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Branded: The psychology behind corporate tattoos

From the August 2011 issue.

As a sub-culture of tattooed baristas takes off in the United States, Lisa Kovacevic offers a look at the significance of inking oneself with a company’s logo as the ultimate sign of brand identification.

La Marzocco tattoo gunBrand loyalty and identification manifests itself in many ways, from what we choose to consume, to the logos displayed on the front of t-shirts. Recently, company logos have found their way onto the human body in the form of tattoos, as perhaps the ultimate sign of brand identification.

La Marzocco has been manufacturing artisan espresso machines in its hometown of Florence, Italy, since 1927. Today, on the other side of the globe, American baristas and coffee industry workers are tattooing the iconic brand on their bodies.

Anthropologists note that historically tattoos signified membership in a clan or community. The images used within these communities belonged to a shared mythology of cultural iconography. The human desire for community and belonging is just as strong today as it was back then, but the cultural landscape has changed. The village is now global; cultural iconography is no longer dominated by religious symbols, but images of pop culture, Hollywood stars, advertising, and of course, brand names. It is little wonder then, that modern forms of tattooing incorporate iconic brand images.

Community
La Marzocco TattooNot every brand, however, finds its way onto the human body, so what is it about the likes of La Marzocco that foster such strong examples of brand loyalty? Academic literature demonstrates the role of the tattoo as a signifier of social membership and suggests contemporary tattoos act as symbolic markers of sub-cultural membership.

Terry Ziniewicz of Espresso Parts is one example of how tattoos can represent modern signifiers of social membership. In discussing the La Marzocco logo tattooed on his calf, Ziniewicz speaks of this idea of community that first attracted him to the coffee industry.

“La Marzocco is family to me and my tattoo connects me to the coffee community at large,” he says, noting how his introduction to La Marzocco coincided with his introduction into this community. In the early 1990s Ziniewicz met CEO of La Marzocco International, Kent Bakke, to discuss using his machines in his burgeoning coffee chain. “We spent three days playing around with coffee and when it was all said and done I bought a whole bunch of machines from him and we have been great friends ever since.” 

Lizz Hudson of Seattle’s iconic Stumptown Coffee has the La Marzocco logo tattooed across her chest. For her, it is also this notion of familial ties that she finds appealing about the brand. “La Marzocco is family,” she says. “They look out for one another. They listen to, and involve, their customers and other coffee professionals in the design of their products.”

La Marzocco TattooHistory
Historical brands tend to denote quality, tradition, craftsmanship and reliability. The sense of history is embodied in La Marzocco’s logo, taking its iconography from the classic Marzocco statue, a seated lion sculpted by Donatello. Synonymous with victory and triumph, it is the emblem of the La Marzocco’s founding city of Florence.

Hudson credits the beauty of this image for some of her motivation in acquiring a La Marzocco tattoo. Even before the offer of a free machine, Hudson notes that she’s wanted to get the tattoo for a while because she “loves the company that designed it” and brand aside “the design of the logo really is beautiful.”

Espresso machine technician, Peter Droste, who has an image of the logo tattooed down his bicep, was similarly attracted to the aesthetic beauty of the logo, as well as its historical roots. He says he wanted his La Marzocco tattoo shortly after seeing Donatello’s sculpture in a Florentine museum. “I’m really proud of it, it’s a bad-ass lion holding a shield,” he laughs. But, his motivations weren’t entirely aesthetic. “If it wasn’t for La Marzocco I certainly wouldn’t have picked the symbol. It’s the fact that I’ve worked at their factory in Florence and the fact that I work with their machines every single day.”

The tattoo comes in handy, as Droste notes that occasionally when repairing or servicing espresso machines he’s questioned by his clients on his knowledge of La Marzocco. “Now I just pull up my sleeve and [the tattoo] displays an interesting bit of a credibility.”

Connection with place was a similar motivation for Espresso Parts’ Ziniewicz. He notes that it was a family trip to the La Marzocco factory in Florence that cemented his idea to get his tattoo. What struck Ziniewicz was that La Marzocco Hon. President Piero Bambi, whose father and uncle established the company, took time out of his day to meet with them on their visit.

“That sense of family really showed itself and the tattoo idea came in through this dedication to family,” he says.

