Archive for the ‘Written Articles’ Category

Italy’s sweetest success story: Nutella turns 50

Tuesday, June 10th, 2014

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)

My political hair obsession

Sunday, March 3rd, 2013

Here are some pictures to illustrate the obsessive focus of my interest in the run-up to the recent elections here in Italy. The idea for the article I wanted to write was this: to make a few sarcastic (or, ideally, funny) personal observations, but also to get a psychologist to comment on what the politician’s hair might say to the voters (inspire trust/distrust, affection/loathing, charisma/lack of, etc.). It would have been curious to see if these interpretations of the main contenders’ hair had actually reflected in the results. But this piece would have worked before the elections and, unfortunately, I was sick!

I have decided to post a few of my thoughts anyway…

Silvio Berlusconi

Silvio Berlusconi

Look at Berlusconi with his patently felt-tipped head. Does this tell voters he’s a dissembler and a fake? Can you trust a man who wants to give the impression of being something he’s not?

Pier Luigi Bersani

Pier Luigi Bersani

Bersani has the head that Berlusconi would have if he were ‘honest’ about his hair loss. Does that mean Bersani inspires more trust? Does the voter think “what you see is what you get - this man is reliable”?

Oscar Giannino

Oscar Giannino

Giannino has all the hair Berlusconi would like to have on his head…but on his face. Bald on top, ridiculously hairy around the mouth. What does this mean? (I have no idea but my psychologist might have had some). Does it show fearlessness? In the end, this guy really buggered up his (slim) chances by lying in his online CV that he had a Master’s degree which he didn’t have. How dumb is that?

Beppe Grillo

Beppe Grillo

His hair reminds me of my old Super Girls World - it just grows and grows. The more he ranted on his campaign trail, the wilder and bushier it seemed to become. The question I kept asking myself was: is he deliberately cultivating his luscious locks just to piss off Berlusconi? Like Loadsamoney used to flash his wad around, is Grillo perhaps shaking his mane at Berlusconi? And what did his abundance of hair say to voters in contrast with the dearth on his main rivals’ heads?

Gianroberto Casaleggio

Gianroberto Casaleggio

Now look at the man behind Grillo’s Five Star Movement, Gianroberto Casaleggio. He is the ideas man (the so-called guru) but rarely appears in public. He was on the news the other night and Andrea said “blimey, for a moment I thought that was John Lennon” (or the equivalent in Italian of ‘blimey’). He has even more and longer hair than his movement’s mouthpiece! So now they’ve won so many votes, I’m convinced there must be something in the hair connection, but I’m just not quite sure what as I never did contact a psychologist…

Marco, The Closeted Soldier

Sunday, January 4th, 2009

(published 7th November, 2008 on the Radio Netherlands Worldwide website)

Although there is no formal ban on homosexuality in the armed forces, Italy does operate a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, in conflict with its own constitution’s anti-discrimination laws. Now members of the police and military forces have got together to set up Polis Aperta, an association aimed at defending their right to be gay.

When I first spoke to Marco on the phone to organize our meeting, he sounded perfectly at ease with the idea of being interviewed. He said he enjoyed speaking English and was looking forward to meeting me and telling me more about their fledgling association, Polis Aperta. We arranged to meet at 5.30pm in front of Ferrara station. He’d pick me up in his car and we’d do the interview in his apartment. “You’ll spot me easily,” I told him, “I’m short, have long red hair and look unmistakeably English”. “You’ll spot me easily too,” he laughed, “I’ll be coming straight from work so I’ll still be wearing my uniform.”. Needless to say, we had no problem finding each other and I was confident everything else would go as I’d anticipated. But during the short journey from the station to Marco’s flat, he made two requests that took me completely by surprise.

The first was that I should only use his first name and the second was that I should describe him as ‘working in the military’, without mentioning which of the armed forces he is a member of. “Ferrara’s a small town and there aren’t many English speakers in the forces. I’d be too easily identified.” I was shocked at the unexpected revelation, “You mean you aren’t out?” “Absolutely not.”

This revelation and my shock are, I think, the essence of this issue and the need in contemporary Italy for an association like Polis Aperta. Marco struck me as somebody who was happy to talk about his sexuality, unashamed for me to know he was gay, proud to be part of this anti-discrimination campaign… yet, in the military context, things couldn’t be more different. Here was a man in his mid-thirties who had spent 15 years doing a job he really enjoyed, but a job in which he still felt the need to hide a fundamental aspect of his identity. His worry that I might unintentionally out him, thereby jeopardizing his career, made me realise just how far behind other countries Italy is when it comes to gay rights in the armed forces. I wouldn’t say Italy is any more or less homophobic than other European countries. In most professions here, the right to be gay is taken for granted. In the police and the military it is not.

Although there is no rule in Italy that explicitly bans homosexuals from joining the forces, there is a loophole in an old recruitment law about one’s ‘psychological stability relating to sexual orientation’. Marco says that new recruits who openly reveal they are gay will almost certainly be rejected on these grounds, no matter how at ease they may be with their sexuality. If you are already in the forces and are lucky enough to have an open-minded superior and colleagues, coming out need not be an issue, but discrimination is arbitrary and there is no unit or union to protect you against it. Covert discrimination might entail you being given the worst tasks, randomly transferred or even denied promotion… but never ostensibly because of your homosexuality. With no sexual discrimination laws to protect gay members of the armed forces, Polis Aperta was born of a genuine feeling of necessity.

The association began as an on-line forum back in 2005 – a way for people like Marco to vent their frustration and help each other deal with discrimination issues based on sexual orientation. The name Polis Aperta can be translated as “Open City”. Their aim is to achieve this. They say that being gay in many European forces is not just a right but a bonus. Being the best English speaker of the association, Marco usually represents Polis Aperta at international meetings of gay/lesbian police and military associations. In his experience, many countries now make positive practical use of gay members of their forces, getting them to train heterosexual officers in how to deal with homophobic hate crime. He’d like to see the same approach in Italy, though he thinks achieving it will be a long process. But if Polis Aperta is recognized by the government and given legal status as an anti-discrimination association, Marco believes the first major bridge will have been crossed. “When we feel confident that we can come out without putting our careers at risk and know there is someone who’ll fight for us and defend us if necessary, then I guess things will really change.”