The Design of Value. A Brief History of Italian Branding #lectures
In this presentation I want to reflect with you on the relationship between culture and branding. We’ll do this starting from the peculiar case of Italian industrialism, where the apparently distant languages, images, and discourses of aesthetics and marketing actually collide in a common pursuit of value. To do this, we’ll consider the case of Italian advertising images and logo design from the early industrial age to the present as a way to outline the traits of a unique Italian approach to the creation of both qualitative and quantitative substance (the appreciation of value is in fact both a critical act and a monetary appraisal). Now two elements make the Italian case unique and explain the particular evolution of Italy’s industrial aesthetics. One, Italy’s rich cultural patrimony, which is not neglected or rejected for the sake of modernization, but rather incorporated in the industrial process. We see this in this famous 1912 ad for Borletti clocks, featuring the time of heritage (in the reference to the classical statue of the disk-thrower) and the modern time of movement and acceleration (in the clock that the statue holds). The second element
is Italy’s belated industrialism. Faced with German, French, British and American expansion in the global industry in the second half of the 19th century, Italian industrialism was forced to elaborate an element of distinction, which was found in the idea of applying to objects a surcharge of culture, aesthetics, philosophy. From the Liberty style of the early 20th century to our present, this model still continues and we’ll see why.
Now, to give you a sense of our trajectory tonight, here is what we’ll discuss. First, I’ll give a few remarks on the concomitant notions of branding and culture. Second, we’ll see how Italian early advertising constructs through a promotional narrative a conceptual image of the nation’s original way to modernity. Third, we’ll examine the identity of Italy’s
industrialism through the logo design of some Italian companies. 1. What is a brand? And what is branding? According to the Hubspot Academy, which is one of the most valuable available resource on content marketing, a brand is an actual object (“typically comprised of a name, tagline, logo or symbol, design, brand voice, and more”) as well as an experience, so what “a customer undergoes when interacting with a business — as a shopper, customer, social media follower, or mere passerby.”
Branding instead is “the process of researching, developing, and applying a distinctive feature or set of features to an organization so that consumers can begin to associate the brand with certain products or services”. So, an object, an experience, and a process (an iterative process based on frequency). Well, an object implies a maker. A maker implies authorship. A signature. Something that turns bare matter into significant matter, a mere object into a product with a specific appeal and desirability. Whether in a book or in any other product, an author augments the
value of the object, makes it unique. In the language of fashion, the addition of the distinctive trait of an author is called a griffe. In the language of literature, the distinctive element that separates one author from another, or a good book from an average book, is called style, from the Latin stylus, which means pen, underlining the unique way each one of us holds the pen and writes. We talked then about experience, the interaction between producer and consumer. In a way, experience implies use, which inevitably creates a dialogue made of comments, feedback, perfecting, and adjustment. In another way, experience also implies a narration (someone talking about an object, not only indicating a positive or negative use, but also telling stories about it). Every object we interact with is the terminal of a mental or social narration.
