Rebranding the Colosseum

How far can a company take sponsorship before the public scorns it for promoting its brand in the disguise of serving the state? A question for Diego Della Valle, CEO of Tod’s, who recently struck a deal with the Italian Ministry of Culture to refurbish the Colosseum

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Revivification is very much an expected facet amongst luxurious fashion houses when striving to preserve an innovative, unique and distinctive style and brand. However, what is not commonly expected is to witness such brands extending this resurgence to historical monuments through funding of renovations.

Tod’s Group, the Italian manufacturer of shoes and leather goods, and its maverick CEO Diego Della Valle, widely referred to as Italy’s shoe king, have done exactly that. Shoemaker Tod’s is footing the €25m cost for the restoration of the Colosseum in exchange of the right to use the logo of the monument on its products and stamp Tod’s logo on the back of the Colosseum’s entry tickets.

An American dream comes true
Tod’s story is a truly remarkable one, from its humble beginnings and the invention of its legendary driving shoe, right through to its multi-million-luxury empire. The shoe giant’s history began in the early 1900s when local cobbler Filippo Della Valle opened a small shoe store in what is now considered Italy’s fashion capital, Milan.

It was his son Dorino however, who eventually helped the business truly emerge in the 1940s. Dorino, after starting out as a cobbler’s assistant aged only nine, began to make shoes for American department stores, including Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue. He regularly travelled to New York for business and often took his eldest son Diego along. Dorino encouraged his son to become a lawyer and sent him to study at the University of Bologna but Diego dropped out after a few years and returned to his father’s side.

The ‘Gommino’ driving shoe, arguably Tod’s best known product, stems from an idea Diego came across whilst on one of his US trips. Diego found an old moccasin in a New York vintage store and reworked it to create a product that was fashionable, comfortable and versatile enough to suit diverse lifestyles. Fiat magnate Gianni Agnelli was one of the first to wear the ‘Gommino’ and combined them with a classy suit, which gave the ‘Gommino’ an instantaneous fashion appeal.

Globally celebrated for providing some of the finest in men’s and women’s shoes, bags and small leather goods, Tod’s has received acclaim from celebrities, royals and artists alike. Its handcrafted, contemporary designs are the essence of luxury and the craftsmanship of its products are true to its philosophy that ‘living well is an art’.

The shoemaker is constantly developing new ideas of how to create new metaphors of brand personality through various forms of advertising. Its personality particularly shone through when it collaborated with the Milan based opera house Teatro alla Scala to promote the heritage of the ‘Made in Italy’ brand. After Tod’s made the largest private donation to the opera house and funded two years’ worth of opera productions, the classical ballet, ‘An Italian Dream’, was created by La Scala in Tod’s honour. The piece was inspired by the creation of the ‘Gommino’ to show an interpretation of the artistry that is required for the production of each pair.

Tod’s luxury goods continue to go from strength to strength with additional expansion plans announced constantly, including the recent opening of further boutiques in Hong Kong and Beijing, where it has become a huge success.

National  hero or crafty entrepreneur?
It is indisputable that the vast success and recognition of the Tod’s brand transpired thanks to the charm, genius and hard work of Diego Della Valle. He has become the face of Tod’s despite the involvement of other family members, predominantly due to his maverick ideas, which often make the news. It helps also that he had a very public falling out with Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi over the country’s tax system and the prime minister’s failure to support smaller Italian businesses.

Della Valle is notorious for leading a jet-set lifestyle with a handful of properties, one of which is in Capri, as well as a private jet and several custom made Ferraris, one of which is Michael Schumacher’s 1997 Ferrari Formula One car. He also owns a helicopter, which he and his brother use as transport to fly to Florence whenever they want to watch a game of football. The brothers bought their beloved AC Fiorentina in August 2002 and it is understood they are now considering purchasing an English football club, with Norwich and   Portsmouth believed to be on their radar.

Shoe guru Della Valle can see past the world of leather however, as he increasingly enjoys getting involved in non-fashion ventures. One example is his investment in a private railway project, a high-speed rail line in Italy, which is expected to launch by the end of the year. He is jointly spearheading the enterprise with a heavy weight from the world of transport, longstanding friend and business partner Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, the president of Ferrari. In addition to that enterprise Della Valle became last year the biggest investor in Saks department store after raising Tod’s men’s shoes holding to above 19 percent.

