Doing a Ratner. An open letter to Barilla, the pasta people ...

Chairman, a penne for your thoughts ... 

The pasta world is boiling over at the less than sensitive comments made by the Chairman of the world's largest pasta company Barilla, Guido Barilla. Comments made on Italian radio revealed that Mr Barilla would refuse to use homosexual couples in the company’s promotional activities and advertising. He has since partially apologised (but not retracted) his comments which included forthright views on gay families and same-sex adoption. 

The response was swift and predictable. Bertolli responded with an ad featuring pairs of the same type of pasta holding hands and Buitoni ran a Facebook ad with the simple message 'Pasta for all'. Boycott Barrilla hashtags have been trending on Twitter to some effect. 

This is known as doing a Ratner – a self-inflicted brand broadside made by dear old Gerald back in 1991. His quip about his ‘crap’ products wiped £500 million from the value of his stores – in one speech. It is, I guess, easily done, and so much more so nowadays with all our access to social media channels, or more pertinently, self-publishing channels. It’s no longer easy to gaff up and escape the consequences. 

There are other famous examples. Matt Barrett, the Barclays chief executive, surprised many when giving evidence to MPs by suggesting that consumers should stay clear of his company's product, the Barclaycard, because it was so expensive. Alain Levy, chief executive of EMI, managed to offend most of Finland when he criticised a roster of their artists saying there were not that many people in the country ‘who could sing’.

And my personal favourite is the brand director of Topman who described his target demographic as 'hooligans' and concluded that ‘very few of our customers have to wear suits for work’. They would be ‘for his first interview or first court case’. 

There is a temptation to drift into schadenfreude at the sight of the great and the good of the business world putting their massively expensive Gucci loafers in the doo-doo. To be fair, pertinent examples are fairly few and far between, but they do highlight the role and importance that brand leadership plays in the lives of chairpeople and chief executives today.

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