Like a narration, it responds to our need to improve or modify reality, to change. Lastly, we talked about branding as a process. Branding is the path from the actual product, from a discourse on the product, to the creation of its extended value (something that goes beyond a commercial transaction or mere use and report). Branding is the process that makes an actual object more, more than it is. Branding coincides then with a design or a discourse or an image that sets in motion the process of creating, negotiating, attributing, and recognizing a determinate value. If the value does not identify with a substance, then branding is plainly ‘making stuff up’. But if branding is a way to extract the substance,
a hidden ‘more’, from a visible sign or form or product, then it becomes an enriching phenomenon, or a plus value. Branding has a lot to do with culture. Faced with the million books that are published every year, literary criticism, not only extracts value (separating ephemeral products from substantive ones), but also creates a discourse around certain books that reveal their eternal elements of value (what goes beyond their contingence). What we call literature is what
has been distilled over the centuries, the collection of books whose value still endures. To give you another example, in Italy there are plenty of frescoed ceilings, some of them quite extraordinary. If we the first one that regularly comes to mind is not the Carracci’s vault in Palazzo Farnese or Giotto’s sky in the Scrovegni chapel, but Michelangelo’s ceiling in the Sistine chapel, this is because of branding, or rather because of the construction of a discourse around Michelangelo, starting with Vasari’s life of the painters and culminating the trajectory of great Italian painters with Michelangelo’s stardom and his feat in the Vatican. A process. This ‘more’ or this ‘value’, which is not just promotional but also cultural, is the object of our investigation tonight. How to surround the product with a qualitative element, a narration, or a significance that makes it immediately identifiable (what we call brand recognition), distinctive in its features (brand awareness), and able to carry meanings beyond its mere use or markets (brand extension). We’ll see how branding and cultural
discourse actually overlap in Italian industrialism, through the analysis of early advertising and logo designs. 2. How does advertising create a brand or a culture around objects? How does the addition of a cultural or aesthetic surcharge differentiate the Italian product? I want to take you to the late 19th century to give you a sense of how global industrialism appeared then to Italians. If we observe the pages of contemporary Italian newspapers, we will notice that industrialization coincides with a rather unruly accumulation of objects from disparate categories. As they appear in random order, advertised objects reflect
not only the same space of universal expositions, but also a metonym of the world itself and more broadly the new values brought forth by the industrial civilization. In a way, products are connoted with the explicit indication of their origin providing the reader with the possibility to imaginatively travel and get to know the world. During the same years, the Italian writer De Amicis would feed the same desire of a young nation to explore the world through his travel books Olanda, Marocco, Costantinopoli, Spagna, Ricordi di Parigi.
In another way, advertised products gave visual shape to the new civilization of industrial modernity, indicating its key values: the emphasis on technological advancements, the emergence of tourism (the ability of traveling), and the attention to hygiene and cleanliness (soaps and detergents), with a specific Italian obsession for digestion (products). These ads were meant to be consumed quickly, while reading a newspaper, or, in the case of posters, while walking on the street. In Futurist art, they would later represent the present-ness and rapidity of the modern experience, as in as in Carrà’s famous 1914 painting interventionist rally where we see an ad for Tot detergents. Now, what we witness at the turn of the 20th century is the transformation of ads and logos from ephemeral fragments of the new industrial civilization to art objects, that is objects endowed with an aesthetic charge or a cultural value, or rather the transformation of poster advertising from a promotional art to a cultural discourse.
I want to start from the ads of three Italian masters - Adolfo Hohenstein, Leopoldo Metlicovitz and Marcello Dudovich – that are related to the opera patron and music publisher Giulio Ricordi. For his music printing business, Ricordi mastered the technique of lithography, or rather the art of drawing notes on the page as images, and he had invested in chromolithography (the process to print words and images in the same page) with the hiring of the German designer Adolfo Hohenstein. In collaboration with him, Ricordi had developed the idea of producing promotional posters for operas of Verdi and Puccini, offering in a snapshot a visual synthesis of the aural and aesthetic impression the performance would have on a spectator. In 1895, Ricordi exposed Hohestein’s 1895 poster for Puccini’s La boheme at the first Biennale of Venice. The poster caught the attention of two visitors Alfonso and Emiddio Mele, owners of a successful department store in Naples (kind of the Neapolitan Macy’s or Harrods), who decided to hire the Ricordi designers for their own business. This was the first time that Ricordi’s graphic project moved from the internal promotion of his own business to the actual creation of an independent advertising company. This is also the reason
