Culture and business: Italy, Olivetti and the United States

State of Art

In the last two decades, historiography on contemporary Italy has analyzed more the concept of consumption, which was largely included in books on postwar Italy. Consumption in Italy was massively influenced by America, which affected European culture after the end of the conflict. Thus, whether culture can influence consumption, culture can be a consumption good as well (i.e. attending an art exhibition, a theater play, a movie, etc.).

A tight link among consumption, exports, and national brands exists. The Italian is an interesting case in point, since Italy globally affirmed his national brand as ‘Made in Italy’ since the 1970s onwards. This is an expression of quality in fashion, food, housing, and furniture industries and it often contributed to identify Italy with brands like Ferrari, Armani, Dolce & Gabbana, etc. Among the main recipients of Italian exports was the United States: in mid-1980s, some 12.3 per cent of Italian exports reached the United States.

In the very last years, studies on consumption and promotion of Italian brand abroad began, also connecting to the role of millions of foreigners claiming an Italian ancestry (circa 60 millions). This mass of people is now on the spotlight for the Italian national and regional governments for political and economic reasons.

In promoting national brands abroad, states can also use their culture. In studies of international politics, culture is intended as a ‘soft power’ with an increasing role besides the two traditional pillars of the ‘hard power’ (economics and politics). Culture can represent an instrument for reciprocal understanding and pacific relations among states. By ‘cultural diplomacy’ is intended the state’s use of his culture (language, academics, intellectuals, etc.) in the international game. A proper cultural promotion can massively affect the national image abroad. Culture can also became a more political instrument, as in the case of totalitarian regimes.

Promoting culture and language abroad can also increase business and trade of national industries and companies. China today is a case in point, since besides a booming economy China increased the number of the cultural Confucius Institutes across the globe aimed to diffuse Chinese culture. Renzo Zorzi – former responsible of cultural relations for the Ivrea-based Olivetti – told how in the 1980s his company was capable to win German and American concurrence on Japanese market through a program of lectures on design in local universities and art exhibitions. Between late 1980s and early 1990s, Furio Colombo, chairman of FIAT-USA and director of New York Italian Institute of Culture, stressed the importance of the Italian culture for economic goals, since foreigners always perceived Italians for their glorious historical past and their current creativity and dynamicity. Notwithstanding, Italy traditionally overlooked her cultural heritage and barely valorized it.

Very few studies analyzed the role of Italian ‘cultural diplomacy’, especially for the postwar decades. Even less are the studies unearthing links between business and culture. Also, studies on companies’ public relations, that is all forms of communication undertaken to relate to the external environment. It is a complex process including advertisements which can lead consumers to define a ‘brand identity’ (by product) and a ‘corporate identity’ (by company).

Olivetti, America and Italian Culture

Olivetti, Ivrea-based company leader in producing formerly typewriters and latterly electronic calculators, has been one out the most dynamic Italian companies in the second postwar. Founded in 1908 by Camillo Olivetti, especially through Adriano (Camillo’s son) became a company leader in Italy. Adriano benefited by a trip to the United States in the 1930s, where was impressed by production system and relations between management and employees. Back in Italy, he restructured his company by promoting a collaborative relations and harmony in the plants. He thought about a model of company town, where the company could represent a social reference for the community of workers. According to Olivetti, this could lead to a full accomplishment of democracy. In this model the employee had to benefit his/her membership to the community through a number of social services including kindergartens and summer camps for children. Adriano also believed in the importance of esthetics, thus he required collaboration of architects for restyling his plants.

Adriano was always very close to the United States and the American culture and maintained close relations with the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations, as well as with Italian and American universities and academics, by using expertise of sociologists, philosophers, experts of graphics and urbanism and, generally, of intellectuals. According to Olivetti, culture was a tool to increase laborers’ style of life. This is the reason why he organized a Cultural Center, a few company’s libraries, courses in humanities, and established a company’s publisher.

Adriano soon comprehended the importance of quality in product and stores’ design and advertisement. Consequently, in 1952 the New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art hosted an exhibition of Olivetti’s products. Adriano’s death in 1960 did not interrupt this process, since his heritage was taken by Renzo Zorzi, responsible for Olivetti’s cultural relations, industrial design and advertisement. This branch was separated by the central service for cultural and social services addressed to the company’s employees. Zorzi’s branch had a main role in promoting the company’s brand both in Italy and abroad, since this was perceived as a vehicle for implementing business. Consequently, Zorzi was assigned a specific budget to be spent on these purposes and room for developing freely these projects. Zorzi pointed out how cultural events were strongly linked to trade, and he firstly thought about exporting art exhibitions abroad as marketing tools. Sometimes the branch organized the events, otherwise these were hosted in companies’ facilities, as in the New York’s branch of the Olivetti Corporations. Mostly the United States, Japan, and Europe were the target of activities, which did not bring to immediate economic incomes, rather had impressive outcomes in terms of brand promotion.

Project’s Goals

The main target of this project is to define aspects intermingling Italian cultural diplomacy and commercial promotion in the United States since the postwar decades up to date. It is my interest to rebuild the political project by the Italian governments and evaluate whether in Rome officials aimed to use national culture as a vehicle to improve foreign trade and exports to the United States. This study will definitely link the role of ‘Made in Italy’ brand and his influence on Italian foreign policy. The role of Italian chambers of commerce abroad, associations across the globe in charge to facilitate Italian trade abroad – will be included.

This national policy will be studied besides the case of Olivetti, maybe the most active Italian company in developing cultural activities. The goal will be studying Olivetti’s cultural activities in the United States and discovering if the company was able to create (or not) synergies with the Italian and American national and regional governments. This study will be part of a wider analysis on promotions of Olivetti’s brand and corporate identities. Responses by businessmen and American consumers to these forms of communication will be taken in account.


The theme is largely overlooked by historiography and will be based on a massive research undertaken in the repositories of the Immigration History Research Center of the University of Minnesota through a Fulbright scholarship. I had chance to study records of the main Italian-American organizations, whose role will be considered in the wider framework. Italian-Americans are recipients of Italian products and are vehicle for relations between Italy and the United States. Lastly, it will be interesting to analyze how the Italian culture and the ‘Made in Italy’ brand have a role in defining their identity ‘torn’ between the mother country and the adopted land.

This study intermingles diplomatic, social, ethnic and business history, and include an analysis of consumption patterns. An intensive research on primary sources will be pivotal to complete the project. In particular, I will take in account the following archives:

  1. Archive of the Italian Foreign Affairs in Rome
  2. State Central Archive in Rome
  3. Archive of the Olivetti’s Foundation

Furthermore, proceeding of seminars on the ‘Made in Italy’ and the role of Italian culture abroad will be analyzed, as well as website as (association for Italian chambers of commerce abroad) and Last but not least, oral interviews to cultural and commercial promoters will be undertaken.

This project is at his early stage. A preliminary part of research was published as “Italia e Stati Uniti: ‘Diplomazia culturale’ e relazioni commerciali dal fascismo al dopoguerra”, Italia Contemporanea, no. 241, 2005, pp. 523–534, while a previous study on Italian culture propaganda to the United States in the interwar period was published as “Culture or Propaganda? Fascism and Italian Culture in the United States”, Studi Emigrazione, vol. 43, no. 161, 2006, pp.171–192.