However, in spite of his lavish way of life he is smitten with the middle-class American dream and loves all types of American junk food whenever he visits New York. “My generation of Italians, we are children of American culture,” he has said in the past. He prides himself on the fact that he is part-American by extension, as his eldest son Emanuele, lives in New York, married an American and has two half-American children. Yet, above all Della Valle values all things ’Made in Italy’ and has often expressed his desire to assist Italy in promoting those. It came as no surprise then that he was quick to act in response to a request for financial assistance to restore the Colosseum.

The sponsorship rights and reactions
When the Italian government launched a tender last year to find the usual private sponsors for the project to restore the Colosseum the reaction from sponsor’s was less than satisfactory. Predictably the tender fell through because the offers submitted were insufficient and Roman authorities decided to negotiate directly with various interested corporations and individuals. Della Valle, with his unyielding passion for all things ‘Made in Italy’ triumphed when his offer was accepted, but immediately critics surfaced.

Union leader Gianfranco Cerasoli, who represents the interests of Italian workers in arts and culture, has filed a lawsuit and made a request for the Roman prosecutors to inspect the deal. He believes the deal contains ‘many unclear aspects’ which permit too much exclusivity to Tod’s for a period of up to 15 years. According to the union the deal could be worth approximate €204m in advertising and marketing to Tod’s. Critics may muse this is not a bad turnaround for an investment of €25m.

Head of the Rome division of the opposition party, Marco Miccoli, noted: “We’re against all forms of privatisation, whether or not they’re hidden, especially the privatisation of one of the most important monuments in the world.” Della Valle however had an entirely different agenda. Speaking at the press conference alongside Sandro Bondi, the minister for Cultural Heritage and Activities, on the day the agreement was announced and signed, Della Valle said: “The Colosseum is unquestionably one of the greatest monuments in the world and it so happens to require restoration. An Italian company decides, as a token of gratitude to the country, to position itself in the front row of its rebirth by helping out. This is not done for an economic return but because it is our obligation and we feel proud of it.”
Since the announcement much has been said about the controversial sponsorship deal and the type of rights the sponsor will gain over the monument. Most media however failed to pick up on the non-profit association created to deal with the projects’ issues. The association, provisionally called ‘Amici del Colosseo’ or Friends of the Colosseum, has been formed to oversee and promote the project through an information centre, which will be located close to the Colosseum. In addition to providing updates on the status and progress of the works it will be permitted for 15 years to put its logo on the back of entry tickets, at the admission fence of the Colosseum and it may record the works to use in promotions. In comparison, Tod’s licence to the same rights will last only for the duration of the works plus two years and is additionally entitled to use the term ‘single sponsor of the Colosseum restoration’.

When in Rome…
Tod’s case brings back memories of when one of Venice’s most renowned landmarks, Ponte dei Sospiri or the Bridge of Sighs, ended up completely covered in its sponsor’s adverts. The restoration of the bridge caused an outcry when a large part of the bridge was covered in images of models with gigantic pieces of jewellery. The word Bulgari in a vast font ensured the bridge received more attention for its adverts than for the myth which once made it famous, namely to grant everlasting love to those who kissed below it when passing in a gondola.

While some are infuriated by this type of sponsorship others question if this is any different to companies such as McDonald’s, Adidas and Coca-Cola sponsoring the Olympics. The Olympics possess a set of principles that are valuable to any marketer, possibly in a similar manner to the restoration of a national monument. Both bring people together in solidarity as they promote honour, integrity and dedication to excellence.

Choosing to sponsor the restoration of a globally recognised historic building is at face value an operation which one expects will bring prestige to both Tod’s and Della Valle.

Perhaps it is because of this that critics have questioned his motives. However, as markets become ever more competitive, entrepreneurs have to work even harder to stand out and connect with their customers. It is likely that within a few months time, as the refurbishment improvements start to show by bringing the Colosseum back to its former glory, it will all be water under the bridge.