Much like a historical tattoo’s traditional role in demarcating community, it seems this sense of the La Marzocco family is a common thread among those sporting this brand. La Marzocco’s Marketing Director, Chris Salierno, says he’s proud of the company’s family traditions.

“We’re a small company, but we don’t want to grow so much that we lose connection with our customer,” he says. “We’re small enough that when people come to Florence our doors are always open to our customers. I think that makes us unique.”

Salierno explains that knowing your product and being able to have a dialogue with your customers across all facets of the industry is paramount. He says the company invests quite a bit internally in technical training for all employees.

Salierno further attributes La Marzocco’s success, in part, to the culture within the company that encompasses a genuine passion for what they do.

“We pride ourselves on our ability to communicate with our customers. There are a lot of companies out there whose employees don’t even know how to use the espresso machines they manufacture,” Salierno says. “You see them at trade shows and they’re standing there with their distributor trying to explain the machines, but they can’t because they don’t have the culture internally, day to day in their offices.”

As a coffee enthusiast, Hudson explains one of the things that differentiates La Marzocco from its competitors is their ability to be “responsive to the needs of the specialty coffee community”.

Innovation is driven by consumer demand at La Marzocco, as Salierno explains: “While most of our competitors will develop new products with their engineers, we develop new products with the end users and baristas that we’ve known for years.” He notes that sponsoring events like the World Barista Championships in the past was a great way for the company to connect with the wider coffee community.

Other initiatives include the online “Street Team” programme that invited leading baristas and industry professionals from across the globe, including Ziniewicz, Hudson and Droste, to participate in an online forum on the design of machines like the The Strada.

“As a technician I’m elbows deep in these machines everyday,” says Droste.  “So, for La Marzocco to cast the net wide and ask the main users of their product things like: ‘How do you want it to look? How do you want it to function?’ is really clever and forward thinking and I loved being part of that process.”

Ziniewicz also says it was amazing that after six months of these online forums they had a prototype machine at a La Marzocco event in Milan called “Out of the Box.”  “All of us who’ had participated in the online forums were stunned. We were expecting to see something, but we weren’t expecting to see a completed machine.”

In a world where identical products are most often stamped out on the production line, it can be challenging for consumers to connect with the manufacturing process. Cultural commentators argue that this lack of connection to the modes of production leads individuals toward feelings of isolation. We’re defined most often in relation to the objects we own, not who we know. In his critique of advertising, Sut Jhally observes that within the age of mass production people desire human production both symbolically and materially.

Salierno notes that at La Marzocco, not only do consumers know whose hands have welded and assembled the machines, but users themselves have played a part in the design process.

“We still manufacture each machine individually, they’re not made on the production line, they’re made by hand on a cart,” he explains. “So each factory worker produces his machine and even today they’re still quite customised.”

Two years ago La Marzocco launched its first “Out of the Box’”event. As an artistic showcase of their products, they invited graffiti artists to come in and graffiti their machines. This year they’re holding a photographic exhibition. “We want to keep that connection between industry and art because our end customers appreciate art and what baristas do is artistic,” explains Salierno. “It is reflective of us and the people who work here. We’re an artisan manufacturer.”

Along these lines, Chris explains that the company sees each individual machine as a work of art.

“Design plays an important role. I don’t know of any other food service equipment whose design is as important as the espresso machine,” he says. “The reason being because the espresso machine is placed in the dining room as opposed to the kitchen. So it’s a point of reference, there’s a decorative quality. Our industry is very much connected to art, because coffee is art. Art is very much a part of our philosophy.”

It seems now that tattooed baristas are becoming just as much a part of the aesthetic experience of going to a café as the espresso machines.

“There’s a whole tattoo sub-culture among specialty coffee communities in North America,” Ziniewicz notes. “Initially employers weren’t willing to have tattooed baristas in their shops and now it’s like people are clamouring to employ them.”

Where those tattoos are of company logos is a sign of the entrenchment of those brands in the coffee community. It would seem La Marzocco has successfully tapped into is this human desire for community, social membership and understanding. Theirs is a coffee community, their figurehead a victorious lion. Their worshippers congregate in coffee shops and adorn their bodies in La Marzocco’s iconography. These efforts are the product of their involvement with their customers. The lesson to be learnt from La Marzocco is an old one: love what you do and the rest will follow, or in Salierno’s words “it’s about having fun, it’s not about moving boxes”.

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