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Berlusconi: Marketing, the Plot, and Wikileaks


The Berlusconi phenomenon is an aspect of Italy which fascinates many, and not just those who live in this country.  People wonder how Italy’s septuagenerian permanently tanned somewhat scandal ridden leader manages to continue to rule the roost in Italy.  Just what is his secret?

This is something I’ve been pondering for some time, and, finally, I think I’ve understood how Italy’s controversial and charismatic leader bends Italy to his will.  In very simple terms the answer lies in marketing.  Only Silvio Berlusconi has gone one step further and has used his marketing prowess via his control of Italy’s media to create his own market.  Who are the principal customers?  Why, Italy’s electorate, who also happen to be those who watch Berlusconi run television channels.

Political Marketing Skills

Before applying his marketing skills to his own political career, Berlusconi used his relationships with other politicans to develop and hone his political marketing skills.  Berlusconi was good friends with the late Craxi – and it was Craxi who helped Berlusconi establish a national television network in Italy.  In return for being allowed to broadcast nationally, Berlusconi could provide sympathetic coverage for his chum Craxi, and help keep the Craxi brand strong.  Only Craxi was caught with his fingers in Italy’s till.

Berlusconi, who maintains Craxi did nothing bad, somehow managed to survive being associated with Craxi.  Berlusconi probably has good reason to be grateful to Craxi, as this late Italian politician allowed Berlusconi to carry out some useful market testing.

How Berlusconi Holds On

Italian journalist and writer Beppe Severgnini recently wrote an article on why Berlusconi has maintained his popularity over the last twenty years in Italy.  Severgnini’s article, with its 10 factors, is fascinating and shows how well Berlusconi understands the Italian psyche and how he has played to it as hard as he can. Effectively, Berlusconi knows his market inside out and has used his marketing acumen to help him rise to power, and to hold on to it.

Berlusconi Plays a Numbers Game

At the end of the day, whether it’s selling lots of cars or winning elections, numbers count.  As long as your profit margin is sound, the more cars you sell, the more money you make.  Politics is not much different from selling cars in many respects, only in the case of politcs, profit comes in the form of votes.  With votes, you win elections.  Silvio Berlusconi has won elections in Italy – three times to date.  How has he done this?  Quite easy.  He has cleverly marketed himself as a kind of product, or rather, as a range of products which appeal to as many categories of Italian voters as possible.  He appeals to the Panda drivers, the Bravo motorists, to the BMW crowd, to the SUV market and to Ferrari drivers.  If Berlusconi were a car, he would be something of a hybrid.

While things may look bad for Berlusconi at the moment, there is no reason why he cannot apply the same strategies he has employed in the past to ensure he is voted back in – provided the Berlusconi ‘brand’ still carries enough weight.

The Berlusconi Brand may be Becoming a Dud

As marketing types will tell you, you can market something to death, but if the market thinks the product is no good, then no amount of hype will create sales.  With a new product people may make a purchase, or put a cross on a voting slip, but if the product turns out to be a dud, they won’t go near it again, and will tell their friends to steer clear too.  It is possible that the Berlusconi brand is starting to move into ‘dud’ territory; only, for the moment, no other brand in Italian politics comes close to that of Berlusconi’s in terms of brand strength.

The Berlusconi Marketing Machine Stirs

Former partner turned rival Gianfranco Fini is one ‘brand’ which threatens Berlusconi, but Italy’s knight is working hard to ensure that Fini’s brand strength is diluted.  Hence the recent use of the word ‘traitor’ in connection with Fini and Fini’s followers.

‘Traitor’ is an emotive word, and one which penetrates deeply into the Italian psyche.  Italians tend to harbour a deep distrust of those they don’t know – hence the prevalence of family businesses and close friendships in Italy.  Nepotism and cronyism are widespread in Italy because Italians believe they can only trust family or very close friends.  In other cultures, whereas being considered a traitor is not good, in Italy, if you are labelled a traitor by the right person, then you may as well go and hide under a stone.  Berlusconi wants to force those who oppose him to back down, while at the same time painting a portrait of himself as the victim.

The International Conspiracy against Italy Theory

Then there is the plot, except it’s not, well, not officially.  It was announced last week that mysterious foreign powers, including, possibly one which starts with a U and ends with an A, are behind a conspiracy to blacken Italy’s name.  Berlusconi and his Foreign Minster Frattini have insinuated that the Abruzzo earthquake discontent, Naples trash troubles and even the crumbling of a section of Pompeii are being exploited to damage Italy’s credibility.

It’s an odd accusation, is this plot thesis, in that each of the problems are things Italy has cooked up on its own.  Though the Abruzzo earthquake was not started by Berlusconi, as far as we know, it was he who waded in there, with much media fanfare, to pick up the pieces. This he did, in part, but now it’s looking as if the Abruzzo rescue attempt was more show than actual go, and Abruzzo’s regional capital L’Aquila still sports piles of rubble.  Naples is the same, except the piles are mountains of trash.  Despite media fanfare, streets being cleaned, the trash problem has raised its ugly head once more.  This gives the impression that Berlusconi’s attempt to resolve the Naples’ problem was not much more than cosmetic.

