Marketing to Political Correctness: Pirelli Muddles Its Brand

Here are four things I’m betting you didn’t already know about Italy’s Pirelli tires.

1) It is the fifth largest tire manufacturer in the world.
2) 99 percent of its business is tire manufacturing.
3) It operates manufacturing facilities in 14 countries.
4) It’s 87 percent majority-owned by China’s national chemical company.

All interesting factoids, but there’s more:

1) Pirelli has been selling bathing apparel, shoes, and raincoats made from latex products for 60+ years, and at one time featured Marilyn Monroe as a model for its clothing line.
2) Founded in 1872, its first female employee was hired in 1873. She was 15 at the time.
3) Its 16-member board of directors currently has four women on it, and the board secretary is a woman.

Despite all this business-driven data, I will bet that one thing you do know about Pirelli is that it just released a calendar of images, taken by photographer Annie Liebovitz, of marginally attractive women who are (mostly) not naked. And this is somehow a breakthrough in the company’s corporate culture.

It’s true. To major fanfare, Pirelli’s fashion sector just released its annual calendar, its 51st, and it’s not like any Pirelli calendar you’ve seen before. Gone is the glam and the sexy that the Italians first mastered centuries ago. Now, it’s full of “statement women,” those known for their voice rather than their looks.

It’s about time the tire manufacturer recognized women beyond their ephemeral qualities! Right?

Now, you may have missed the calendar in previous years. It was never put on sale. It is better known as a coffee-table collection and a private-stock gift for elite recipients — part of the branding plan that gave Pirelli its high-end status despite its tires being sold at Pep Boys and WalMart.

So perhaps consider for a minute that the very nature of this year’s calendar is Pirelli’s humane way of putting an end to an outdated marketing tool that likely has no measurable return on investment. Realistically, wall calendars are the last hurrah for craft stores selling young children clumsy examples of affection to their gramps for the holidays.

The relevancy of the wall calendar in the era of smart phones is gone, so Pirelli wins by letting it die a “noble” death that also kowtows to America’s culture police.

And, boy, did Pirelli figure out how to milk that cow. It got buy-in on the grandiosity of its gesture from all the appropriate quarters. The New York Times notes the fabulous marketing move:

Altruism and political correctness aside, there is also a compelling economic reason for Pirelli to change direction. It is hard to see the conjunction of the new calendar and the rise of the female dollar, along with the fact that increasingly women are directly driving (no pun intended) or influencing purchasing decisions, as simple coincidence.

According to Antonio Achille, a partner and managing director of the Boston Consulting Group, female income worldwide totaled $18 trillion in 2014 — “an enormous untapped opportunity” — especially because within the luxury car market in the United States, 50 percent of vehicle purchases are decided by women, and 75 percent are “influenced” by them. …

And as (Jennifer Zimmerman, the global chief strategy officer for the McGarryBowen advertising agency) said: “Women have a disproportionately loud voice compared to their male counterparts. And for those women it is no longer socially acceptable to walk into a high-end garage that sells Pirelli tires and see a calendar with naked girls on the wall. You’d drive right out again in that Mercedes you came in with.”

Yeah, because women are driving into high-end garages and finding Pirelli-supplied images of naked women on the walls, and turning around to go to NTB instead (which also sells Pirelli tires). And, by the way, don’t forget that gratuitously naked women was never the calendar’s M.O. The calendar was “art.”

Granted, gimmicks have always been a great tool for turning otherwise boring products into household names. That’s the nature of marketing. But if the political left had a real grip about what matters to women, it wouldn’t think that the newfangled calendar is the dawn of Pirelli’s next era.

Yet so ensconced are some in the depths of political correctness that outlets like The Huffington Post are trying to define this calendar — with its images of Yoko Ono, Patti Smith, and Fran Lebowitz — as the new “sexy,” going so far as to cheekily warn that the calendar is not safe for work (NSFW). If looking at Amy Schumer’s fat rolls is a problem at your office, please don’t open the HuffPo article.

As for female purchasing power, Pirelli doesn’t need to rely on its calendar to make a gender-based marketing appeal to women. The 143-year-old company can count on its own history instead. For decades, it has been at the forefront of education, culture and art, organizational management, and leadership in Italian global exports. As recently as March, during National Women’s History Month (another hackneyed U.S. marketing construct), Pirelli paid its due with a promotional series about the role of women at Pirelli. Now, it may be merely lip service, but so is so much of what the left deems valuable.

If the company does need to turn to gender marketing to be relevant, maybe Pirelli’s team ought to learn the interests of women in the Formula One Racing fan base, where Pirelli is the exclusive tire supplier. That seems like a logical audience. And if Pirelli wants to get into women’s wallets, then maybe it ought to consider marketing campaigns that empower women — with knowledge about the safety aspects of the tires, or how to identify when treads are running low, or how to change a tire while wearing heels. More so, it could turn its attention toward helping women when they make car-buying decisions or toward improving their shopping experiences at car dealerships.

Appealing to female purchasing power does not mean putting less attractive women on calendars (especially when the subjects of the calendar admit that they did the shoot as a favor to the photographer, not to the brand).

Since the calendar was originally intended for high-brow fan boys like Brazilian presidents and hotel magnates, its new look most certainly means its days are numbered. And let’s face it, Pirelli is looking at a global forecast and worrying more about softening markets in emerging economies like Russia and Brazil than whether its calendar is going to appease American women.

So fine, Pirelli has effectively put an end to its formerly glamorous and artistic calendar in the most punctilious way possible. But if skin-deep beauty is no longer appreciated in America, at least don’t try to dissuade the Italians. They invented Baroque, defining beauty with well-rounded (literally) women endowed with assertive minds. America’s political left has nothing on them.