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Brands that become Heroes: Illy, a case study

Posted by: Robert Pyrah on March 15, 2011

Among the many definitions of a brand, one of the oldest still rings true: that it’s a promise. On a basic level, a brand guarantees consistent standards and better-than-generic quality, harking back to the early days when Kellogg’s stuck a name on its grain boxes to make the point. But it also underscores a lifestyle package or value system that goes beyond a simple product or service, wherever you are on the spectrum from affordable to premium. 

This may sound a bit Orwellian to skeptics, but frankly, anyone who’s gone for a Coke over Pepsi knows the synapse-tingling value of having a great experience with a brand they’ve consciously chosen. So with good reason, brands that have nailed the “lifestyle” factor above and beyond basic product quality are primed to make the leap from success to hero, even icon status. We’re not necessarily talking about owning a category, but carving a cultural niche.

Illy is a company that’s done just that. A near-global brand that’s at root an importer, roaster, distributor, and self-styled “academy” of all things coffee, this Italian firm, like many successful brands, marries a rich back story with a great quality product, second-to-none mark extensions, and a foot very much in the future.

The company’s origins carry the flavor of Imperial Europe in its faded splendor. It was founded after World War I in the old Habsburg port of Trieste, where it remains. A demobbed Austro-Hungarian soldier, Francesco Illy, born in a part of the collapsed empire that’s now in Romania, settled in Trieste after World War I and set to work in local roasting factories. Through ingenuity and hard work, he founded his own, and is credited with developing an early prototype both of the now popular teabag-style dispensing system for coffee, and an early form of espresso machine.

The company has remained in the hands of Francesco’s dynasty, a rarity among global brands. It continues to differentiate on quality and forward-thinking technology, with an increasing nod to Italian designer culture through clever collaborations. The patented Illy cups are re-released annually in avant-garde styles by well-known designers. Stylish home machines that fit Illy’s various dispensing systems call to mind the dashboard of an Italian speedster. And the company is rolling out a format of boutique espresso stores, called espressamente, that claim to be to coffee what Armani is to fashion. 

Starbucks this isn’t – and that’s no criticism of either brand. While the former goes for volume, and has reinvented itself (through social media, its own digital channel, music sales and patronage) to stem a brief blip, Illy has carved out a very specific Italian niche that starts with a fantastic-smelling, lingering roast and ends with a whole welter of lifestyle cues that take the experience up a cultural notch. Illy thinks there’s room for multiple players in this market, and with the year-on-year growth of the coffee segment in territories like Asia where tea has traditionally ruled, it’s hard to disagree.

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