Italy’s sweetest success story: Nutella turns 50

How a scarcity of cocoa in post-war Italy led to the invention of the world’s most famous spread.

Once upon the time, there was a humble Italian pastry maker who lived in an enchanting region famed throughout the land for its delicious and abundant hazelnuts. The pastry maker, whose name was Pietro Ferrero, had a particular passion for confectionery but times were hard and chocolatey luxuries were not for the common people. Still, he dreamed of inventing a magic formula to spread his sweet delights to everyone…

It reads like a fairy tale but that is the way the Ferrero family tells the story of how Nutella was born. And in many ways it is a modern fairy tale because the humble Italian pastry maker was to found a local company that would go on to become the fourth most important international group in the chocolate confectionery market today, and the producer of the world’s most famous hazelnut and chocolate spread.

It all began back in 1946, just after World War II. The north western region of Piedmont, in particular its capital, Turin, had a great reputation for chocolate making. It was the birthplace of Gianduja, a creamy combination of chocolate and hazelnuts. Pietro Ferrero founded his company in the picturesque town of Alba. It has always remained a family business and today its CEO is his grandson, Giovanni Ferrero. Like so many inventions, he says Nutella was born from necessity.

“Chocolate was so expensive, it was really high-end, nobody could afford it, at least in Italy. And the vision was ‘how can we make a new recipe with less cocoa and high nutritional value from hazelnuts in a deprived context?’ as the post-war economic context was.

My grandfather lived to find this formula, he was completely obsessed by it. He woke up my grandmother at midnight, she was sleeping, and he made her taste it with spoons, asking ‘how was it?’ and ‘what do you think?’.”

In 1946, Pietro Ferrero launched “Giandujot”, or “Pasta Gianduja”. Produced in loaves wrapped in aluminium foil, it was a sort of solidified Nutella that had to be cut with a knife.

“Then, after a few years of continuous creativity, he finally came out with a recipe which he quite simply called “Supercrema”. This was a big success, it was the first brand that allowed people to enjoy confectionery at a very accessible price, even if it was not fully confectionery. This is how everything started.”

The genius of Pietro Ferrero’s concept was that his product was spreadable. While less went further, according to his grandson it also had a unique twofold appeal which was particularly relevant to the era:

“The convenience of spreading it on bread plus the food values of the bread – which fit very well with the Italian culture of the time – while overcoming the resistance to confectionery or chocolate-driven recipes which were for very special occasions and celebrations like Christmas and Easter. It was already a success at that time in a culture which has no confectionery imprinting at all.”

But it was Pietro’s son, Michele Ferrero, who transformed Supercrema into Nutella, relaunching it with its now famously secret recipe and iconic glass jar. Like his grandfather, Giovanni says his father was a man obsessed.

“My father said ‘we can push it further, there are new technologies, there are new ways to integrate this winning recipe’. And Nutella was born the same year as I was born, 1964, so I have a small brother in the family! And it was not just an Italian success but a European success.”

Michele Ferrero’s greatest stroke of genius was the choice of a name which gave the product instant international appeal: it said nuts, it said Italy… and it was easy to say.

Fifty years on, Nutella is not just a European success but a global phenomenon. Now produced in 11 factories worldwide, it is available in 160 countries and accounts for one fifth of the Ferrero Group’s turnover. It is the most sold sweet spread in the world, with 72% of the market and over 1.5 billion Euros in sales.

But nowhere is it more popular than back home, where it has become such a huge national symbol that the Italian post office has just released a commemorative (70 cent) stamp to celebrate its fifty years.

While it has appeared in numerous song lyrics and celebrity ‘indulgences-I-can’t-live-without’ confessions, the most undeniably memorable tribute came in the 1984 film Bianca, in which director and protagonist, Nanni Moretti, relieves his night-time anxiety with the sweet consolation of a giant jar of Nutella.

A staple on Italy’s breakfast tables, according to statistics, the majority of Italian families buy at least one jar per year. But how has one brand of hazelnut chocolate spread managed to creep its way into so many kitchen cupboards and root itself in people’s hearts for five decades?

