How Ten Bags of Soil Stained an Italian Brand

A practical example of how every decision (not just marketing) can affect the consumer’s perception of your company.

The definition of ‘brand’ goes far beyond a logo, name, or the design of your marketing materials. Simply put, it is the culmination of how you look, sound and (often overlooked) how your organization acts. Every decision by every employee matters, as they ultimately contribute to the overall customer experience as well as the story that gets told to friends and neighbours who have not yet had an experience.

Milan in March is beautiful. The weather is comfortably mild, the air is filled with the echoes of birdsong and thankfully the mosquitoes are still hibernating. It’s around this time that the entire city, almost on cue, starts to think of gardening. In every residential street, Nonnas and Nonnos can be seen in their yards pondering their ratios of tomatoes versus salads, checking their hoards of bamboo stakes, and otherwise contemplating this year’s plan of attack.

I got into the spirit too. It was my second Spring in Milan and armed with last year’s learnings of local insects, weeds, and freak summertime hailstorms (along with months of not-so-subtle observations over the fence by Maria, my 87-year-old gardening guru neighbour) I embarked on my own planning.

For those of you who are scrolling to the top, wondering if you clicked on the wrong post… don’t worry, we will get to the marketing part of the story soon enough. Just hang in there.

In addition to last year’s successful mix of San Marzano, Costoluto and Datterino tomatoes, I decided I wanted flowers. Lots of flowers. A jungle of flowers! But I would need a lot of soil to fill my two dozen terracotta pots. So, it was perfect timing during the second week of March when I opened my mailbox and found the weekly flyer for my local discount housewares store. This national chain is extremely popular in Italy and has literally everything you need for the home. Hundreds of these giant yellow stores dot the suburban landscape throughout the country.

Still in my courtyard, I hastily flipped past the pages of laundry detergents and various brands of lavender scented floor wash until I arrived at the garden section at the back of the flyer. Sandwiched in between garden gnomes and rolls of woven landscaping fabric, I found exactly what I was looking for…

Eccola! “Premium Potting Soil, 50% off, only €3 per 50 litre bag”.

A few days later, I found time in between meetings to make a quick shopping trip. I entered the store, loyalty card in hand and navigated my shopping cart through the aisles of perfumed detergents until I found a towering pallet of potting soil in the centre of the store. Exactly as advertised in the flyer. The generic-looking white bags lacked the usual perfection of a brand name product, but I was reassured by the big bold writing: “High quality. Ideal for gardens and potted plants.” Perfetto! I started loading the bags into my shopping cart. Soon after, I was joined by two other customers with empty carts. I was convinced that I had in fact found a good product for a good deal. I filled my cart until the wheels would barely move. I stopped at 10 bags.

A couple weeks later, I spent an entire sunny Saturday in the garden. As I worked my way through the 500 litres of soil, I noticed something disturbing. Pieces of scrap plastic and metal mixed into the dirt. Nails, screws, electrical wire, beer bottle caps – I even found a couple long shards of glass. I was disappointed but figured perhaps the standard for potting soil was ‘different’ here in Italy. Or maybe there was some crazy EU environmental rule that mandated that potting soil must be recycled from building sites. Anyways, I separated the pieces of scrap from the dirt and planted my seeds and seedlings. I watered and then I waited.

Anyone who has ever gardened will know the joy of watching new life emerge from the black earth. Witnessing a tiny seedling slowly transform into the robust plant you were expecting, is awesome yet humbling. It’s an opportunity to connect with nature and appreciate the miracle of creation. Unfortunately, my experience was slightly less poetic.

I discovered right away that the soil wouldn’t absorb water. Like a wave washing up on a beach, the water would immediately drain out the bottom and within hours, the entire pot would lack any moisture. One of my little store-bought fuchsia plants was the first to go. Even with the perfect amount of partial shade, the pink and purple blooms dropped to the ground, the leaves dried up and within 3 days, the entire plant was dead. Next on the list were the two chrysanthemums I had purchased to provide something to look at while I waited for my seedlings to mature.

A chance encounter at the fence with my green thumbed neighbour Maria, revealed that she too had purchased the same soil from the same store. “Che truffa!” (What a scam!) exclaimed the normally soft-spoken signora. Obviously upset, she ashamedly described how she had used the product with this year’s tomatoes and zucchinis. They were already showing signs of distress and her grandson would later arrive to replant them all.