why not just opera posters (here are two by Metlicovitz) but really all Italian posters have a theatrical element. This idea of melodrama in the image coincides with the visual construction of the product as a multi-sensorial experience, as a theatrical event. We see this in Hohenstein’s ad for Il resto del carlino, which not only pictures the intrinsic interactions of journalism and poster advertising (in the flying words finanza), but also captures through an elegant woman’s reaction to a piece of information, the vision of modernity as a transient, instantaneous event (as also highlighted by the quick elements of coffee and cigarette). The ad for a newspaper then is a dynamic rendering of a seemingly theatrical episode, as a self-representation of poster art itself, which is temporally positioned on the edge of a fleeting instant, and spatially located on the street curb. In the second poster, by Leopoldo Metlicovitz, we see the representation of a contemporary fact, the launch in 1907 of the Rome-La Spezia Line”. Italy’s modern present here is related to its everlasting past. On the one hand, Metlicovitz relates the present instant to the attractiveness
of female nudity and the ship’s dazzling movement. On the other, he links this time to ancient Rome (in the acronym S.P.Q.R.) and the mythical figure of a siren. In its paradoxical mise en scène, advertising thus stages an experimental visual theater where new technologies interact with old myths, where progress and tradition merge. Lastly, I want to show you a famous poster for Campari by Marcello Dudovich, which displays the ties between Ricordi’s operatic style of brand advertising and the portrayal of modernity as a multisensorial experience of Pleasure. Dudovich relates the drink (minimalistically depicted in the glasses at the bottom right) to storytelling, in the representation of the melodramatic scene of a kiss. Imitating the operatic mingling of arts (music, text, costumes, acting, etc.), he constructs the image as a synaesthetic experience, by emphasizing
the tactile element (the man touching the woman, the velvety decorations on the pillow, the cloth’s brink under the glasses), by associating the pleasure of taste on the lips to that of the kiss, and transferring the red of the drink onto the overall picture (equally charging it with an atmosphere of sensuality and passion). By breaking the bidimensionality of poster advertising, Dudovich thus turns promotional images into a multisensorial theater, where products are actors and the allusions to different sensorial realms (or arts) concurringly fashion modernity as an all-embracing experience of glamour. This is also visible in Dudovich’s famous poster ad for Liquore strega. Now Campari would become, with Ricordi, one of the greatest patrons of Italian branding. Not by chance, his promotional language is related to the aesthetic research of great illustrators (Dudovich), designers (Marcello Nizzoli who will then work for Olivetti) and painters, like Fortunato Depero. With Ricordi we saw branding in connection to theatre. With Campari, in the case of Depero, we see branding as a promotional language that connects the graphic of letters to architecture, painting to design. The iconic Campari bottle by Depero
is a good example of this transposition of languages. The bottle is born of the creative reinvention of a pictorial theme - the painter's obsession for cones and geometric volumes - which turned into the platform for a graphic transposition or a 3D reconfiguration of a bottle, from a cone to a reversed chalice. It was 1932, but Depero's bottle is as new and fresh as 88 years ago. This is how art 'authorizes' a product, transforming contingence into eternal livelihood. Lastly, let me add a note here on branding and the Fascist regime. I want to mention
here the case of Gino Boccasile, designer of the so-called ventennio graphic style and illustrator of strongly muscular masculine figures, who happened to be also the designer of a series of posters for fashion, entitled La signorina grandi firme (big brands lady). In this case, we see that advertising does not coincide with a sole promotional language, but also with a space of freedom and independent fiction, as we see in the image of very emancipated women which starkly contrasted with the idea of femininity that was promoted by the regime, the idea of the woman as wife and mother. It’s the same for the famous ad for Fiat Balilla by Dudovich. So we saw advertising not as a promotional language only, but rather as theatre (turning the object into an event), as an interdisciplinary language (connecting different arts) and an independent space of fiction and experimentation. So branding as culture. Brands as culture-makers. 3. How do logos contribute to culturalize the products? How do they design value or rather a set of values (visual identity of the brand)? I invite you to visit the website of the Museo del Marchio Italiano, if you are interested in each logo’s story. For
our purposes, the observation of the visual identification of Italian companies is functional to highlighting some key elements of the Italian aesthetic approach to industrialism. First, in connection with Metlicovitz’s representation of a hybrid modernity, anchored in the past yet launched toward the future, Italian logos visualize singularity and difference by way of their connection to the nation’s past: seen in relation to artisanal work (as indicated in the continuity with the tradition of pasta-making in the De Cecco logo), to the classical heritage (as evidenced in the font of Bulgari, in Versace’s connection to the Great Greece), or to heraldic (as in the coat of arms style of Alfa Romeo). This connection to the past is also related to the indication of a specific territory. As for Metlicovitz rendering of the SPQR sign, so Maserati replicates the statue of Triton in Bologna, and Alfa Romeo the ‘biscione’ symbolizing the Sforza family in Milan. We can see the connection to heritage also in contemporary ads by Lavazza featuring the lupa capitolina statue or the Vitruvian man by Leonardo. Second, in connection to the visual storytelling of the Campari ad by Dudovich, Italian logos are visual expressions of a particular temperament, as for the bull of Lamborghini, paying homage to his love for Spanish corrida and his fighting temperament (I talk about it in the episode of the show) and the prancing horse of Ferrari, paying homage to Enzo Ferrari’s love for WWI ace pilot Francesco Baracca, who died a few months before the end of the war.
