How Pigeon Poop Propelled an Italian Chef to Global Notoriety

My wife and I just started watching the Netflix show Master Chef. (I know, I’m late to the party.)

But when I heard the story of Massimo Bottura’s rise to international fame, I couldn’t help but make the connection to what so many small business owners struggle with: getting noticed. 

Because Massimo Bottura was an artistic genius. But nobody really cared. Few people noticed. 

The folks I work with always have this in common: they are very good at what they do. So when your brand isn’t getting the buzz you know it deserves, it feels like an injustice — and it is!

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So how did Massimo attract raving fans all over Italy and beyond? 

Let’s start with pigeon poop.

The Poop

According to his wife, she and Massimo liked to go to art shows for cooking inspiration. But there was one art installation that really stood out to Massimo and inspired a dramatic shift in his career.

At this particular art show, Massimo noticed something interesting in the rafters: pigeons. It took a moment to realize these weren’t live animals run-ing amok. They were taxidermy. Stuffed pigeons just perched all over the place. But upon closer inspection, Massimo noticed something even more peculiar…

Poop. The artist had literally painted the pigeons pooping on the walls and onto the other artwork! 

And Massimo, the master chef in the making, said “THAT. IS. GENIUS.”

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He had an immediate burst of inspiration. In the Netflix episode, he explains, “Those pigeons are like me! I’m trying to change the Italian kitchen. But the only way I’m gonna get noticed is if I go up in the rafters and deface the generation that came before me. Only with that kind of disruptive provocation will I be able to open the doors for the next generation of Italian cooking.”

Did you catch it? In that statement, there are two absolutely critical branding components that you HAVE to catch if you want your online content to start attracting loyal customers.

What did those components — the pigeon poop inspiration — do for Massimo?

First came the tortellini. Massimo decided to completely mess with this traditional Italian dish. The people in his community were accustomed to eating 10 tortellini to the spoonful. It was a quantity dish. 

But Massimo bucked the tradition. He did what I call Drawing a Line in the Sand

This branding principle is extremely effective, yet most small businesses are afraid to do it.

The Line in the Sand 

With a Line in the Sand, you make a statement that does two things simultaneously:

1. Repels the wrong people
2. Attracts the right people

I first discovered this principle in the most underrated book on marketing ever: the Bible. 

Jesus was all about drawing lines in the sand. In a single statement, he could cause one group of people to conspire his assassination and another group to literally quit their jobs to follow him around. That’s incredible!

For Massimo, his line in the sand came through in his preparation of tortellini. Completely counter-tradition, he served up 6 individual tortellini in a row on a plate. 6! A tiny fraction of a normal dish. 

His message was clear: “Pay attention to the details. Savor each morsel.”

A good Line in the Sand is very simple. But it has to have a sharp edge — a clear contrast to what the crowd is saying. 

When you get it right, stuff happens. When I started helping my clients find their own Line in the Sand, their marketing efforts instantly started getting more traction. Higher open rates in emails, more engagement on social media, and an increase in sales. Because when you push the wrong crowd away, the right crowd sees you as someone to be trusted.

So the rumors of Massimo’s “6 tortellini” spread throughout his city of Modena. And stuff definitely happened. But in the beginning, it was all bad stuff.

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The local food critics HATED it. As Massimo recalls, “They wanted me dead. ‘You cannot mess with Grandmother’s recipe!’”

And how did he respond? How do you respond when you get haters?

Most brands shrink back, not realizing haters are a GOOD sign. Massimo was wise, though. He doubled down. He said to the critics, “Ok, I’m gonna make your life worse.”

This brings up the second branding principle you’ve got to understand if you want to sincerely connect with your target audience online: Identity Alignment.

What It Takes to Survive the Haters

The first component of the Identity Alignment training I do with clients helps them uncover what Massimo learned for himself with he saw that pigeon poop at the art show: what is he wired for? And how does that identity affect his work?

Remember what Massimo said? His mission was to “open the doors for the next generation of Italian cooking.”

You can’t just start drawing lines in the sand and expect them to work for you. Your true identity must be connected to it. 

If Massimo hadn’t understood his own brand identity as a chef, there is no way he would have persevered through what happened next to his restaurant business. 

With every new dish that shook up “Grandmother’s recipes,” the newspapers and critics continued to rip him and condemn his restaurant. He was infamous. And his sales numbers were dwindling. 

He confessed in his Netflix interview that he seriously considered closing up shop because their numbers were so low. 

This is what scares small business owners when they think about drawing a the line in the sand. 

“Won’t I lose customers??” 
“What if I make people upset and they stop following me on Facebook?”
“What if someone gives me a bad review?”

And if you don’t have Identity Alignment — the crystal clear understanding of your true identity and how it connects with your target market’s true identity — then you should NOT start drawing lines in the sand. 

You’ll lose customers, and you will retreat back to a safe (but forgettable) branding strategy.

But if you know exactly who you’re trying to reach, and why reaching them is so meaningful…eventually you will get the breakthrough that came for Massimo Battura. 

A food critic from another part of Italy, outside Massimo’s hometown of Modena, happened upon his restaurant while passing through. The critic tried Massimo’s unique offerings, his reimagination of classic Italian dishes. 

And he. Was. OBSESSED.

This is what the critic had been looking for! Someone willing to take actual risks! The critic applauded Massimo’s bravery. He spread the word throughout Italy. 

Soon, all of the well-known critics and publishers in the nation were being drawn to the little restaurant in Modena who was doing something different.

This is the effect of a great Line in the Sand. It can hurt to get some haters or lose customers. But when your ideal audience finds you, they go nuts. When the people you’re truly made to impact discovers you, they buy-in quickly and completely. Then they spread the word for you.

Massimo Bottura went from going out of business to racking up awards and accolades as the best chef in all of Italy. 

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Today, if you are lucky enough to get a table at this restaurant in Modena, you’ll notice something in the entry way, perched in the corner: taxidermy pigeons.

Do you know your true identity? Have you drawn your own Lines in the Sand? Do you know how to create them in your online messaging?

- Blake

PS: If you want some help writing your own Line in the Sand, download this guide which includes some more examples: 3 Social Media Posts That Attract Business in 2018. 

Blake Stratton