In September of this year, Italian pasta maker Barilla found itself in hot water when its president, after being asked if a same sex couple would be featured in one of its commercials, said that “gays could eat someone else’s pasta.” Since then, a worldwide boycott has forced the 130-year-old company to rethink its advertising strategy. Barilla has announced that it will run a “more inclusive TV campaign,” and has created a multi-faceted plan to help the company embrace diversity both in operations and advertising.
With Italy’s economic troubles far from over, Barilla appears to be relying on its stateside audience to make up for the 21 percent in net profit loss from last year. Attitudes toward the LGBT community are still changing in the United States, but they’re arguably more evolved than those in Barilla’s home country. So it makes sense for the struggling company to do what it can to woo its audience back and to keep the customers it has.
But is Barilla’s about-face genuine? Has the company decided to become more diverse in an effort to better serve its customers, or is it trying to save its bottom line from bottoming out? More importantly, should customers care? What matters more to an audience from a brand that’s gotten something colossally wrong: an apology or tangible change?
The danger of “we”
The Barilla backlash began when CEO Guido Barilla appeared on a radio show and said that his company would never do a commercial with a gay family, “not for lack of respect but because we don’t agree with them.” The pasta maker bears Barilla’s name and, presumably, the privately owned company is still heavily influenced by the family who created it.
But with that one word—“we”—the brand’s image took a serious hit. The leader of a company should serve as its public face; but by speaking for a company with an international reach, the CEO gambled that millions of customers would dismiss his comments as the antiquated beliefs of one man.
The power of many
Customers did not, however, ignore those comments. Neither did Barilla’s competitors: just a day after Guido Barilla’s remarks, food brands Buitoni and Bertolli posted colorful, LGBT-friendly ads on its social media feeds. News of Barilla’s comments spread quickly on social media and mainstream media outlets.
It took Barilla a little more than a month to devise a plan that would show the world the brand is ready to atone for its transgressions, and the details—a diversity and inclusion board, participation in the Corporate Equality Index, appointment of a Chief Diversity Officer—demonstrate a real effort to change the culture of the brand. By devoting so many resources to changing its image—without forcing its CEO to retract his statements—Barilla appears to be putting its money where the customer’s mouth is. While civil rights groups and individual customers may remain skeptical, it’s hard to call these gestures empty.
No matter how long it takes Barilla to regain the business it lost after Guido Barilla shared his thoughts on the LBGT community, the brand shows it learned a valuable lesson: giving your customers what they want requires much more than a good product. Brands that make missteps may not benefit from the kind of 180-degree turn Barilla performed; in fact, some brands may seek to stand for their own perceived moral and social values and turn potential customers away. But issuing a press release is just the beginning of Barilla’s change of heart. Despite Guido Barilla’s initial statement, the actions of his brand may speak louder than his words.
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