Time to make the pasta: Guido Barilla opens up about the family food business

The title of his talk was a mouthful:  “Leveraging Success at Home to Seize Opportunity Abroad.” The speaker: Guido Maria Barilla, Chairman of Barilla, the family-owned pasta business based in Parma, Italy.. And it turns out that Guido Barilla is the Frank Purdue of pasta. He’s obsessed with churning out perfect little bowties and fusillis. A sexy Jean Paul Belmondo type, he nevertheless looked worried and never stopped mentioning how “complicated” the food business is during his time on stage at the Palais.. 

One thing he was very clear about: sustainability.   "In the world, the media makes a big story about being sustainable,"  he said, "but it's not even a question. We can do nothing else.” 

His English was excellent, but translating directly from Italian in some cases led to a few Mentos moments, as when he said that "we like to have relations with our food three or four times a day." 

In explaining how they launched the brand in Germany, a place not known for embracing penne at the time, the company went after a celebrity, tennis champion Steffi Graff. "She was particularly good in acting," he said. "She gave herself completely to the brand." Indeed, it was a happy liason. " Brand awarness moved immensely," he said, "because the product was so strong in her hands."

He went on to talk about hiring Antonio Banderas,for an ad campaign to be run only in Italy. "We've made six films with Banderas with six different products," he said, with four more coming in the fall. Why Banderas? "People feel the emotions," he said, and there was a debate: "He was Spanish," Barilla said. " How would he be perceived by the people?  Turns out the decision was instinctive:"he speaks himself in Italian.His accent is Spanish.The fact that he could have a slight accent in Spanish gives more truthness to the message."

Authenticity, truthness, even Stephen Colbert's "truthiness," all mean the same thing. His strongest statement came when answering whether companies should cut their ad budgets during a recession.  "We have not decreased the amount we are spending. We are entering different markets. I do not think a branded company can afford to cut," he said, citing the rise in sales of private labe during a tough economy.He said he might change the strategy a bit, but "it's time to stick on advertising  communication even if the environment is very tough, and will probably get worse for next two years. Tought times needs to drive the people back to the fundamentals."  Yup, it takes a tough man to make tender fusilli.

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