Success Is Sweet: Ferrero's Crown Jewel, Nutella, Turns 60

Success Is Sweet: Ferrero's Crown Jewel, Nutella, Turns 60

April 26, 20244 min read

Six decades ago, on April 20, 1964, the first jar of Nutella left Gruppo Ferrero's factory in the Italian town of Alba. In its gooey wake, the chocolate-hazelnut treat would spread across continental Europe, and then the world, like a healthy schmear on toast.

Today, Nutella is the crown jewel of Ferrero's confectionary empire, propping up a business that generates roughly 17 billion euros in revenue each year. Annually, a whopping 365,000-plus tons of the stuff are sold across 160 countries, and nearly one quarter of all hazelnuts harvested are devoted to its production.

Luca Cottini, PhD, is an associate professor of Italian in Villanova University's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and an expert on modern Italian culture, history and society. He also is the author of a book on Michele Ferrero, the mastermind behind Nutella and its meteoric rise: Il fabbricante di cioccolato.

To mark the iconic Italian brand's 60th anniversary, Dr. Cottini shared some thoughts on its Willy Wonka-like creator, early (accidental) origins and recipe for international success. Here's a taste:

Q: According to Business Insider, a jar of Nutella is sold every 2.5 seconds—just about the time it takes to finish this sentence. How did we get so "nuts" for Nutella, anyway?

Dr. Cottini: Well, much of the success of Nutella relates to its novelty, to the idea of spreadable chocolate. At one point, to think that spreading chocolate would be popular was as crazy as to predict that spreadable coffee would be a hit.

The idea developed because, in the mid-to-late 1940s, Michele Ferrero's father Pietro was to combine the scarcity of cocoa in his area with hazelnuts, which was the ingredient most available in Alba. It seemed like condemnation that they should have only hazelnuts. Well, he combined them with cocoa to produce this mix—it's called "gianduja" in Italian—and he sold it.

But when the Ferreros sold it in southern Italy, they had a problem: The chocolate was melting with the summer heat; and a lot of the workers in Naples, to not waste it, started to spread it on slices of bread. And it's interesting. The Ferreros have a completely non-moralistic approach to failure. You sell chocolate; it melts. This is somewhat embarrassing. But their approach was instead to see this situation as the beginning of a new idea, of a new concept.

Q: Is Nutella's story unique in this respect?

DC: Several Italian innovators have similar stories to the Ferreros', especially during the 1930s. [Salvatore] Ferragamo, for instance, developed the wedge shoe because there was a shortage of steel, with an embargo imposed on Italy. So, he used Sardinian cork as a replacement, and that generated the wedge shoe. [Guccio] Gucci, during a leather shortage, started using hemp and decorating the hemp with a double "G," and that became the trademark of the company. [Alfonso] Bialetti, who produced the modern coffeepot, used the only metal that was allowed during Fascism, which was aluminum, since the Partito Nazionale Fascista would not import iron or prime metals. But Bialetti took this poor, hybrid ore and made it something that could become valuable. And so, he invented the moka coffeepot in 1933, which is one of the symbols of Italian design. That’s one of the keys of the Italian model of entrepreneurship: producing objects that are not just trendy for one season, but eventually become evergreen or classic.

Q: What inspired the name "Nutella?"

DC: It was the product of 18 years of research. For all intents and purposes, "Nutella" first came out in 1946. It was called "SuperCrema" and, before that, "Cremalba." But in 1962, there was a law in Italy that prevented companies in the food industry from using prefixes like "super" or "extra." So, that led Ferrero—by then, under the leadership of Michele Ferrero—to figure out a new alternative to SuperCrema.

At the same time, the company was expanding into Germany and France, and they needed a brand name that could be pronounced easily. So, Ferrero joined the "ella" sound from mozzarella, stella, caramella—Italian words that people could recognize—with the word "nut," like the English "nut," which gave their product an international feel. It's really a "glocal" [global and local] name. It was conceived as a very rooted enterprise with a global horizon.

Q: In 1964, were Ferrero's global ambitions practical?

DC: It was honestly a bit of a gamble. In 1957, the European Economic Community was established, which is the beginning of the European Union. And that same year, Michele Ferrero organized in Rome the first conference of his company, which was by then somewhat national, to plan exportation in Europe.

In the Italy of the 1950s and 1960s, this was very pioneering. Michele Ferrero was actually one of the first businesspeople to export products to Germany in the 1950s, at a time when there was a lot of resentment against Italians because of everything that happened during the Second World War. So, he entered this incredibly difficult market, and still today, Ferrero and Nutella are strong.

Q: What do you think accounts for Nutella's continued popularity, 60 years after its introduction?

DC: Michele Ferrero thought of his products as speaking products. It's something very common to the automobile industry in Italy. This is characteristic of Ferrari and Lamborghini; they produce cars that are appealing not just because they're "super cars," but because they say something.

Nutella is a food that says something. When someone puts it on the table, it compels people to jump in and share their own stories—of trying it with a friend, of having it on a hike or of taking part in "Nutella Day."

Today, if you're in the market for a chocolate-hazelnut spread, you might find products that are even better than Nutella. Actually, surely better. But they will never replicate the appeal and the grasp that Nutella has. Because Nutella has that aura of storytelling and mythmaking other products simply don't have.

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