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by Barry Silverstein
March 25, 2010

The story of Barilla starts like many family businesses: with the dream of an individual. Pietro Barilla wanted nothing more than to market fresh food in his pasta shop in Parma, Italy in 1877. His son Riccardo joined the family business, and they made pasta and bread by hand, selling it throughout Parma from yellow, horse-drawn carts.

The business grew. The father and son team bought new equipment and eventually rented a warehouse, but one thing didn’t change – the quality of the durum wheat flour, or semolina, used to make the pasta. Today, 133 years later, Barilla still has a pasta production facility near Parma, but the company is now a global food conglomerate that remains private and family-owned. It is run by Guido Barilla, Pietro’s great-grandson.

Barilla is the number one pasta brand in Italy. Just three years after its introduction in the United States in 1996, Barilla became the number one pasta brand there as well. In addition to its flagship pasta brand, the Barilla Group owns such brands as Harry’s, a leader in French bakery products, Golden Toast and Lieken Urkorn, leading German bakery brands produced by Kamps, and Wasa, Scandinavia’s leading flatbread.

Barilla may be over 100 years old but its approach to marketing is young. When the company wanted to promote its pasta on television, for example, it adopted a slice of life creative strategy in both Italy and the United States instead of focusing heavily on product.

In one classic Barilla ad from several years back, a dashing Italian-speaking man on a street in Italy bumps into an attractive English-speaking woman. We then see the woman in a restaurant waiting to be served. The man, it turns out, is the restaurant’s chef. He himself brings a dish of Barilla Tortelloni to the surprised woman. The romantic undertone is palpable, and it is only heightened by the lilting melody sung by Andrea Bocelli in the background. This and similar Barilla ads prove even pasta can be sexy.

In addition to television, Barilla’s US-based activities have taken advantage of other media, public relations, and sponsorship opportunities. Barilla was an early sponsor of Bode Miller (unfortunately, it was during his less-than-auspicious Olympics appearance in Torino), and an original sponsor of New York’s Tribeca Film Festival. For the past six years, the company has sponsored the “Barilla Marathon Eve Dinner” for thousands of runners who participate in the New York City Marathon. At February’s “South Beach Wine & Food Festival,” Barilla sponsored an “interactive dinner,” at which participants were encouraged to cook, with the help of local culinary students.

Last September, Barilla sponsored a research study called “Share the Table: The State of Dinnertime in America,” which indicated that American families were struggling to make family meals a priority in their lives. The study resulted in the launch of “The Barilla Family Dinner Project,” accompanied by a website that includes hundreds of recipes and tips to improve the dinnertime experience. Barilla enlisted renowned chef Mario Batali and country singer Martina McBride to help promote the campaign. As part of the project, Barilla promised to donate up to $150,000 to the Meals On Wheels Association of America in support of home delivered meals to needy individuals.

Because the United States is such a huge market for pasta products, Barilla formed a subsidiary, Barilla America, with corporate offices located near Chicago. Using experts from Italy, Barilla cross-trained their American counterparts in Italian pasta-making techniques. Barilla America opened a plant in Ames, Iowa in the late 1990s, sourcing durum wheat from North America and manufacturing pasta on the North American continent to the same standards as the pasta manufactured in Italy.

Barilla has managed to keep up with contemporary nutritional requirements, too. In 2005, the company introduced its PLUS line, a premium, multi-grain pasta that’s high in protein, omega-3 fatty acids, and fiber.

Barilla was voted “the most respected company in the world” in a 2006 poll conducted by the Reputation Institute. In 2007, the company was one of six globally recognized food and beverage companies to be designated by the Ethisphere Council as among the most ethical companies in the world. The Barilla brand was named a “Brand Growth All-Star” for 1997-2005 by consulting firm Bain & Company, one of only seventeen consumer products, and the only pasta product.

In 2008, Barilla had net sales of more than 4.5 billion Euros. The company currently exports products to more than 150 countries. This is one family brand that has come a long way since the days of its founder, Pietro Barilla.


Barry Silverstein has been a frequent brandchannel contributor since 2007. He has thirty years of advertising and marketing experience and is currently a freelance writer and marketing consultant. He founded and ran his own direct marketing agency and held executive positions with Epsilon, a leading database marketing firm and Arnold, a major ad agency. Silverstein is the author of three marketing books, including the McGraw-Hill book, The Breakaway Brand, which he co-authored with Arnold CEO Fran Kelly.

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