Case study: Slow Food keeps grassroots feel

The story. The “Slow Food” gastronomic movement was founded in Italy in 1989, as an alternative to the fast food sector. It is a non-profit, member-supported association. Its founder, Carlo Petrini, positioned Slow Food as a defender of traditional and varied local cuisine.

Although a formal movement with defined aims, producers and consumers were organised into local chapters called Convivia. One of Slow Food’s aims was for members – including producers and consumers – to champion the products of struggling small producers under a collective label. Slow Food is a registered brand.

For consumers, Slow Food’s appeal was an alternative to an “inauthentic” and unhealthy lifestyle. There was a boom in Slow Food markets, restaurants and producers. For instance, producers of robiola di roccaverano, a raw milk cheese from Piedmont, received Slow Food’s official recognition, which increased their income and helped revitalise regional tourism and development.

The challenge. By the turn of the century, Slow Food had given many thousands of artisan food producers a lucrative new market, but the appeal was reaching its limits. Slow Food was often seen as a snobbish, middle-class dining club. How could it stop being just a niche label without sacrificing its founding principles? Should it follow a strategy of “mainstreaming” by targeting larger food suppliers and supermarkets? Or should it maintain its “grassroots” strategy, with the risk of being confined to a limited market?

The solution. Slow Food sought to create a hybrid brand. This involved making links between its existing appeal to gastronomes and the concerns of other niche groups, such as environmentalists or those concerned with fair trade and social justice.

The movement started to emphasise the labels of “good, clean and fair” as the key requirements for food products and repositioned itself as championing “eco-gastronomy”. This concept was both clear and ambiguous enough to provide meaning and to appease constituents with different interests and identities.

By appealing to a widening range of consumers, Slow Food faced a new challenge of preserving consistency and authenticity. To do this, it followed a global-local strategy. On the one hand, it developed a more centralised and more formal political agenda by setting up national offices, working with international agencies such as the UN, establishing its own University of Gastronomic Sciences and organising big international events, such as its flagship meeting and food extravaganza, Salone del Gusto (Hall of Taste).

At the same time, Slow Food continued a local and grassroots agenda of involvement in farmers’ markets, tastings, community gardens and schools.

The result. Slow Food has become a respected movement that partners with international organisations without neglecting its decentralised grassroots beginnings.

It has more than 100,000 members across 153 countries. A 2002 study by Bocconi University reported a 64 per cent average increase in quantities sold and a 33 per cent rise in the price per unit over two years for 54 endangered authentic artisan Slow Food products.

Slow Food has helped thousands of artisan food producers and retailers to thrive and the “slow” idea has spread to other sectors, such as tourism and transportation.

Key lessons. Creating strong collective brands requires a variety of strategic choices and actions.

Successful collective brands create a new group of adherents by providing new meaning to existing products. These brands involve and are built by the consumers and supporters themselves, as shown by the local activities of Slow Food’s Convivia.

Collective brands often need to change gear if they want to continue growing. Brand hybridisation was Slow Food’s version of this.

To maintain consistency, Slow Food pursued centralised strategies. But to preserve a sense of authenticity it was essential that consumers and producers remained involved in grassroots activities.

The writers are, respectively, professor of organisational studies at Cass Business School and a doctoral researcher at Warwick Business School


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s