Introduction: towards an Italian marketing history

Jonathan Morris (School of Humanities, University of Hertfordshire, Hatfield, UK)

Journal of Historical Research in Marketing

ISSN: 1755-750X

Article publication date: 16 February 2015



Morris, J. (2015), "Introduction: towards an Italian marketing history", Journal of Historical Research in Marketing, Vol. 7 No. 1.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Introduction: towards an Italian marketing history

Article Type: Editorial From: Journal of Historical Research in Marketing, Volume 7, Issue 1

When putting together the call for submissions for this theme issue, I sought to choose a title combining the three keyword concepts Italy, Marketing and History in the shortest possible combination – hence, the edition was billed as being about “Italian Marketing History”. The result is a title in which brevity was perhaps privileged over clarity. In retrospect, a more accurate title in terms of reflecting the contents would be “The History of Marketing in Italy”, or even “History and Marketing in Italy”.

I write this because if one considers the state of the field in Italy, through the lens of the characteristic Italian preoccupation with linguistic precision and paradox, then it is clear that Italian Marketing History is not so much underdeveloped as a field, but as a discipline per se. Italy has a substantive tradition of management studies, yet Italian marketing scholars seem to have spent relatively little time thinking about their subject from a historical perspective, or establishing a particular Italian school of marketing thought. It is indicative that I received very few responses to the call from scholars based in Italian schools of marketing, and that the supposedly key publications by Italian authors that I was pointed towards within the discipline were largely derivative of standard marketing theory.

Historians from Italy, on the other hand, submitted a significant number of proposals, albeit not always from a strictly marketing perspective. This, too, is reflective of the state of the discipline. Italy has long had notable strengths in both business history and local history, with the latter reinforcing the former (Amatori and Bigatti, 2003). In recent years, historians have worked alongside social scientists to investigate the ways in which Italian small-family businesses have managed to not only survive, but prosper within a modernising economy. Particular attention has been paid to collaborative strategies, such as those pursued by the clusters of firms located in “industrial districts” that sprang up within the so-called “Third Italy” of once economically peripheral regions such as the North East and Centre (Bagnasco, 1977; Becattini et al., 1990). A new iteration of this phenomenon is that of “fourth capitalism”, focusing on those medium-sized Italian firms that have shown themselves best able to compete within globalised markets (Colli and Vasta, 2010).

More recently, there has been a flurry of interest in consumption studies as a younger generation of Italian historians, having absorbed the lessons of the cultural turn within international historiography, have begun re-examining the narrative of the so-called “economic miracle” of the 1950s and 60s (Scrivano, 2005). The conventional view was that this period saw the “Americanization” of the Italian society and culture as a country in which the majority of the post-war population were still employed in the countryside was transformed during the reconstruction of the1950s into a predominantly urban and industrial economy accompanied by massive internal migration from the fields into the factories (Crainz, 1996). During the 1960s, Italy rapidly assumed the characteristics of a mass consumer society as households acquired white goods, automobiles, telephones and, critically, televisions (D’Apice, 1981). It was the legendary advertising slots on state television that were run under the title Carosello (Carousel) that encouraged Italians to go and seek out branded products in the newly emergent supermarkets (Dorfles, 2011; Scarpellini, 2001).

Recent studies have proposed a more nuanced understanding of this period, one to which several of the articles in this theme issue will contribute. Instead of focusing on the phenomena of modernisation per se, they interrogate the cleavages that these experiences opened up within Italy, notably between generations and genders (Capuzzo, 2003). They place much greater emphasis on the translation and negotiation involved in the transfer of consumer practices into the Italian context and the cultural hybridisation that this engendered (Baldoli and Morris, 2006; Cavazza, 2013). A simple but telling example, for instance, is the evolution of the Italian version of the motorway service station which sought to fuse the modernity of the American-style format with the hospitality of the Italian bar, while creating a new style of light menu that was suited to motoring and the traditional Italian palette (Colafranceschi, 2007).

Such analyses can also provide new ways into the great staple debates of Italian historiography – about the economic divisions between the industrialised North and the underdeveloped South, about the clashes between the church and the state, religious and secular values and, above all, the dilemma that has dogged Italy since the times of Cavour, Garibaldi and the unification of Italy during the 1860s: having “made Italy”, how does one “make Italians” (Duggan, 2007)? Arguably, Carosello went further to achieving this feat than a century’s worth of political projects, including those of the interwar Fascist regime to promote a “patriotic” – that is, autarchic – model of consumption (Helstosky, 2004; Paulicelli, 2004; Ferris, 2012). The impact of television in “uniting” Italians through “shared experience” was magnified by coinciding with a period of 50 years of so-called “blocked democracy” up until the 1990s. During this period, the leading political parties, the Democrazia Cristiana (DC) and the Partito Comunista Italiano (PCI), developed their own mass subcultures to underpin their political base. This led to the creation of deeply entrenched interests, not least because of the permanent exclusion of the Communists from the Italian Government, which was always in the hands of the Democrazia Cristiana and their coalition partners (Ginsborg, 1990). The combination of deep political divisions and electoral stalemate meant that many of the cultural shifts that took place in the post-war era originated in the commercial sphere (Scarpellini, 2011).

