Barilla Turned Homophobia into an Outstanding Opportunity

An analysis of the opportunistic Marketing strategy Barilla has put into practice to repair a considerable brand damage caused by its Chairman’s defiance, and to implement an organizational turnaround.


Guido Barilla’s ungainly defense of the traditional family

In September 2013, the world’s media carefully watched Guido Barilla (Barilla’s Chairman) in a video, publicly apologizing for an alleged live “homophobic” message conveyed to the large audience of “La Zanzara”, one of the most successful radio shows in Italy. The interview went smoothly until one of the two anchors asked him about the possibility to leverage on commercials representing a gay family eating Barilla’s pasta.

Historically, Barilla’s brand identity has been tied with the concept of traditional family centered on the role of “the mother” as the person who lovingly takes care of the rest of the family by preparing and serving meals, always with a sincere smile on her face.

The Chairman started by answering as follows: “we have a vaguely different culture. For us, the concept of sacred family is one of the fundamental organizational values. Our family is traditional…” So far, so good. He just described the well know Barilla organizational values. He might have continued mentioning the huge Marketing investments needed to implement a possible company repositioning aiming at embracing the newer concept of extended family. He might have also referred to the risks related to such an operation, which would have necessarily implied a deep and expensive understanding of the opportunity. Giving any plausible explanation, he might have avoided taking a strong position. Instead, he continued this way: “if gay people like our pasta and our communication strategy, then they will keep eating it; if they don’t like them, they will eat another brand. You cannot be liked by everybody to avoid disappointing anyone. I would not do an advert representing a gay family, not due to lack of respect for homosexuals who have the right to do whatever they want without bothering the others, but because I do not think their way and I think our target family is anyway the classic one. Inter alia, the woman is fundamental”.

Further discussion on the “without bothering the others” sentence followed and strengthened the “apparent” perception of homophobia.


Boycotting Barilla

In that period, worldwide public opinion was focused on gay rights and Italy was struggling against its heavy religious heritage. The gay lobby was particularly active, bringing hot discussions about LGBT rights under the spotlight and fighting against conservative columnists by constantly reporting and emphasizing cases of presumptive homophobia. In such a context, the news of the alleged Barilla’s homophobic culture spread out very fast, triggering a global boycott of the Barilla brand, which posed a threat to the company stability and ultimately to the employees’ jobs.

The Internet is full of interesting examples of boycott campaign materials against Barilla, here are a couple of them:

Barilla - 206 types of pasta and yet never heard of diversity

Barilla - would you like some homophobia with that?

To make matters worse, Barilla’s direct and indirect competitors exploited the defiance to execute pro-gay campaigns in the attempt of gaining market share. Examples here:

Barilla - no matter if you like farfalle or maccheroni, just love

Barilla - Bertolli competition


Barilla’s resilience and its brilliant Marketing Strategy

Italian politicians and journalists interpreted Guido Barilla’s apologies in various ways, although always negatively. The left wing accused him to be mostly a conservative homophobe who just realized the economic damage caused to his company and tried to put a patch. Nobody actually believed in a sudden genuine conversion to openness.

On the opposite side, the reaction has been more surprising; right wing representatives emphasized the weakness Guido Barilla showed by pulling back from confrontation, and the inability to fight to affirm his ideas against the current mainstream. Somebody said: “he sold his dignity for a dish of pasta” and “submitted himself to the gay lobbies”. Conservative promoters started a boycott campaign to prove that “angry heterosexuals are more than angry gays”.

Some of the above effects resulted amplified on a global scale, given the much higher international attention on LGBT rights.

In short, from the brand perception perspective, this episode was a real disaster. Taking an apparently intolerant position was not really a good idea for the highest representative of a big multinational company with his name. However, from the brand awareness perspective, the incident was a huge hit thanks to the viral dynamics that contributed to generate a very high low-cost reach. In addition, the company had still all eyes on it so that every single move might have been communicated to the market almost for free.

Wasn’t that a fantastic opportunity to implement a needed company repositioning with a relatively low effort?

Barilla’s top-notch famous Marketing team certainly saw that opportunity and came up with a successful strategy:

  • Creation of the Diversity & Inclusion Board, comprising external experts and advocates such as David Mixner, a LGBT global leader, and Alex Zanardi, a Paralympic gold medalist
  • Appointment of a Chief Diversity Officer
  • Participation to the Corporate Equality Index (CEI), monitoring month-by-month the LGBT-friendliness of the company policies

After one year, these actual measures allowed Barilla to score a top rating on the Human Rights Campaign’s list of employers who are LGBT-friendly. Such a gain had a global resonance due to the very high attention on the company, resulting in the association of the Barilla brand with a new set of values the market was clearly requiring. Success!


Opportunism or Genuine Change?

In spite of the international recognition based on objective data, many Italians still talk about Guido Barilla and his company turnaround in negative terms. The recent comments on Barilla’s achievement still focus on the inability to fight for those values that made the company the world’s leading pasta maker.

Was the turmoil generated by Guido Barilla’s statements a good reason to start rethinking about the organizational identity? Did the boycott constitute enough of a threat for the company sustainability to trigger a genuine reaction?

I believe so.

The opportunistic aspect of the happening consists of the timely exploitation of the opportunity, in order to maximize the benefit of high media attention and brand awareness.

Congratulations to Barilla for being able to exploit the media exposure of an inconvenient incident and seeing it as an opportunity for implementing a real value shift, which projects the company to the top of human rights supporters and creates the considerable brand equity needed to face the new social challenges of a fast-evolving world.

Barilla’s turnaround, based on flexibility and responsiveness, was so effective that sometimes I have the feeling it might have been planned in advance…