Fast-forward three months and despite now watering twice per day, the ‘jungle of flowers’ I was hoping for, resembles (I assume) something that would emerge from the ground in a nuclear wasteland. Half of the pots are devoid of any life. Even the weeds won’t grow in them. The other dozen or so contain the surviving plants, each one barely clinging onto life. A fraction of the usual size, the remaining shrubs and flowers produce fewer and smaller blooms with noticeably desaturated colours.

Unwilling to let the plants starve to death, I continue to water them each evening and again every morning. And here finally, is where the marketing aspect of my story, will become clear. Twice a day, I stand in my garden being bitten by the mosquitoes who thrive on the unusual abundance of water that flows to the pavement below the pots of arid soil. Twice a day, I pick up yet more leaves and flowers that fall prematurely. Twice a day, I am reminded of the time and money I have wasted. Twice a day, I can’t help but remember where I bought this potting soil from.

I don’t think for a second that this company intended to sell a bad quality product. Having previously worked in the retail industry for two decades, I understand that regrettable decisions happen. I get it. An overworked corporate buyer signs off on a purchase order for truckloads of a bargain priced product from a new supplier without checking their certifications. Or perhaps the buyer is filling in for a colleague who normally takes care of this section. In any event, the company is eager to pass along the savings to the consumer and features the new product in their upcoming flyer. Millions of copies are soon printed and in the hands of postal carriers across the country. The rush is on to get the product on to the salesfloor at every location in time for the start of the flyer. The management and buyers are busy thinking of subsequent promotions, unaware of the wave of frustration they are about to unleash on their loyal customers.

Even with my inside knowledge of the system and (slight) forgiveness for how this could have happened, the experience has altered my impression of the brand. Specifically, I can no longer unquestionably trust the quality of the products they sell. Admittedly I still shop at the store – after all, it’s the closest big store to my house – but I do so less often, and I have scaled back on my purchases. I no longer look at their flyer. When I do go, it’s purely for necessity and I stick to the national brands I recognize. The company’s heavy investment in its coveted private label program is wasted on me because I am not willing to take another chance.

87-year-old Maria – well that’s another story. She’s not forgiving anyone for messing with her prized Datterinos. She doesn’t care about how or why this happened. She feels cheated and no longer trusts the store. And her social network is definitely inclined to care about her gardening woes more than mine is. At her weekly post Sunday mass get-together in her kitchen, I am certain she has shared her opinions with the group more than once.

I think it’s plausible that there are at least another thousand Marias out there right now talking about the same experience. Forget about the damage to the brand for a second. Think about the immediate cost in terms of lost revenue. Maria isn’t going back to the store anytime soon to buy garden tools, lemon-scented hand soap or anything for that matter. Now imagine four or five of these bad buying decisions are made each year. What does that look like on the bottom line? And getting back to the brand, what long term impact does it have on the credibility of messaging and the effectiveness of promotional investments?

I admit that this is an extreme example. Naturally, not every purchase carries the risk of such long-term emotional baggage. But the reality, and the lesson to be learned here is, that every decision by every department, no matter how small or insignificant, affects the perception of your organization. Ultimately it is the collective opinions of consumers and clients that shape your ‘brand’.

Likely the company now knows about their mistake and is anxiously waiting for the last bags of soil to be sold so everyone can forget about the experience. But unlike buying a chocolate bar that didn’t taste as good as I thought it would, this isn’t something I can forget about in a couple hours. I will be reminded of my unfortunate purchasing decision every day for the rest of the summer. And if for some reason I can manage to think less about the annoyance of the situation, it will hit me again in a month as I prepare to go away on vacation and need to find a friend who is willing to water my half-dead plants… twice a day.

 

 

Nash Huntley moved to Milan from Vancouver in 2020. For over 21 years, he worked for a major Canadian supermarket chain, the last 6 of which was spent as Head of Marketing for the group’s gourmet division. His experience in retail marketing combined with his participation in numerous buying missions to Italy have afforded him a very unique perspective of the challenges faced by Italian exporters.

Nash Huntley works with clients in Italy to better prepare their products for export to English speaking markets. By performing this work at home in Italy and presenting to overseas distributors a product that does not require additional and costly creative services, clients maintain higher profit margins while preserving the integrity of their brand.

 

Thoughts?