Hey there Bloomers – You may have seen a lot of pasta in the news last week, when Barilla pasta company’s chairman, Guido Barilla, let slip an invitation for a large segment of the population to buy their pasta elsewhere. He was referring to the LGBT community when he said
“That’s fine if they like our pasta and our communication, they can eat them. Otherwise, they can eat another pasta.”
This was during a conversation about family images used in advertising, discussed when he was a guest on Italian radio program La Zanzara.
There was more to the discussion than that, but in this day and age clips are king, and that invitation to go eat another pasta was taken very seriously by the folks who he invited to go elsewhere. And guess what? They took him up on that invitation. And they weren’t the only ones...friends, families, and supporters of equality everywhere also decided to accept that invitation to go eat another pasta and a Barilla boycott was born.
One Brand’s Faux Pas(ta) is Another Brand’s Awesome Sauce
Not only was it born, it was Tweeted, Facebooked, Google+d, and shared all over the place. As other pasta makers watched people in droves vowing never to buy Barilla pasta again, some of them jumped at the opportunity to welcome these outcasts into their noodley arms with clever and quickly posted responses, such as the FB post shown below from Bertolli’s FB page.
This is posted at a large size so you can read the comments beside the image. Click it if you need to view it at a larger size.
The caption to this whimsical pic depicting various types of pasta families reads, “Sauce for All.” Sounds very welcoming, compared to “they can eat another pasta,” and it worked. Emotions were running strong against Barilla, with literally thousands of comments by people saying they were ready to buy another brand, and along comes Bertolli saying “hey, we’re another brand, and we say sauce for all!”
Now look at the the comments beside picture above. Bertolli has, with one post, picked up new customers AND received a lot of enthusiastic love and props from commenters. The kind of love and props that spurs fans to share their favorite brands’ posts and pages. In fact I first saw this when someone I am connected to on FB shared it from Bertolli’s page.
Let Them Eat Another Pasta
In the meantime, Barilla watched their customers take them up on their offer to buy another brand, in droves! Now Barilla is backpedaling double time, finding themselves in a position to have to “fix” what the CEO said.
Yesterday, I visited both companies’ FB pages just to see what was there, just a few days after the radio incident. On Bertolli’s page, I saw the “Sauce for All” post among a bunch of product posts – business as usual. “Sauce for All” is just one post, a subtle reminder that they welcome all customers, without going overboard and plastering it all over their page. However, if you go back and look at the posts prior to “Sauce for All,” the “Likes” on the posts range from about 20 – 60. The “Sauce for All” post has over 600 shares and more than a thousand Likes and comments, many of which state that the commenter will be buying Bertolli brand pasta from now on. The posts that came after “Sauce for All” all have over a hundred likes.
On Barilla’s page, however, we see this:
The top posts are apologies, one text and one a video message from Guido Barilla himself. Beneath the posts, many posts from commenters still vowing to never buy Barilla pasta again, amongst heated discussion about religion and politics, with many inflammatory remarks and much name calling. It is not a pretty picture, nor a fun place to be, and I personally wonder why Barilla is not monitoring them more closely. I’m guessing because some of those posts are supporters and they want to see the support. Unfortunately, along with the support comes debate that degenerates too easily into name calling.
The people Guido invited to buy pasta elsewhere are still doing so, and taking their friends, family and supporters with them, while the people who supported his position are now upset that he is offering apologies. The guy just cannot win, he’s alienated both detractors and supporters. I’m thinking he’s wishing he never did that radio interview, but hindsight is 20/20 as the saying goes.
So now I decided to visit each company’s web site.
On Bertolli’s site, we see this:
Their regular website, with a Facebook plugin showing their latest posts and over a hundred and sixty thousand likes. But nothing in your face or overt when it comes to the underlying political, religious and civil rights issues that made this whole incident go viral.
I next visited Barilla’s site, and this is what came up:
No pretty pictures of pasta or other products, no FB comments, just a big apology and an attempt to distance the company from the CEO’s remarks. Clearly, one brand is enjoying the current spotlight on issues of pasta and equality, while the other brand is in “omgs we need to take it back and make it better” mode.
What are the Lessons Here?
I see some good ones, so let’s go over a few of them.
1. Say what you mean and mean what you say. Everything a company or its’ spokespeople say or do contributes to creating, cultivating and furthering its brand reputation. If you don’t really want your customers to buy another brand, then it’s probably NOT a good idea to publicly invite them to do so. If your company mission says that it respects and values a family that included everyone, and that your company promotes diversity, then the CEO saying that he values “traditional” families and others can buy their pasta elsewhere is probably not helping to reinforce the company’s commitment to diversity or stance that it respects and values a family that includes everyone. In fact he is completely contradicting that inclusive brand identity.
