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Italy: Mismanagement of the Pandemic and Attempts to Relaunch Country's Image

Massimo Pizzo
25 February 2021

This year, Italy has dropped from 11th to 19th spot in the Global Soft Power Index, with an overall Index score of 48.3 out of 100. Dropping eight positions, Italy has recorded the greatest decrease in ranking within the top 30.

Massimo Pizzo, Managing Director, Brand Finance Italy
Massimo Pizzo, Managing Director, Brand Finance Italy

However, looking purely at Index scores, Italy has only lost 1.0-point (the equivalent of 2% of its total score), and therefore, in this respect, the nation’s performance is stronger than the US, France, China, India, and the UK, which have weakened much more.

During 2020, Italy’s scores have slightly increased across the Familiarity, Overall Influence, Reputation, Business & Trade, Governance, International Relations, Media & Communications, and Education & Science metrics.

Italy’s drop in the Index is entirely due to the perception of the nation’s management of the pandemic. This perception is the result of bad luck, management errors, a large gap between expectations and results, and poor communication skills.

Italy was the first Western nation to suffer heavily from the consequences of the pandemic. On 21 February 2020, the first COVID-19 patient, not directly attributable to China, was announced. From that moment, starting near Milan, contagion broke out in a large part of Italy, which led to the first lockdown on 9 March.

The primacy of the first Western outbreak of COVID-19 has brought worldwide attention to Italy, creating mixed feelings towards Italians. Italy has been mocked and garnered a lot of criticism, but also strong empathy.

Certainly, serious organisational errors have emerged in the management of the pandemic, but the misfortune of being the first Western nation to suffer heavily from the effects of the virus has not favoured quality choices. That being said, other important nations did not take advantage of what happened in Italy, falling into the same mistakes, with evident negative results demonstrated in the Global Soft Power Index 2021.

The balance of Italian Soft Power, like that of other major nations, is perceived negatively overall due to the disappointment of failed expectations. In fact, it should be noted that Italy is a nation with one of the best health systems in the world and the first outbreak occurred in Lombardy, one of the most organised and richest areas in the entire European continent.

Finally, the chronic inability of the Italian system to communicate effectively emerges clearly in crisis situations. The Italian government itself, aware of reputational issues, commissioned a tender in June 2020 for a communication campaign worth €50 million to relaunch Italy's image after the pandemic.

Unfortunately, the poor efficiency of the administrative machinery led to ineffective results; for example, the period between June and October was not exploited when the cases in Italy were absolutely lower than those in other dominant European countries.

Interview with Nicola Bertinelli

Nicola Bertinelli, President, Consortium of Parmigiano Reggiano
Nicola Bertinelli, President, Consortium of Parmigiano Reggiano

What effect does Italy’s reputation for delicious food, high quality products, and rich heritage, have on Parmigiano Reggiano as a popular cheese worldwide?

I think there is a symbiotic relationship between the reputation of Made in Italy and Parmigiano Reggiano. Made in Italy means excellence, tradition, and an eternal bond with a specific territory that is the Belpaese.

Mutually, Parmigiano Reggiano has always been an expression of its land of origin. Monks were the first producers of Parmigiano Reggiano, driven by the quest for a cheese featuring one main characteristic: to last for a long time. This feature has been Parmigiano Reggiano's fortune, resulting in it travelling around the world for centuries to become an authentic expression of what we call today the Made in Italy agribusiness. 

Parmigiano Reggiano is undoubtedly a traditional food but also one that is projected towards the future. It is an authentic precursor of current health trends thanks to its intrinsic qualities - naturally rich in nutrients and totally free from preservatives. What we call “Made in Italy” is the sum of many excellences and each brick is represented by a product, a craftmanship, a tradition. Parmigiano Reggiano is simply all of this and is therefore inextricably linked to Made in Italy. They nourish each other.

What role does having a Geographical Indication play in Parmigiano Reggiano’s brand building and your reputation among key stakeholders?

Parmigiano Reggiano is a cheese with Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status, i.e. a product that, based on its distinctive characteristics and its tie to the area of origin, is safeguarded by a system provided by the EU to protect consumers and producers alike. The EU’s PDO symbols on Parmigiano Reggiano packaging provide consumers with clear and concise information about its origin and authentic, high-quality production processes. The PDO system also benefits the rural economy by boosting farmers' income and creating incentive for people to live in more remote areas.

Thanks to its PDO status, Parmigiano Reggiano is protected against: any misuse, imitation, or evocation; any other false or misleading information about the provenance, origin, nature, or essential qualities of the product; any other practice likely to mislead the consumer about the product’s true origin; and commercial use of a registered name by products not covered by the registration if they are comparable to the authentic product or if their use exploits the reputation of the protected name.

As established in 2008 by the European Court of Justice, only Parmigiano Reggiano PDO cheese can be sold under the "Parmesan" denomination in Europe. This historic regulation not only protects PDO producers, but also consumers, who are guaranteed authenticity and traceability by being protected from misleading names in the market. Unfortunately, the laws that classify and protect Parmigiano Reggiano within the European Union are not globally observed, as both Parmigiano Reggiano and “parmesan” can coexist on the same shelf in some countries outside the EU. These products are often mistaken for authentic PDO products by consumers.

With Italy being severely hit by the pandemic at the beginning of 2020, how has the Italian government and Italian brands, such as yours, overcome these difficulties in order to prepare for the new normal? 

The pandemic has not disrupted the activities of the Consortium. We immediately geared up to continue our quality controls to safeguard and protect consumers. We also continued our control activities on the markets with special focus on protection at the international level.

To deal with the potential shortage of staff, the Consortium created a coordination network to make retired cheesemakers and former production workers available who were called upon by dairies in the interim. In that early stage, the Consortium of Parmigiano Reggiano worked closely with the Ministry of Agricultural Policies and the EU to safeguard the production chain. We obtained a few waivers from the Specification rules relating to the time needed to make the cheese.

Last spring, we also had to revise the global 2020 marketing plan in light of all the limitations we were experiencing due to the lockdown and in consideration of the coming phases of the pandemic. In the Covid and post-Covid scenario, the consumer is increasingly looking for good and healthy products but also wants the way in which they are made to be "good".

Hence the need to integrate traditional product communication with a new communication that we could define as "supply chain", highlighting the values that drive the choices of companies and which have a significant impact on environmental protection and food safety and, more generally, on sustainability.

About the Author

Massimo Pizzo
Managing Director

Massimo has over 25 years experience in branding. He began his career in advertising, then PR, then market research,Massimo joined Brand Finance in 2015 and has worked for some of the world’s leading brands such as TIM, Enel, Poste Italiane, Ferrari, Pirelli, IBM, Leonardo – formely know as Finmeccanica - and Italian Ministry of Economic Development.For three years Massimo lectured communications, first at SDA Bocconi then at University of Milan.

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