Made in Italy

Marta Bernardi
Current Events

And, after all, if it is possible to fake a bag, it would certainly be possible to replicate a wheel of Parmigiano Reggiano, right?

Today Made in Italy stands for elegance, quality and attention to detail. Like a hymn to the well-made, to historical craftsmanship, to the great beauty. None of this is a surprise nor is it an extravagant idea. Italian products are considered among the best in the world, increasingly appreciated and desired; and this is also thanks to the safeguard and promotional activities operated by the companies, consortia and organisations at home. Everybody talks about it, everybody wants it. This is where a key factor comes into play: in order to purchase Italian products, people are willing to pay handsomely, with lots and lots of money. This, obviously, opens up a large, lucrative market: one of knock-offs and imitations. But it would be way too easy to discuss counterfeit shoes, bags and clothes. Let’s talk about something else: let’s talk about food.

Italian cuisine and its products are appreciated at least as much as a well-made leather wallet, maybe even more. The average Italian loves food: they love eating it, looking at it, talking about it and the same goes for the rest of the world. So we are back to what was said just a few lines above: I like it, I want it, I buy it. And, after all, if it is possible to fake a bag, it would certainly be possible to replicate a wheel of Parmigiano Reggiano, right?

The market of knock-offs and imitations of Italian food is thriving and growing. It is now worth clarifying one thing: the market of fake products and one of the products that are included in the definition of “Italian sounding” are two neatly separated things. The first one is illegal, thus criminally punishable, and regulated by both national and international laws. On the other hand, the latter is completely legal. Now, the expression “Italian sounding” related to food refers to all those products that, thanks to their names or to the images used in their packages, remind the consumer of their link to Italy, despite them not being connected at all to the Bel Paese. This practice is extremely common, at least as much as forging, so much so that, on average, on international supermarket shelves four out of ten products are Italian sounding. It is certainly possible to try to fight the first one, but the second one, on the other hand, cannot be defeated in an open battlefield.

In fact, forgeries, being illegal, can be challenged to a duel through lawsuit after lawsuit, despite the chance of having unexpected results. An impressive example of how these lawsuits can be a source of incredible failures – and not without some tragicomic implications – is the case of the Parma Ham made in China. A few years ago, in the Guanzu province in China, they would produce ham, sold in vacuum-sealed packages that read “Prosciutto di Parma”. Clearly, only the Parma Ham marked by the corresponding consortium with the famous five-point crown symbol can be called “Prosciutto di Parma”. Therefore, in front of such a public example of forgery, the customs personnel in Dubai detained the products and reported the affair. The Chinese reply was just as incredible as it was efficient: they re-named a small town of only (!) seven million citizens Parma. Et voilà, it’s not illegal anymore. When your rivals can play such moves, facing them head-on like battering rams may not be the best option.

In these situations, just like in the fight against Italian sounding products, it is necessary to sharpen a different type of blade, which is, being recognisable. In fact, we often forget that the average Italian consumer is usually much more informed than the average consumer abroad. If by now, Italians are used to and more meticulous when reading labels and information, non-Italian consumers struggle to discern real Italian products from fake ones. This implies a number of issues, first and foremost the fact that Italian products are hardly distinguishable from their competitors. It is only in recent years that measures are beginning to be taken in order to make Italian products more recognisable in foreign markets, adapting the packaging not only so that they abide by the local labelling norms, but also so that they’re mindful of the target culture and its imagery of Italy. An example of this is De Cecco, that reimagined its pasta packages aimed at the Emirates market: they are simply and completely tricoloured. If to the average Italian consumer, a similar packaging would seem a sort of grotesque exhibitionism – not to say it would stand out like a sore thumb – the average Dubai consumer would immediately associate the colours with Italy and would take it as a warranty of anything that a product made in Italy stands for: quality, deliciousness and good health.

Further methods to become more recognisable are certifying labels, issued by specific institutions and associations that guarantee the authenticity of a product. Other companies, on the other hand, place on the labels a handy QR code linking to the product’s characteristic page on their website.

Fundamentally, many see this competition as a source of loss in revenues for Italian businesses. However, the reality is very different. Rather than a loss, it could be a source of opportunities: by putting into practice fitting and efficient sponsorships and brand awareness, consumers abroad would become more careful in how they choose the products they want, with no doubts but more accuracy. Lastly, there is one great observation to discuss: oftentimes, Italian-sounding products dominate a specific market because there is not any original Italian product to compete with. This means that, in practice, Italian products can easily enter that market certain of selling well, as their target clients are already purchasing products believing they’re Italian. And what’s the cherry on top? Potentially, they could have lower prices than their Italian-sounding competitors could. As a matter of fact, this type of product is often placed in an intentionally high price range, because it considers that the average consumer would think that the more expensive something is, the more likely it is high quality but, most importantly, authentic.

[1] Rödl & Partner. 2021. I principali fenomeni di Italian Sounding nel mondo agroalimentare.

[3] La Repubblica, 2009. Nasce una Parma in Cina per produrre prosciutti Dop.

[4] Gamberorosso. 2021. Italian sounding: cos’è, come funziona e quali danni fa al made in Italy.

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