All the foreign press have been doing is reporting what has been going on in Italy, while Italy continues to provide lots of newsworthy material.  It is no plot – it is, instead, merely that Italy sells newspapers.  Anyway, whether a plot really exists or not is not the point.  It is the hint of a plot which will have the desired effect in Italy.  Another emotive concept is used to tweak Italian sensibilities, and to create the impression that Berlusconi and his government are victims of persecution by big bullies: people like the ‘tanned’ Mr Obama, possibly.

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The plot theory is an example of marketing data being used to target hearts and minds in Italy in an attempt to boost the Berlusconi brand enough to help him generate enough votes to win another general election.

Berlusconi’s Market Intelligence

Where Berlusconi excels is in the area of ‘market intelligence’ – he knows exactly how Italians work; what their desires and fears are, and he uses this knowledge to ensure that he appeals to as many sections of Italy’s voters as he can.  Berlusconi clearly knows about market segmentation.  It’s not difficult to understand why.

Prior to entering politics Berlusconi created a business empire which included businesses in a diverse range of business sectors, some of which – Mediaset, Mondadori and Publitalia were related, and they still are.  With the experience he has garnered from running businesses in Italy, Berlusconi knows about marketing to a huge range of consumers.   Marketing data gathered though the years is employed today to target specific groups of Italian voters.  This aspect of Berlusconi’s politics puts him light years ahead of Italy’s bumbling left in terms of vote-winning strategy.

Indeed, virtually everything Berlusconi does, while it may appear casual, is carefully planned and calculated.  Every move is intended too keep him in the good books of those who can put a cross on a voting slip.  But what Italian’s hate is the ‘brutta figura’ – which is making themselves look stupid in the eyes of others.

The Wikileaks Factor

The latest documents released by Wikileaks in what has come to be known as CableGate indicate that Berlusconi has moved into ‘brutta figura’ territory.

In the words of Elizabeth Dibble, US charge d’affaires in Rome, Silvio Berlusconi is “feckless, vain, and ineffective as a modern European leader”. That’s a pretty damning assessment, and one which is not going to do the Berlusconi brand much good at all. The US also worries that Berlusconi is too cozy with Russian Prime Minister Putin.  This concern is not good for Italy either – bearing in mind that it was the US which ploughed money into the country to help it rebuild itself after the Second World War and to keep communism at bay.  The USA is still suspicious of Russia, and is not keen on those who want to cultivate better relations with the ex-Soviet Union.  It expects more from an old friend like Italy.  It expected more from Berlusconi.

Oh, and the US feels Berlusconi parties a little too hard, and that all the bunga bunga festivities may have left him physically weak.

Still, despite harsh criticism from across the Atlantic, and the inevitable ensuing diplomatic furore, Berlusconi will attempt to turn the Wikileaks incident to his electoral advantage. In the face of the opinion of the US, expect him to target to the more xenophobic aspects of Italy’s character very shortly as he attempts to regain lost ground, and avoid the ‘brutta figura’.  There is also, as pointed out via a comment on Twitter, the hint of a “Hannibal ad portas” cry which should ring well with Italian’s who dislike foreign attention/intervention.

Some, including myself, feel that the Wikileaks revelations regarding Berlusconi were not exactly revelations, and that more is probably to come.  With regard to what has come out so far, Berlusconi seems quite relieved.  He must, however, be concerned about what else Wikileaks will release to the public domain, but he will have some idea, and contingency plans will be put in place to deal with other revelations.

Berlusconi reportedly laughed when he heard the CableGate Wikipedia revelations, and claimed that he has never taken part in wild parties.  He went further and stated that others have been paying girls to tell spicy stories to Italy’s left-wing press.  Who these ‘others’ are, is not clear – but they are probably commies, or those involved in the supposed plot to discredit Italy.

Could Wikileaks Destroy the World?

In another reaction to CableGate, Italy’s foreign minister Frattini made the somewhat lavish claim that Wikileaks wants to destroy the world.  While this is not the goal of the Wikileaks people, as far as I can tell, Frattini may have something of a point – he could have expressed himself better – for Wikileaks does need to be a little careful – some of the information coming out could spark conflicts or provoke certain dictators into launching pre-emptive nuclear strikes.  I’m not sure Wikileaks really wants this to happen.

And If Berlusconi Does Go?

With his undoubted expertise on the marketing front, Berlusconi, perhaps from the comfort of his mansion on Antigua, could write a marketing bible.  And his book might just become an international best seller.

The run up to the December 14th confidence vote is becoming very interesting.

PS I’ll add links to references later on today – must go to bed (past 1am here), got an early start.

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