imports branded cars.  Perú exports unbranded gold, silver, minerals, copper, petrol-based materials, silicon… and imports branded watches, computers and mobile phones. Perú exports unbranded cotton and imports nearly all of its fashion items.  This is a net loss: a kilo of cotton is worth just a fraction of the price of a branded T-shirt, a ton of metal is worth just a fraction of the price of a car.

In other words, Perú's productive sector is missing the very things that would most benefit from a nation branding exercise: designed, manufactured and branded products that the country can export to the rest of the world.  You cannot brand corn unless you're making cornflakes.  The key word is 'make'.

That's not to say there are no good manufacturers or artisans.  On the contrary, Perú has plenty of great artisans, plenty of good mechanics, operators, etc.  You can get almost anything made in Lima, from clothes to furniture, so long as you come with a clear design of how you want it.  But there are very few entrepreneurs taking this up a level.  There are no Benelli families starting up new motorbike brands in Perú. 

A brand strategy for Perú

Brands aren't just something you buy into when you buy a product.  They serve as a channel of expression for the people making the brand, too.  When Patek Philippe put forward the idea that you never really own a Patek watch, you're just looking after it for the next generation, the message was not just adressed to consumers, but more importantly to the great craftsmen at the company, giving them a mission and values to work towards.  When we presented Corum's brand philosophy that Corum watches are about 'unlocking your heart and conquering the world', it wasn't just adressed to watch buyers, but to the management and watchmakers themselves, giving them a simple standard of evaluation, a 'Corum prism' to see their actions through: courage.  For example, asking the question 'Were we courageous enough with this campaign?' or 'Is this watch design bold enough?' is a good way to put one's work in the big picture of the Corum brand as a whole.  

This is the true mission of a brand strategy, designing and expressing the heart and soul of a group of people who get behind an idea and make things that express this idea.

The people working behind Marca Perú are, of course, the Peruvian people themselves.  The brand strategy must be oriented in order for them to derive added value from the idea: the culture that is expressed through the things they make.  However, it won't reach its full potential if the kinds of product Peruvians try to export are not themselves brandable, as is the case with raw materials.  It also won't be achieved through statist programmes that do not originate from them, that are not grassroots programmes.  

The role of a nation branding agency is just that of a sower of seeds.  In the case of Peru, nation branding exercises are there to sow the seeds of entrepreneurship, of design and manufacture, to encourage Peruvians to take the whole game up a level, so as to express their culture through the products they make.

Peruvian brands, made by Peruvian heroes

The nation branding strategy must therefore be to build a culture of respect for design and manufacture, for people and families staking their good name on the product they make, for people taking the big jump and starting their own business designing and making something better or something new.  

This is a cultural challenge as much as anything else, and I believe it is tackled most effectively through the "heroes and icons" approach.  We have seen the impact of heroes and icons in the gastronomy sector: hundreds of kids now dream of becoming the next Gaston Acurio or Pedro Schiaffino.  And dozens of restaurants are looking to be a part of this gastronomic renaissance the country is going through.  This is clearly an approach that works…  So, let's create Gastons and Schiaffinos in other sectors, in any sector where know-how is the big differentiator, where 1 + 1 = 3, where things are made.       

In 1861, when the various duchies, republics and kingdoms of the Italian peninsula were finally unified, the author Massimo d'Azeglio famously wrote: 'We have made Italy.  Now we must make Italians.' pointing to the fact that a cultural change should occur for the Italian nation building project to be successful. 

In the spirit of d'Azeglio, I say: 'We have made brand Perú.  Now we must make Peruvian brands.'