The antidegote oilcan by the designer Rafael Marquina was part of, among others, the exhibition "Foodject" on the new Spanish gastronomy, 2011. EFE / Gaspar Ruiz-Canela.

Catalan gastronomy: why is it underrated abroad

Added to the fact that Mediterranean diet is considered as the healthiest of diets, Catalonia has for years been home to the best restaurant in the world, according to the Michelin Guide. Nevertheless, the prices of Italian products and their distribution in foreign markets are much higher than ours. The key: brand value

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oes anybody not recall the The Godfather movie trilogy and Marlon Brando’s outstanding performance? Well, in the first film of the series, Vito Corleone says once that Italian oil is the best in the world. Not only that, on arriving in the USA –Vito Corleone’s earlier years are the focus of the saga’s second film–, the Don creates his own oil brand, Genco Pura Olive Oil Company, and sets up a monopoly of Italian oil in America. This is just one example of how domestic goods are sold much cheaper abroad than others that are often inferior in quality and yet are sold better abroad than, oftentimes, in our own country. Olive oil and vinegar, cold cuts, wine, cava (i.e. Catalan sparkling wine), greens and vegetables, not to mention the price of a simple pasta-with-tomato-sauce dish in Barcelona compared to its similar counterpart in Rome or Milan.

It is estimated that the goods we buy at Italian quality grocery stores in Catalonia cost around 25% more than in the boot-shaped country. Incidentally, this percentage may be as high as 37%, according to some Italian Chambers of Commerce and stockbrokers. At the other end of the spectrum, our goods often pass almost unnoticed and receive meagre benefit after export tariffs and dues are paid for, as reported by UB’s professor of economy, Gerard Martí.

“Italy has played a leading role in international markets much before us because we were submitted to a political regime that would expose us to international isolation, while the rest of the countries fared as a result of trade exchange”, explains Gabriel Palacios, marketing professor at the Istituto Europeo di Design in Barcelona

Are we then to blame or is this a perception from abroad? Emotionally speaking, we could say that our own underrating is one of the key reasons but, on the other hand, the current European geopolitics is also to blame. Let’s open our eyes wide. How have the Italians managed to create this impression of high-quality goods? “On this issue, every marketing expert has its own opinion. Even psychologists and anthropologists would have one. Personally, I feel that the answer is the presence of Italians goods in markets before Catalan ones and, by extension, before Spain did. This allowed them being present in the consumer’s mind than us. Italy has played a leading role in international markets much before us because we were submitted to a political regime that would expose us to international isolation, while the rest of the countries fared as a result of trade exchange. Back then, it was easier to find Italian goods than Spanish ones in a French supermarket, explains Gabriel Palacios, marketing professor at the Istituto Europeo di Design in Barcelona and author of novels and essays on marketing-related issues.

 

According to Elena Parrés, associate researcher in Social and Cultural Anthropology at the UAB, we have realized that in our country we have been for centuries eating standing up, hence the phenomenon of tapas in barns and taverns, whereas the Italians the only thing they have while standing, as they talk leisurely to the bartender is a cup of coffee. This is the reason why, despite the appearance of a few Starbucks in the main Italian cities, nothing is likely to change. Only tourists visit Starbucks. “We, wrongly enough, mostly because of our dictatorial regime, were seen as a sun-and-beach country, as a place where eating was so cheap that the food’s real value went unnoticed. Tourism in Italy and France, by comparison, has higher quality”, points out Parrés. We are the ones to blame for this although most of us do not even lay down the rules.

“How much does a dinner cost in Italy or France?”, I ask many passers-by. “Around 30 euros per person”, is the most popular answer. “What about here, in Barcelona”? “Well, I wouldn’t pay that much, I could eat at home”. All this sunshine and we never go out. According to Aurelina Banyoles, psychologist, “it is us who have set ourselves in the pillory, literally”. “We happily pay 1.5 euros for a tasty imported avocado, before then it was kiwis. But when it comes to peas from Maresme or, even some mushroom varieties, we cry up to high heaven”, says Alba Jordan, a local Gràcia resident.

A good and constant communication strategy, maintained along a ten-year period, would improve the international image of quality of our products, albeit belated in the USA.

Everyone agrees that it was not until the Olympic Games hosted in Barcelona in 1992 that Spain opened up to the world. Until then, the average US citizen thought that Spain and Mexico were the same places. We can still recall groups of European tourists walking the Barcelona city centre, their heads sheltered under the typical Mexican sombrero.

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“What this country needs is working more and better on its international communication”, affirms Palacios. A good and constant communication strategy, maintained along a ten-year period, would improve the international image of quality of our products, albeit belated in the US. Clearly, what explains why a client is ready to pay a high price for a product is its expectations: great expectations allow high prices. Oftentimes, the actual quality of a product is hardly perceived by the client: for example, some Catalan high-quality olive oil brands fail to be perceived by the clients. This is the key factor: perception. The main aspect here is perceived, not actual, quality. It is this perception that can be constructed. “It was in the late 20th century since the launching of the concept of love brands, as those brands that relate to their clients through emotional connections. Nowadays, we do the same products but we give them different names. Building a story behind a brand, some recommend. Giving content to your brand, others say. The names are not important, because both strategies together manage to give the perception of quality. For some clients, the brand history will guarantee its quality; for others, it will be its modernity and technology; even others will be more interested in the product meeting the expectations associated to their lifestyle or social status. Quality acquires different shapes according to each group of consumers. All of these strategies appeal to the client’s emotions and, from the moment a client loves a brand, he or she will defend it against any attack or adverse comment”, clarifies Palacios. It is at this point that the underrating of our own products comes into play.

Other factors should also be taken into account: Italy has many more inhabitants than Spain and people are the driving force behind progress of a country: more people, more entrepreneurs, more exports. China is a clear example of the importance of people. This key element has overcome the long-standing obstacle of its belated openness to the world. The tension between Catalonia and the Spanish government has not helped either, as in the Spanish boycott against Catalan sparkling wine (Cava) or the general ignorance of typical Catalan dishes or classic Catalan brands like Vichy Catalan or Cacaolat.

To make matters worse, we do not seem to understand that art helps to create history, like the tradition-building photographic calendars (Lavazza), use of English-language branding (San Pellegrino, Barilla), or the design of brand-specific tools and objects (Illy coffee cups and mugs), especially when Catalan design is every bit as good as that from Italy.

As the great gastronomic critics state, food here is the best in the world. If this is so, we should cease our perception of ourselves as long-distance runners, we can also afford ourselves the luxury of the occasional sprint and match up to our rivals. We only need wisdom and courage. Now, shall we get down to work?