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Alf's Articles

Marketing Globally, With Some Italian Elan

by Alf Nucifora

I write this column on a flight returning from Rome and a much needed break. While everything is still fresh in my mind, I offer some marketing mind candy, a collection of random impressions, combined with a travelogue and opinions of a city and its people.

First, an update on Rome itself. Still the same horrendous traffic, worsened by the influx of three million holiday visitors all seeking to be part of the city's 2000 Jubilee celebration. Still the same crazy Italians on their Vesper scooters zipping in and out of traffic as if on a Kamikaze mission with a "scusi" here and a "ciao!" there. Still unquestionably the best food in the world and a reminder of how atrophied our taste buds have become from a constant diet of processed foods and early-picked, genetically-engineered produce. Still the same overwhelming and awe-inspiring vistas of historical grandeur and beauty around every street corner.

As to the Italian personality, not much has changed. Retail stores, restaurants and offices still close up shop for the early afternoon meal and siesta but, betting money says that even the Italians wont be able to resist that good old American workaholic influence. Call it "globalization" if you must, but within the decade Europeans will be working a solid, honest twelve-hour day just like the rest of us.

The bureaucratic spirit is still alive and well. For example, four Carabiniere on every major intersection; one to do the supervising and three to be supervised, but not an ounce of labor performed by anyone of the four.

Where we must give the Italians their due is in their innate sense of and appreciation for beauty. These people understand aesthetics and style. You see it everywhere from the fashions they wear, to the way they print business cards and wrap gifts. Even the museum admission tickets are works of art in their own right. Yet, in spite of this beauty threshold that resides in every Italian's soul, they litter like a third world nation and permit graffiti to overpower the presence. Go figure.

American Brands Prevail

While they criticize our values, they can't get enough of our brands. In a land of great fashion sense, Tommy Hilfiger and The Gap knock-offs are the teen uniform of choice. In a country where the food and cooking have been anointed by God himself, every McDonald's location is packed. Kids tote Happy Meal cartons with obvious pride. While parents consume wine and mineral water as a natural part of most meals, kids and teens reach for a Coke. It's the starkest and purest testament to the power of the American symbol. Warren Buffett knows precisely what he's doing with his heavy investment in McDonald's and Coca-Cola. He's watched Italians devouring American brands with gusto.

Talk About Lousy Customer Service

Restaurant service is good; better if you praise the food. Retail service is attentive. Everything else is hit and miss. The four-star hotel we stayed at was noisy, the amenities sub-par and the concierges haughty, bordering on downright rude. One has to stand one's ground with these insufferable prigs. On the busiest day of the religious pilgrim's year, St. Peter's Cathedral closed promptly at 6pm. Crowd control was non-existent, but the gaggle of cops (four at every street corner) were always pre-occupied talking loudly into two-way radios about only God knows what. Banks refused to exchange currency on December 31st and one of Rome's most popular museums at the current moment, the recently opened Borghese couldn't rent audio guides because the batteries weren't working. Incidentally, that McDonald's on the Via del Corso broke the record…a thirty-five minute wait followed by cold fries and a very bad tasting Coke. Nobody cared, not the servers nor the customers.

The Technology Contradiction

Italians love to talk and it shows. Italy boasts Europe's highest incidence of cell phone usage per capita; understandable when one notices that every teenager walks around with phone glued to ear irrespective of the situation or the surroundings. Phones constantly ring in restaurants, churches, museums. The cell phone has become a national obsession. The Internet, however, is another matter. High connection fees combined with limited competition (compared to the U.S.) and a preponderance of old rotary phone systems has sealed the Internet's fate, at least for the present. Interestingly, one misses the rash of dot com advertising that is now so prevalent in the U.S. and web addresses are still not a common sight in advertising, packaging or signage.

Some Miscellaneous Musings

They haven't come to grips with the issue of smoking. It's less a presence and national habit as it was a decade ago, but lighting up in a sardine-packed restaurant doesn't warrant a second glance, whereas in the U.S. it would incite a riot. More disturbing is smoking's obvious appeal to the younger set. After walking the crowded streets, one is left with the clear impression that someone has done a number on Italy's youth. The hand that isn't wrapped around a cell phone is proudly flashing a cigarette instead.

Love the candy, the coffee and the ice cream. Great assortments of flavors, styles, textures and mouth-feel types from the gorgeous gelati to the chocolate bliss-bombs, not to mention the thick, viscous coffee that you can stand a spoon in. America rightfully rules the world in most areas save one …candy and sweets. It's time to consign Hershey and Mars to the same graveyard that holds the remains of Folgers and Maxwell House... two other icons of taste mediocrity.

Italian TV is a hoot. Once you've seen Bonanza and RoboCop dubbed into Italian life can never be the same. Home shopping channels are the rage peddling everything from cellulite reduction, to electro-pulsating muscle toning, to the latest videos for the S&M and bondage aficionado. And, it all happens 24-hours a day.

And, finally the church. As one who was raised Roman Catholic, an altar boy no less, and now practices marketing as a profession, I could only marvel at the might and prowess of the money machine. Row after row of religious ornament, artifact, trinket and keepsake sold from street cart, storefront shelf and even the Vatican corridors. You've got to hand it to the Catholics; we know how to bank a buck. And our Italian cousins know how to do it best.

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