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As it Happened: Disruptive Quality

July 25, 2018

Producing high quality goods is one of Italy’s competitive advantages. In fact, in markets around the world, the “Made in Italy” label has become synonymous with quality. But how exactly do companies generate this quality? Further, in today’s competitive market where quality is not just a standard to reach but a factor of disruption for companies that want to change an industry, how can disruptive quality be achieved?

For three weeks (June 25 - July 13), Riccardo Illy, revolutionary entrepreneur that transformed coffee from a commodity to a gourmet experience, led a group of 18 selected students through an exploration of Disruptive Quality in Italy to answer these questions. The program began with a tour of illycaffè, where the students could see the history and production philosophy from where Riccardo Illy comes so they could better understand the theory he proposed to them.

Through the program the students got to see Illy’s theory in practice by visiting other disruptive quality companies, which he defined as ones whose practices rest upon four pillars. First, is the consumer’s perception of absolute superior quality. Second is a supply chain different and incompatible with that of mass market producers. Third is the use of superior quality raw materials—without compromises, regardless of cost—processed according to different methods than those dominating the market. The fourth and final is the attention to sustainability.

The case studies included Riva 1920, Laudemio Frescobaldi, Pasta Mancini and Vodafone Italia. By visiting the headquarters all over the country, the participants witnessed disruptive quality manufacturing and discussed with entrepreneurs how they carry out their pursuit of disruptive quality. The students also visited Ermenegildo Zegna and Salvatore Ferragamo to witness additional best practices, while Ornellaia came to speak with the students about its strategy to communicate and sell superior quality products. To give the students a wider understanding of the landscape within which these companies operate, Stewart Thornhill, Executive Director of the Zell Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies at Ross School of Business University of Michigan, connected Illy’s theory to business strategy. Debora Dunn, faculty member at Stanford University's d.school and co-founder of Stanford University FEED Collaborative, joined to provide insights on sustainability.

For the students to further grasp the challenges that disruptive quality companies face today, they embarked on projects regarding the four case studies during the Sprint Week. Jake Knapp, the 2018 Italia Innovation Design Director, led the student through the problem solving method he developed at Google Ventures to answer crucial questions through prototyping. This structured five-day process includes deciding on a long-term goal then mapping, sketching, storyboarding, and prototyping to get answers needed to solve a problem.

For Riva 1920, the solid wood furniture producer known for using ancient kauri—a 40,000 year old wood from Australia—the students identified the goal as making customers feel more connected to the disruptive quality brand’s captivating story and philosophy. They prototyped a new website with a private section dedicated to interior designers and architects.
The goal the Laudemio group chose was to increase the awareness of the olive oil among Frescobaldi’s more historic products. The team prototyped a website focused on building a community of connoisseurs through story telling, education, and product packaging.

For Pasta Mancini, a company which transformed itself from a superior raw material producer to a superior pasta manufacturer by processing its own wheat, the students decided the company’s goal should be to reach more top US chefs to make them advocates of the pasta. They prototyped an event for chefs to experience and learn about Pasta Mancini’s story and disruptive quality manufacturing. For Vodafone Italia, the telecommunication company, the team identified the goal as making perceivable a service that cannot be seen. Their prototype was an app with games, data usage visualizations and deals for Vodafone services as well as those for existing partners.

Before the students ventured out to test their prototypes for user feedback, they presented the prototypes to the four companies in order to exchange insights. What all groups seemed to zero in on was the first pillar - the perception of absolute superior quality from the consumer.
While the prototypes were still rudimentary after one week of development, they left the companies with new opportunity areas to develop their disruptive quality. While each company was perceived as superior quality for those who know the brand, the students concluded there aren’t a lot of people who know these brands and their histories of quality. So, their projects revolved around new ways of better educating potential customers. This highlights an interesting area for Italian companies, because while many have strong competitive edges, they don’t always capitalize on these advantages. Further, the exchange between the students and the companies demonstrate why it is so important for outside perspectives to explore successful companies and find new opportunity areas to explore.