Third, in connection with the flying words of Hohenstein’s manifesto for Il resto del Carlino, logo design turns ephemeral words into poetic words, as reflected in the story of D’Annunzio’s collaboration with Senatore Borletti in the naming of his department store La rinascente in 1917 or his line of alarm clocks sveglie veglia. The brand then is not just a name tag, but rather an immortal poetic word that connects the ‘resurgent’ not just to an evocative setting but rather to the effort of rebuilding the store after a fire and the push of Italians to regain the territories lost to the Austrians in WWI after the colossal defeat of Caporetto. Lastly, we talked about Depero who worked to turn letters and objects into designs of plastic figures. In a similar way, sometimes logos become objects, as in the case of the double G of Gucci, modeled on a belt buckle. Sometimes logos reflect plastic forms or objects, as for Piaggio’s logo, stylizing a flying bird, or Pirelli, whose elongated P mirrors a tire track. So, in conclusion, how does Italian branding look like today? Our previous considerations certainly apply to the construction of the visual identity of many contemporary Italian brands. But, let me add, how is Italy itself branded today? Italy is a logo, as we often
see in many images of the boot shape on restaurant mats or Italian-sounding products. Here is a collection of them for your reference, where the image of the peninsula is mainly used with an exclusively promotional value. The culture element there is often limited to stereotypes. Here are two different maps that might give a completely different version of Italy: the wine regions or productive districts of heritage, monuments, or their density on the national territory. So then, how does Italy brand itself? How does the model of
cultural construction of value apply here? We are so used of images of Italy as a logo that we don’t realize that Italy is actually a no logo brand. A good example of this is the representation of Italy contained inside palazzo Italia (the Italian pavilion) at the 2015 expo of Milan, which displayed a world without Italy. On the one hand, the reproduction suggested all that would be missed without Italy. On the other, the representation also
identified Italy no longer as a logo, in its recognizable shape, but rather as an identifier of value. So, Italy as a mental logo, branded in relation to a cultural discourse, an experience, glamour (so the cinematographic imagination of Roman Holiday or Fellini’s Dolce Vita), an aesthetic lifestyle (connected to luxury and the arts), and lastly to quality (in connection to artisanship and the tradition of workshops). If I were to find an equivalent form of no logo branding, that is, of aesthetically charged content marketing, I would pick the fashion company Bottega Veneta, which deliberately avoids the logo culture of the fashion world (often ending up in a fetishization of the product) by identifying itself with the quality of its intrecciato trademark style and with the motto When your initials are enough. Italy
works the same way. It’s a cultural logo, an event, a personal adventure which might generate very different stories (from Shakespeare’s Verona to Thomas Mann’s Venice, from Goethe’s Naples to Jefferson’s Turin). In this case, the branding of Italy coincides with its culture itself and it’s both a cultural and economic capital.