Nutella: Web Giant

When Facebook released a list of its most popular pages last month, the first two—President Barack Obama and Coca-Cola—were fairly predictable. But No. 3? What was Nutella doing up there?

Though many of those 3 million or so fans were no doubt based in Europe, the Italian hazelnut/chocolate spread has achieved an enviable notoriety in the U.S. as well, branding experts say. “It has all the dimensions of a cult brand,” said Allen Adamson, managing director of the New York office of Landor Associates, who said that the brand’s relatively low profile gives consumers social currency. “Part of what drives it is this idea of ‘I’ve found something really cool. I want to get my friends inside something that they won’t see in a two-page spread in People magazine.’”

Nevertheless, Douglas Atkin, author of The Culting of Brands, isn’t sure that Nutella fits the description of a cult brand. Atkin says that one thing that distinguishes such brands is the ability of fans to talk about things beside the product. But judging by Nutella’s Facebook discussions, fans seem to want to talk about little else than Nutella. “Nutella or sex?” is the title of one discussion. “Nutella and pizza” reads another.

Cult or not, Nutella is blessed with a strong Web presence. Google Nutella and you get roughly 5 million results versus under 2 million for Twix and 3 million for Skittles. (Skippy, the peanut butter, also gets 5 million results, but the name can be used in other contexts.) There are about 5,000 videos featuring Nutella on YouTube, many of which are foreign commercials. There are more than 17,000 photos featuring Nutella on Flickr and the brand is a favorite subject of bloggers.

What’s all the fuss about? Sara Rosso, an American superfan of the product who initiated a Nutella Day on Feb. 5, said the brand has the right combination of European sophistication and indulgence. “The Europeans eat it and therefore, it can’t be all that bad,” said Rosso, who is now living in Italy. “I also think most people who are passionate about it equate it with a memory they had while traveling, and that reinforces the cult/smaller usage of Nutella in the U.S. because of those that have traveled to Europe. They then transmit this energy and enthusiasm to their family and friends back home.”

In the U.S., fans like Rosso are the backbone of Nutella’s brand outreach. Owned by Ferrero USA, Nutella spent just $300,000 on media in 2008.

Nutella’s Facebook page was also created by a fan, not the company. “Although sometimes manufacturers try to develop and to stimulate blogs or other Web related activities, this is not the case for Nutella,” said Alessandro Bampa, category manager for Nutella. “I can confirm that, at least as far as the American consumers, the buzz that you can see on Facebook is mainly driven spontaneously by our fans.” The approach seems to be working. Sales for Nutella Specialty Nut Butter rose 14.4 percent for the 52 weeks ended Feb. 22, per IRI. 

At first blush, Nutella’s success with a hands-off approach might appear maddening to a marketer like Jim Ensign, vp-marketing communications for Papa John’s. That brand now boasts about 200,000 Facebook fans, most of whom came on board to get a free pizza during a November promotion. But Ensign lauded Nutella’s accomplishment. “There’s going to be brands that have that international fanhood and rabid fans,” said Ensign. “I’m happy for folks who leverage that word-of-mouth. If Facebook was around 10 years ago, we might have gotten this big 10 years faster.”

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