NEW YORK — Andrea Illy loves coffee — after all, it’s in his blood.

In 1994, Illy became chief executive officer of the espresso company founded, in 1933, by his grandfather Francesco Illy. Twenty years later, he still holds the position. Today, Illy is available in over 140 countries and employs more than 800 people worldwide. The company has expanded beyond ground espresso, offering a number of at-home coffeemakers and establishing over 200 Espressamente Illy coffee-bar locations worldwide. In 2013, the company had revenues of 373.9 million euros, or $508.5 million at average exchange.

This story first appeared in the August 29, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

In July, Illy himself made a brief trip to New York City in preparation for the brand’s current endeavor: as official partner of Expo 2015. Next year’s World’s Fair will take place between May 1 and Oct. 31 in Milan. Specifically, the company will oversee in the U.S. Pavilion the “Coffee Cluster,” one of nine dedicated motifs within the expo’s overall “Feeding the planet, energy for life” theme. Here, Illy — who is also the chairman of Altagamma, the Italian luxury goods industry group — talks about the expo, Italy and how coffee compares to high fashion.

WWD: How did you get teamed with the U.S. Pavilion?

Andrea Illy: Illy is the official coffee partner of the expo, so, as a consequence of that, considering the importance of the American market for us, we partnered with the [U.S.] Pavilion to make this opportunity even bigger. Why did we become a partner of the expo? Because it’s a onetime opportunity to celebrate coffee and our history, and our strategy is very symbiotic: We promote coffee to promote Illy and vice versa. By numbers, this event will be the largest celebration of coffee in history. We will represent the past, future and present of coffee.

WWD: What does your role entail?

A.I.: Managing the pavilion, developing the content and taking responsibility for everything that concerns coffee. It’s a lot of responsibility. There is a lot of complexity. For example, the Italian prime minister decided to make an invitation to the ICO [International Coffee Organization] to organize a larger international conference during the expo. It will be the first international coffee forum, with delegates from all over the world. During the same time, there will be the first World Coffee Day, which is a great opportunity to give visibility to the whole event.

WWD: Why is now the right time to celebrate the coffee industry?

A.I.: Well, it’s always a good time to celebrate coffee. But I would say that now, more than ever, coffee is having a very good moment. As a matter of fact, our communication strategy is based on the idea that coffee is good to life. There are three virtues of coffee: pleasure, health and sustainability. Today, high-end coffee is nearly 8 percent of market share, and this is thanks to those virtues. There is more pleasure, thanks to better quality and better preparations. As far as health is concerned, there is more scientific knowledge demonstrating that coffee prolongs our life. It is actually the number-one contributor of antioxidants to the human diet. And this goes along with a higher consumption rate. The compound average [growth] rate of coffee consumption in the world has nearly doubled over the past decade, compared to the decade before. And this is very good for the growers. We have a responsibility to make sure that the industry is healthy enough to ensure income in the growing countries.

WWD: Is it hard to operate as a luxury brand in such a mainstream industry?

A.I.: There’s a lot of complexity. We are now present in so many consumption occasions: cafés, restaurants, homes, workplaces and even on the go. To maintain consistency across this scope is complex. There is organizational difficulty, financial difficulty and technical difficulty because having so many products that deliver the ultimate level of quality is not so easy. There is more competition, as well. It’s challenging, but we have very good opportunities for growth. More and more, we tend to integrate coffee technology to make it as compelling as possible for the consumer.

WWD: In terms of luxury marketing, do you look to any other brands as a standard?

A.I.: Pure luxury is a very small market. When we talk about luxury in consumable goods, with the exception of very, very fine wines, we are talking about high-end, rather than pure luxury. And this is a definition that I prefer because luxury is a difficult world, in terms of meaning. “High-end” is the highest possible quality, with a strong heritage and very rich experiential content. It’s about beauty and taste. In terms of a business model, there are some similarities with the beauty industry. The most interesting common thread between what we are doing with coffee and other sectors, like fashion and design, is the cultural and creative strategy. We are cultural ambassadors.

WWD: Describe your role as a culture ambassador.

A.I.: You don’t have Piazza Venezia or the Colosseum or Venice here in New York, nor do you have it in São Paulo or Sydney. The only representation of the Italian culture is your bag or a nice Italian café or the 6,000 monobrand boutiques. This network of points of sale and brands and selling hundreds of millions every year, this is the most powerful cultural ambassador of Italy. Coffee is a symbol of Italian lifestyle, just like a Ferrari or an Armani suit or a Bulgari watch.

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