Milano Says: Capturing Milanese Essence
By Emily Briggs
Developing a profitable brand image is hard enough for companies selling tangible products. Think of the marketing budgets for Apple (1.8 billion), Disney (3.13 billion) and Spotify (3.13 billion). For some perspective, that’s a little less than double the Gross Domestic Product value of the Maldives.
So, what about intangible products? Economic theory suggests all intangible products are inherently services – Software as a Service (SaaS) being one of the most notorious examples. But what about something more abstract? Something that can’t be coded or computed. Something like culture. Sure, culture exists. But you can’t buy it. You can’t rent it. However, you can identify with it.
Capturing the Milanese essence
Cesare Pezzini did not originally seek to capitalize on the value people place on ‘cultural experience’. In fact, his start-up originated as a comedy project to poke irony at his local culture: Milan, Italy. Along with a few friends, he set up the Instagram page @milanosays (milanosays.store) in September of 2019. On the page, content about the Milano subculture is posted daily. Within three days, the team had 10K followers (No, they weren’t bought. Yes, we fact-checked). Within a month, they had 50K. After a very successful first month running the project, the team decided it was time to operationalize the platform they created.
If you’re like me, aka not from Milan, you may be wondering what all the fuss is about. What is so special about Milano culture that results in a page growing this quickly and with so much hype? As Cesare states, Italy is unique in the sense that there are so many different dialects and slang from city to city. For Milan in particular, he says, “it’s all about enjoying life and dressing well. We have a phrase that translates to ‘combing’ which is when you dress, act and talk in this Milano way”. ‘Combing’ involves curating a public persona through your style, actions and words. And it seems to be a very important part of Milanese culture, but also a part that can very easily be made fun of. It’s important to note that Italians are (not to stereotype) a generally proud people. Proud of their families, their heritage and their homes. Cesare may not have realized it at the time, but by creating a page that bridged the in-group, out-group nature often prevalent in Italian culture, he found a very profitable middle-ground. @milanosays provides a comedic way to represent Milano slang, whereby outsiders can better understand Milan, and insiders can embrace and enjoy the ironic jests at their own culture.
The next step: Merchandise
Currently at 126K followers, the @milanosays team has created merchandise based off of the Instagram page. They branded their merch as exclusive, limited and uniquely Milano. This appealed heavily to city pride and cultivation of the Milano in-group. If you own @milanosays merch, you are part of the in-group of the culture brand. The team has performed three ‘drops’ of merchandise, all around 300 pieces and all sold out in three days or less. This is incredibly impressive, particularly for a group of three full time students.
Cesare’s vision is to develop a brand that wholly represents the (im)perfections of Milanese culture. As Cesare describes his role as Co-Founder in more detail, it’s clear he is passionate about the project at hand. He is responsible for overseeing merchandise production, content creation and strategy. He reiterates that his team, also his friends, share tasks and have flexible working roles. Behind the three co-founders is a team of unpaid volunteers, also passionate about the project and who receive benefits such as publicity or commission from merchandise. His personal mission is to democratize culture-based brands, representing all people from all walks of life in one city.
When I asked Cesare about his biggest success, he answered with the first @milanosays merchandise release. Network connections from working with famous figures in the Instagram industry allowed him to gain contacts to experienced merchandisers. This was crucial for the team, since they started with no capital, and had no intention to ask their parents for money. With the help of the merchandisers, Cesare organised the production of a line of t-shirts which provided enough starting capital to start investing with the goal of producing merchandise without third-party help.
The biggest challenge, unsurprisingly, was the adjustments that had to be made due to COVID. With Italy under complete lockdown, delivery systems became operationally lethargic, leading to a delayed release of merchandise. The logistical challenges posed an initial threat for Cesare, but seeing as lockdown restrictions are easing, he is optimistic of future growth.
Lastly, I asked Cesare what advice he would give to fellow students interested in an initiative like his own. He instantly replied that if you want a shot on Instagram, your content truly matters. He says the added value of his page is in the comedic entertainment that engages followers. Without solid content, there is no foundation. He repeats that only with valuable, quality content you have the ability to develop a brand beyond just images on a social media platform. “If you’re doing content correctly, you feel the natural validation of your content on people, and people will reach out to you” At the end of the day, organic growth and customer engagement is the best form of validation for your idea. Cesare concludes, stating that the reason and motivation behind a project is so much more important than the result in mind. Especially in the case of social media commerce, superficial goals like number of followers often supersedes the intended goal: to entertain others.
Cesare’s team is impressively commercializing culture, one of the most abstract assets of humanity. Successfully establishing a brand image built upon the inherent culture of Italian Milano society, the @milanosays team only intends to grow. Now looking into products and services they can offer, the brand identity they carefully cultivated now entertains hundreds of thousands of people. So, while gaining a profit the size of the Maldives GDP might be a little far-fetched for the moment, it seems like it won’t be long before @milanosays has a userbase the size of the Maldives population.
Follow this project on Instagram @milanosays or online at milanosays.store.