Integrating the history of marketing into these established narratives, therefore, can play a key part in developing more nuanced readings of Italian history. At the same time, it should also provide a framework for developing an Italian history of marketing that proceeds from an examination of the translation of American practices into Italy, into a consideration of what makes the Italian marketing history distinctive in itself. That work has already been begun – not least in the pages of this journal – with a new emphasis on investigating the conduct of marketing in Italy prior to the advent of Americanisation (Arvidsson, 2003; De Iulio and Vinti, 2009). The particular stress laid upon the importance of graphic artists in communicating to consumers, for example, should be set in the historical context not only of a population with high levels of illiteracy, but one divided by language as most spoke one of a multitude of local dialects, rather than standard Italian: arguably then, such advertising was in itself a step towards “making Italians” by establishing a common brandscape.

This special issue of the Journal of Historical Research in Marketing seeks to take this work further, presenting a number of articles in which several distinctive aspects of Italian marketing history are identified. We begin with the article by Nando Fasce and Elisabetta Bini “Irresistible Empire or Innocents Abroad? American Advertising Agencies in Postwar Italy”, which contrasts the experience of J Walter Thompson (JWT) and McCann Erickson in establishing operations in Italy at different moments during the development of the domestic market, using very disparate strategies to do so. They show that far from a simple story of a one-way transfer of ideas from one side of the Atlantic to the other, this history needs to be understood within the context of existing Italian practices, the role of foreign, non-American, agencies and individuals, particularly the British, and that of a transnational cosmopolitan elite of practitioners (notably those with Latin American backgrounds) who specialised in the transplantation and adaptation of modern advertising techniques from one market to another.

Patrizia Battilani and Giuliana Bertagnoni in their article on “The Use of Social Networks in Marketing: the Italian Cooperative experience” analyse the very particular approach to marketing developed by the left-leaning cooperative movement during the post-war era. They demonstrate how the movement utilised the strong socio-political identification of its members and customers to create a strategy that pre-figured the use of viral techniques and the creation of oppositional brand communities today. This social network approach to marketing was not just distinctive within, but dependent upon, the Italian political context of the period.

Roberto Parisini’s contribution discussing “The Commercial Revolution and Local Government in ‘Red’ Bologna (1959-1981)” again focuses on the political dimensions of the rapid transition to a mass consumer society, and the ways that this was managed within the context of the Communist administered city. In particular, it focuses on the ways that the commercial planning laws were applied so as to regulate the growth of large-scale distributions without destroying the fabric of small businesses operating at the level of the neighbourhood. The dominance of this highly fragmented commercial distribution network up until the 1990s must be seen as a distinctive element in Italian marketing history, whereby the political interests of all parties have sought to extend social protection to shopkeepers and their like, forcing marketers to accommodate their strategies to this dominant channel of distribution (Morris, 1999).

The articles by Carlo Marco Belfanti, and Elisabetta Merlo and Mario Perugino, draw our attention to another distinctive element of Italian marketing – that is the relationship between the present and the past – and, in particular, the use of this by the country’s fashion industry. Italy’s remarkable artistic patrimony offers an almost irresistible peg on which to hang a marketing strategy, particularly when this forms part of a proposition developed for foreign customers. Belfanti’s contribution discusses the use of “History as an intangible asset for the Italian fashion business” focusing on the way that the so-called founder of modern Italian fashion, the Florentine aristocrat and entrepreneur Giovanni Battista Giorgini, constructed a narrative of a direct lineage from the Renaissance to the output of Italian designers in the 1950s that, while fundamentally flawed historically, became a commonplace belief that underpinned the international success of goods labelled “Made in Italy” (Lees-Maffei and Fallan, 2014).

Merlo and Perugino’s article on “Reviving Fashion Brands by Combining Marketing and History” analyses the way that the legacy of one of the key protagonists of that era, Emilio Pucci, has been mobilised by more recent owners of his eponymous brand, using a retro-marketing strategy. They show how a failure to properly understand the historical meaning of Pucci’s oeuvre translated into a relatively unsuccessful campaign to leverage its value, generating as much confusion as credibility among potential consumers.

What about brand heritage as an asset within the Italian market? Alberto Guenzi and Carlo Mari conclude this special issue with two longitudinal studies of brands that have become icons of Italianess among consumers, Fabbri 1905, a producer of industrial food products, most notably a morello cherry syrup known as Amarena, and Bianchi, the most well-known Italian bicycle manufacturer. Guenzi’s contribution, entitled “Building brand awareness with a bowl of cherries”, shows the ways in which Fabbri developed its identity through the use of direct premium promotional strategies, and how these evolved within the context of the changing Italian market. In the case of Amarena, the distinctive jar in which the product was contained became the premium and now forms a tangible link to the brand’s history, while more recent premiums have included figurines linked to the character originally used to promote Fabbri products on Carosello. Importantly, these premiums are not used simply as launch offers, but rather form part of a long-term branding strategy. Mari, meanwhile, in his article on “Putting the Italians on Bicycles: Marketing at Bianchi, 1885-1955” shows how the company pursued a three-pronged marketing strategy around product segmentation, marketing through sport and the creation of symbolic meaning, to construct an enduring brand identity. Again the iterations through which this strategy has passed can be directly connected to the changing contours of Italian history.

This special issue originated in a session held at the CHARM Conference in Copenhagen 2013, and the author would like to thank all those who took part in the session, especially those paper givers – Maria Chiara Liquori, Helen Caldwell and Mark DeFanti – whose stimulating work the author unfortunately was unable to include here. The author would also like to thank the reviewers of the submissions for their very valuable suggestions, and above all the JHRM’s Editor Brian Jones for his enthusiasm for opening the journal to this new direction, and his patience and hard work in seeing it through to production.

Jonathan Morris, School of Humanities, University of Hertfordshire, Hatfield, UK


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