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How Global Food Giant Barilla Became an LGBTQ Ally

May 8, 2019, 5:19 PM UTC

I’ve been mulling two recent stories that explore, in different ways, inclusion in marketing and advertising. One offers a good idea, the other describes a great one.

The first is a review of Grow Your Circle, an open source database that functions as a handy resource for hiring diverse professionals in the parts of branding and advertising that happen behind the cameras. Fast Company staff editor Jeff Beer says the tool was created by Forsman & Bodenfors New York after they tried to put together an all-female production crew for a project but had trouble filling every role. It launched in 2018.

Now agencies like 72andSunny and Droga5 as well as a host of independent production companies use it to “search for and find underrepresented talent–including those who identify as LGBTQ+, come from diverse backgrounds, or live with a disability–across production disciplines including film, digital, and experiential,” says Beer. “Its menus filter talent based on expertise, location, or category specialty, and the database is also searchable based on whether it’s a female- or minority-owned business.”

See? Good idea. Especially if people actually use it.

For a great one, check out this story from Bloomberg’s Thomas Buckley on how Barilla dug itself out of a horrific mess of its own making.

It begins with a soundbite heard ‘round the world.

On a warm September evening in 2013, Claudio Colzani drove his Audi the 100 or so miles from Milan to Parma, home for almost two centuries to the world’s largest pasta empire. He had joined Barilla SpA as chief executive officer less than a year before and was on his way to a dinner with its chairman, Guido Barilla, who was giving a live interview on national station Radio 24. As the sun edged lower in his rearview mirror, Colzani turned up the volume and listened as his boss walked the hosts through the company’s family heritage—its spaghettis and sauces. Then Barilla dropped a bombshell he would spend half a decade atoning for.

“I would never do a commercial with a homosexual family, not for lack of respect, but because we don’t agree with them,” Barilla said on Italy’s best-known radio talk show. If gay customers didn’t like that, they could go buy another brand of pasta, he said.

More than gay customers didn’t like it. There were calls for a global boycott, fed by social media outrage. Major distributors raised a fuss. Harvard pulled Barilla products from their dining halls. Barilla senior leadership expressed deep disappointment.

Although sales were unshaken, something more powerful was. Public perception. The company’s great conceit had long been the notion that their products were a vital component of a traditional meal served by a traditional family. Who were they to judge what makes a family? In 2014, Barilla dropped 21 spots on the Reputation Institute’s annual ranking of companies.

What followed was an expensive but brilliant plan to turn the $4 billion dollar, family-controlled food purveyor from a retrograde bigot into a global ally. With Colzani in charge, Barilla got on board the inclusion train fast, hiring a diversity officer, instituting new training, creating employee resource groups, and recruiting some deeply skeptical, but ultimately indispensable LGBTQ advisers.

Something worked: For the past five years, the company has earned the highest possible score on the Human Rights Campaign’s corporate equality index.

I’ll let Buckley take it from here. The Barilla story is still unfolding, but there are many good ideas for anyone looking to freshen up a brand whose thinking is stuck in the past – all of which involve inclusive leadership training and tactics.

But the great idea at play here is the openness, humility, and courage coming from the person in charge, in this case, the family elder whose name is on every box of pasta. Top-level buy-in is the foundation of all corporate culture change, and no good idea – like a much needed opensource database – will reach its full potential without it.

At the company’s annual staff meeting in December, Barilla showed a short film in which an American employee narrated, “Five years have passed since the beginning of our journey.” Pictures of [David Mixner, a civil rights activist, author, and Barilla adviser] and the company’s chairman hugging flashed on the screen to a solemn piano solo as the narrator said that Barilla had come to learn that love is blind, because it makes no distinctions of gender, religion, or race.

Two months earlier, at the Pasta World Championship in Milan, Barilla did exactly what its chairman had promised would never happen: It unveiled a limited edition of its most popular product, Spaghetti No. 5, wrapped in a box illustrated with two women holding hands, a single strand of pasta held between their lips in a nod to Walt Disney Co.’s Lady and the Tramp. It was designed by Olimpia Zagnoli, an Italian artist who had advocated for boycotting Barilla in 2013.

Well, now I’m hungry. It seems like a good day to share a meal with someone you wouldn’t ordinarily, right? Inclusive leadership is always better on a full stomach.

Ciao for niao, good people.

On Point

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The Wrap


On Background

National Mamas Bail Out Day: A Mother’s Day gift for women in prison
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National Bail Out

How income inequality causes psychological stress
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The Society Pages

Aidan Taylor assisted in the preparation of today's summaries.


Barilla has a right to believe whatever they want. And I have the right to boycott them or fully fund a gay porn made in a tub of linguine
—Christine Teigen.