2. If what you have to say is offensive and disparaging to a large segment of the population, it’s probably best not to say it, especially when you are the head of a large corporation for whom that large segment of the population is also a good portion of its customer base. It is not easy to keep our views to ourselves, especially in matters of politics, religion and culture, but when you are a corporate figurehead you must learn to separate your personal beliefs from your business sense, generally speaking, unless you are catering to a niche audience who shares your beliefs. A small mom and pop biz that caters to a small niche audience who agrees with them in such matters can probably say what they really want to say and use it to their marketing advantage, but this does not hold as true for large corporations whose goods and services are purchased by millions of people in a diverse population, unless they are willing to risk losing a good portion of those people.
3. I can’t stress this enough… LISTEN to your PR dept people, let them COACH you in prep for speaking gigs! You have a PR department for a reason. Usually, it’s better to take advantage of their expertise BEFORE you go on a public speaking gig, rather than having to rely on their expertise after you’ve gone and said something stupid that created fires they now have to put out. It’s a lot easier to build goodwill from the foundation up, than it is to rebuild it once it is torn down. They can help you say what you want to say without offending anyone. For example, the guy could have just said he personally prefers to show a “traditional” family in his advertising because it reminds him of being a kid in grandma’s kitchen with his own family around him, and that’s the imagery in his heart and which he chooses to use, and it has nothing to do with any other issue, just a desire to reproduce his fond childhood memories of grandma. Everyone can relate to good smells in grandma’s kitchen and so would be able to relate to the CEO’s desire to promote that feel in his business, and he would (hopefully) not end up telling an entire community to go buy another brand.
4. Do your homework and be prepared for your appearance. Research the show you will be appearing on, the hosts, the kinds of questions they generally ask. Are they known for straying from a script, if it is a scripted occasion? Are they known for stirring things up, bringing up controversial topics? What will be likely to come up in the interview? What might come up in the interview? Again, a good PR dept can provide quality coaching that might include role-play, giving the speaker practice at answering potentially uncomfortable questions.
Barilla Still Has a Chance to Redeem Itself
Let’s look at another lesson here – Barilla is in what people in the Public Relations world call “crisis communication” mode, and they are actually doing a pretty good job of it. What do you do when your company figurehead screws up? You immediately enter the conversation and try to contain the damage. The conversation is out there whether you want it there or not. You can lay low and say nothing and hope it all goes away but this is not a good idea, generally speaking, because it leaves the public thinking you just don’t care.
Barilla’s PR dept, especially the US pr dept, was in overdrive immediately after the CEO’s quotes were passed around the world. They immediately posted an apology to their social sites. But that is not enough. The CEO made an apology video in which he showed humility by saying he heard the reaction around the world and realized he has a lot to learn about the “lively debate concerning the evolution of the family.” This is interesting wording to me, because he doesn’t say he has a lot to learn about the evolution of the family itself, but rather about the lively debate about it. This basically means he gets to stick to his own beliefs but will learn better how to represent them in public debate, hopefully in a way that won’t result in people around the world declining to buy his company’s products, lol.
However, he then follows that statement that he has a lot to learn with a pledge to meet reps of groups that best represent the evolution of the family, including those who have been offended by his words. Again, interesting wording there I think – it leaves an opening for him to include whatever groups he wishes, from the ultra-con groups who believe all families in the world should only be defined by their own personal belief system to those groups who are working for equal rights for all, including families with a diverse, non-“traditional” makeup. Here is the video:
What remains to be seen here, and what the public will be watching for now, is whether Guido actually backs up that pledge with action. If he does so, with sincerity, this can still be turned into a marketing win. For example, if he meets with large, well known and respected groups like HRC (Human Rights Campaign) and they have meaningful discussions that result in actions taken by Barilla to be more embracing of all their customers and employees, and those actions are publicized, then it’s possible that HRC would then encourage its followers to go ahead and start supporting the Barilla brand again, to show solidarity with companies that are willing to say goodbye to outdated viewpoints and make some progressive changes that will better benefit ALL their employees and customers. For example, if they revise company policies so that all employees’ families receive the same benefits regardless of the makeup of the family (“traditional” vs same sex), the company can transform its reputation from dark ages throw-back to fair and progressive, and garner a lot of attention in the process.
Now that I’ve come to the end of this post, I just have to add a little humor. The name “Guido” still cracks me up, because every time I hear it I think of Joe Pantoliano’s character “Guido the Killer Pimp” from the movie “Risky Business.”
Do you have a public appearance coming up for which you would like some coaching and/or wordsmithing help? Contact me. I can help!