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How Barilla used its CEO’s homophobic comments to reshape the company’s image

Unlike Chick-fil-A, Barilla used its anti-LGBTQ scandal as a catalyst for conversation and inclusivity.

Barilla controls nearly half of the Italian pasta market.
Getty Images

In 2013, the CEO of Barilla, one of the world’s biggest dried pasta brands, marred an otherwise anodyne interview about the company’s legacy with an egregious homophobic comment.

“I would never do a commercial with a homosexual family,” Guido Barilla said live on the Italian station Radio 24, “not for lack of respect, but because we don’t agree with them.”

Bloomberg has the full story on his gaffe, the backlash that followed, and the steps the company took to repair the damage done by the CEO’s comment. The story shows the tensions that can exist between privately held companies — and the sensibilities of the very wealthy families who often control them — and those of their staff, as well as the effort companies need to put into bouncing back from PR crises, both immediately and in the long term.

Guido Barilla immediately apologized for offending “the sensitivities of some people,” which wasn’t received well, perhaps because it wasn’t a very good apology. In the years since his comment, the company has spent roughly $5 million a year to turn around its reputation, Bloomberg reports. Barilla has appointed a chief diversity and inclusion officer, has set up meetings with Italian- and US-based LGBTQ rights groups, and implemented diversity and inclusion training.

But these efforts, commendable as they are, may not have had a huge effect on Barilla’s bottom line — and it’s possible Guido’s homophobic comments didn’t either. Oddly enough, the Barilla example suggests that consumers don’t always care about the perceived ethics or politics of certain companies. According to the Bloomberg report, Barilla’s revenue was better in 2013, the year of the homophobic comment, than in 2012. And despite calls for boycotts, Barilla’s revenue climbed even higher in 2014. Barilla currently commands about a quarter of the US pasta market, as well as a little less than 50 percent of the Italian pasta market.

The Barilla case is an interesting foil to Chick-fil-A, a far different company that has been embroiled in a few anti-LGBTQ scandals of its own. Like Barilla, Chick-fil-A’s CEO has a history of making homophobic comments.

In 2012, Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy said the US was “inviting God’s judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at him and we say we know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage,” prompting a national boycott. Unlike Barilla, Chick-fil-A made few, if any, efforts to correct-course, even after the public caught wind of the fact that its charitable arm, the Chick-fil-A Foundation, and the Cathy family’s private foundation regularly donated to anti-LGBTQ causes and charities.

There wasn’t even a real apology: “We have no agenda, policy, or position against anyone,” a spokesperson told BuzzFeed in 2012. “We have a 65-year history of providing hospitality for all people and, as a dedicated family business, serving and valuing everyone regardless of their beliefs or opinions.”

And like Barilla, the company’s bottom line barely suffered because of this — as of December, Chick-fil-A was on track to be the third-largest fast-food brand in the country.

It’s unclear whether Barilla’s staff knew about the Chick-fil-A scandal or whether they looked at the company as an example of what not to do. But it’s worth noting that despite important gains toward LGBTQ equality in the US, Chick-fil-A’s seemingly regressive stance has remained strong. Meanwhile, Barilla, which is headquartered in a country with a much less favorable track record when it comes to LGBTQ rights, has adopted a far more progressive stance than that of the Italian government.

On the surface, Barilla and Chick-fil-A are strikingly similar: Both are privately held, family-owned companies. Both are known for a signature product. And both have CEOs who have made homophobic comments in the past. But while Chick-fil-A has responded to the criticism largely by ignoring it (and by continuing to donate to anti-LGBTQ groups even after it claimed it would stop), Barilla used its CEO’s comments as a chance to reshape its company image.

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