Today is the feast of Saint Lucia and, traditionally, food made with wheat (mainly pasta and bread) is off the menu and in its place rice is the order of the day. Even though I hang out in Milan a lot nowadays, I still live in Sicily, so for me eating rice today only means one thing: pigging out on arancine, Sicily’s iconic rice balls covered in breadcrumbs.
The most important thing, however, is to make sure that the word “arancine” is spelt with a final “e”!
If this spelling rule leaves you scratching your head, you’re probably not aware of the long-running dispute in Sicily about whether you should say “arancina” (which is feminine) or “arancino” (masculine). Let me bring you up to speed: in Palermo (in the west of Sicily) this wonderful and tasty delicacy is called an arancina (“a” is the feminine ending in Italian), while in Catania (in the east of the island) it’s an arancino (“o” is masculine). And woe betide anyone who uses the wrong spelling in either of those places!
The endless arancina / arancino debate is also driven by the desire to stress the supposed superiority of Palermo to Catania, or vice-versa: it’s just another excuse for stoking up pointless hostility between these two rival cities.
The Accademia della Crusca, Italy’s highest authority on all language matters, has come down on the side of Palermo, declaring that arancine are feminine. But in this heated local debate, even the pronouncement of such a venerable institution counts for little: it’s really about what each Sicilian has always said, their traditions and respect for their roots. For Eastern Sicilians, it will always be arancino, and for the Westerners it’s arancina. No amount of argument or persuasion will convince either to change their opinion: both know that they are 100% right!
Regional Rivarly Marketing
Pondering this classic Sicilian dilemma, I asked myself: it is really just futile parochialism, this “war of the arancine” (or arancini)? And this is just one example from countless others that exist all over Italy. Then I thought: is it possible that this bizarre tradition could somehow be leveraged for some creative marketing and, in the process, generate a (commercially) competitive advantage?
Bear in mind that one of the most effective social techniques to generate attention and engagement is to stimulate an existing controversy between two opposing factions (this is a technique I wrote about in a previous post: Matteo Salvini, Italy’s firebrand interior minister, is a past master of this dark art). But it also occurred to me that this never-ending regionalism could be pressed into service as a marketing tool, if handled carefully.
A company that I read about here has really understood this rivalry, especially when it comes to food (the majority of these Italian debates are linked to food, naturally). The firm in question is a bakery in Palermo that specialises in focaccia (flat, doughy bread similar to the one used for pizza bases). This bakery announced that it didn’t want to sell arancine (the feminine ones) at the bar in Catania airport, basically to avoid any aggro of the kind we’ve been talking about. Instead, they put them on sale close to Santa Lucia’s Day (what an incredible coincidence!) using BOTH the western (feminine) name “arancine” and the eastern (male) version “arancini”. The aim, apparently, was to show respect for all Sicilians.
The result? This crafty move caught the attention of the national media and was suddenly making the headlines: one of Italy’s main newspapers, La Repubblica, ran with the story: a major coup for these cheeky Palermo bakers. Doubtless, the additional publicity helped to bump up sales of their arancine/arancini, especially on the main day of the year when they are traditionally eaten.
Tasty Take-Away for Marketers
In today’s cluttered media landscape, triggering this “Wow!” effect is the holy grail of any marketing and communications strategist, but there’s no simple recipe to achieve this.
Sicily is a picturesque place that has seen its unfair share of problems, but even here, this company’s socially-minded flash of inspiration scored a major media hit. Reworking the ancient rivalry as a courtesy to customers resulted in a moment of truce that caught people’s imagination, suggesting that the bigger picture is actually positive and something to be celebrated: arancina or arancino, this is one of Sicily’s great gifts to the world. And, of course, it helped leaven the bakers’ profits.
Perhaps this small but significant action on the part of one Sicilian business can offer food for thought to other creative marketers. After all, there’s no shortage of regional rivalries (known as campanilismo or “bell tower-ism” in Italy, a reference to the fierce loyalty Italians feel for their home towns, each with its distinctive bell tower).
You can turn these highly-charged debates to your advantage!
Be smart: perhaps by adding some well-timed and sensitive fuel to the fire, local marketers can bring home the bacon (another gastronomic subject we won’t go into here, in a country with an infinite number of local pork products, all of which are better than each other, of course).
The “war of the arancine / arancini” is a great example of engaging consumers, a strategy that can be readily borrowed to cut through the noise and win that most precious of all economic commodities: attention. By taking a playful and ironic approach to creative communications, marketers can appeal to Italian’s innate local loyalties and the never-ending debates they feed.
Getting it right isn’t easy, but when you hit the sweet spot, the rewards, both in social media and business terms, can be significant!
Please note: this post is the english translation by Robert Dennis of the Leonardo Cascio’s article “La Guerra delle Arancine: quando il Campanilismo aiuta il Business”