How to make your brand relevant

Art and authenticity proved to be the perfect recipe for illy.

Building the relevance and the identity of a brand is a matter of working on four key-mindsets. These are authenticity, consistency, a holistic approach and what I call flexible strictness.

In my 17  years as global public relations director and chief sustainability officer of illy, the Italian coffee company based in Trieste, I envisioned  the theory and the practice of this approach and had the chance to experiment and refine it together with my team. The illy case history can help to understand how these four milestones together may drive the communicator’s job towards the desired results.

Let’s start with authenticity. Illy chose art as a strategic platform for its communication, leveraging the fact that coffee has been the beverage of culture for centuries.  A good cup of coffee was and remains the ideal way to seal the creation of many artistic movements. It is a matter of roots as well: the many historical coffee shops of Trieste have always hosted writers and painters. So when illy asks contemporary artists – whether world-known stars like Marina Abramovich, Michelangelo Pistoletto, Jeff Koons and Yoko Ono or young talents starting their career – to paint on the white surface of a coffee cup, it creates an indissoluble link between communication and the product itself. In a nutshell, authenticity in communication is the urgency that arises from the DNA of a company, product or brand.

Consistency implies that once you choose a certain territory for your communication strategy, you stick to it. If yours is a global brand, you apply the same strategy in each and every country. Illy is sold in 140 countries and the communication approach driven by contemporary art is the same everywhere. For example, it is the official coffee of the major contemporary art fairs not only in Italy but also in the US, Spain, the UK, Holland, and so on. Nevertheless, consistency does not mean always doing the same things otherwise you risk becoming irrelevant and boring. That’s why, when the coffee company sets up long-term relationships with art institutions, it made sure that every project or event it organises is different, with always a twist of innovation and creativity. For example, on the occasion of the Venice Biennale, with which illy has partnered since 2003, the presence of the brand is never a mere sponsorship. As a matter of fact, it is always a real project that adds valuable and relevant content to the event itself, such as Anish Kapoor's installation “Ascension” at the San Giorgio church in 2011 or an exhibition of pictures related to coffee by Sebastiao Salgado at Fondazione Bevilacqua La Masa in 2015.

In order to optimise your investments and enhance your public relations strategy, it is of paramount importance to adopt a holistic approach. This means not continuing with business as usual but, instead, to let what you choose to communicate influence and shape what the company is about. Again as an example, in illy contemporary art can be found not only on cup collections but also on packaging, accessories, company books and magazines as well as inside the coffee bar chain the firm has all over the world. The official opening of one of the Espressamente illy shops in Paris was held at the vernissage of the exhibition “Le Paradis sur Terre” by Michelangelo Pistoletto at the Louvre in 2013. Michelangelo designed a special cup for the event and it was launched in the new illy shop in the presence of the artist who signed copies of it for the artsy crowd and the media representatives who attended the event.

Moreover, special attention must be paid to employees.  If we want to be successful with our communication approach we need to have on board all the organisation and not only the public relations and marketing deptartments. Therefore we need to work on both internal culture and communication in order to spread the same messages everywhere. At every Biennale illy gives its employees the opportunity to participate to guided tours, while artists often come to the Trieste headquarters to give speeches and presentations open to everybody.

Last but not least, let’s talk about flexible strictness. For me flexible strictness means that, yes, you always need to be consistent. Nevertheless, at the same time you have to always keep your mind, eyes and heart open. And if you feel that there is an interesting opportunity, even if it is not exactly in the territory you chose, you can decide to seize it and tell a slightly different story to your stakeholders, as long as it is coherent with your communication strategy. After 12 years of contemporary art we at illy decided to become partners with the most important literature festival in Italy, Festivaletteratura, which gathers 50,000 visitors in Mantua every year. As a matter of fact literature is another form of culture and again it is very close to coffee.

Let me end this brief article by adding an extra, fifth point which actually is, in my opinion, the most important one: passion. You really need to be driven by passion – I would say obsession – when you build the relevance and identity of your brand through a set communication strategy and approach. As a matter of fact, it is only thanks to passion that you can be sure of applying the other four milestones successfully.

Anna Adriani

Anna Adriani is a journalist who has collaborated as freelance for many years with the national daily La Repubblica and with the state-owned Italian television network RAI, amongst others. From 1998 until the beginning of 2015 she was the global public relations director for illycaffé, in charge of corporate communication, media relations and internal communication in all the countries where the company has a presence. From 1995 until 1997 she was public relations director for Vodafone Italy (Omnitel at that time) and before that she was responsible for marketing communications and member of the board in Shandwick, the  agency today known as Weber Shandwick, were she started her career in 1984.