Roberta Sassatelli, associate professor of cultural sociology at Milan University and author of Consumer Culture, says initially Nutella was the epitome of a ‘pop lux’ (popular luxury) for Italians.

“Nutella was something above average, something which was not a necessity. It was something which allowed many more people than just the elite to be able to participate in the culture of chocolate. It was something very sweet and modern and different from the classic sweets in Italy to close your meal or to open your day. So, to Italians it meant both modernity and the possibility of giving yourself a treat.”

It was, Professor Sassatelli affirms, a marketing triumph.

“They never sold it as a surrogate, and this was very clever. They could have played on different universal values like ‘this is cheap, this is affordable, this can substitute chocolate’. No, they played upon ‘this is natural, it contains nuts so it’s better than those that don’t contain them’.

And the images which surrounded Nutella were all related to children and family, to a very well-governed treat. Neither dangerous nor decadent, it allows you little forms of transgression: it’s a spread so you can dirty yourself a bit, but it’s just for fun. I think that in the course of the history of Nutella, this is something which has been played on a lot: Nutella as a ‘polite transgression’.”

Fun, delicious, accessible but most importantly, says Professor Sassatelli, quintessentially Italian.

“Ferrero has been very good at making the link between ‘Italianicity’ and Nutella by doing interesting little things which helped fix the idea that Nutella is for Italians. Outside Italy, this is of course useful because it has played upon the notion of ‘made in Italy’.

And the important thing from a sociological point of view is that they have cleverly managed to keep together the contrasting values of modern consumer culture. If you look at a classic jar, you see how good Nutella has been at synthesizing two values. The shape of the glass jar is traditional and luxurious but the cap is plastic which is modern, cheap and functional. I think that it embodies how, in the course of these 50 years, it has been able to continually readjust the perception of the product among consumers.”

Professor Sassatelli says the company has been particularly good at circumventing health issues and marketing Nutella as a perfect ingredient for a nutritious breakfast, emphasizing the hazelnuts and milk rather than the high content of sugar and saturated fat.

“The emphasis on nuts and on being Italian has made the product appear more safe and less sophisticated in a negative, industrial manner. Also the association with the family, with very simple activities such as putting the spread on a slice of fresh bread.”

But one of their shrewdest moves was, in her opinion, their 3 year sponsorship of the national football team.

“On the one hand this links Nutella with the Italian national sentiment, on the other hand of course it links it with the idea that, in the right quantities, it is healthy to the point that even athletes use it.”

But health issues will be far from the minds of Nutella fans taking part in this weekend’s 50th birthday celebrations, which include a street party on Saturday in Ferrero’s home town of Alba and a free concert on Sunday featuring pop star Mika in Naples’ Piazza del Plebiscito.

Among passionate fans celebrating Nutella’s half century (and his own) is, of course, Giovanni Ferrero, although he laughingly admits its precise birthday is something of a company mystery.

“Legend tells us that the first jar was manufactured out of the factory 50 years ago on 20th April and the first act of consumption was the 18th of May. But there’s no scientific evidence!”

Indisputable, though, the fact that Nutella has made the Ferrero family among the richest and most successful entrepreneurs in Italian history. Yet, when he talks about his ‘famous little brother’, Giovanni Ferrero maintains the happy aura of a little boy who grew up living his grandfather’s fairy tale come true.

“I remember at home when we used to socialize, there was always excitement, the sense of surprise, of discovering some new ventures. Children are passionate about it so I could share with my friends the flavour management, the different novelties. In that sense I was privileged.”

Now a father, his two young sons are also big fans.

“We are a family with an ‘intergenerational sweet tooth’. My parents always allowed me to eat Nutella at breakfast, and I’ve always loved to do so. They love it! My wife and I didn’t do anything but, because I’m a consumer, they just grabbed it where it was and now they are ‘heavy users’ too.”

Satisfied heirs to a spread their father says never fails to put him in a good mood.

“If I have to describe my specific relationship with the brand, it’s just that I love the taste and it reminds me of such sweet memories of my childhood. That’s a specific relationship I share with millions of consumers around the world.”

(published by BBC Online Magazine, 18th May, 2014)

Comments are closed.