How Pirelli put soul into the annual report

With the help of cultural icons, international artists and leading designers, Pirelli has transformed its annual reports into vibrant communication tools that share the company’s ideas and story

One year it was designed to balance on its corner like a piece of modern art. Another it inspired a display by street artists. And every year it includes the thoughts and ideas of some of the world’s leading cultural figures. The Pirelli corporate report has become something of an event since the company decided in 2010 to make more of this annual opportunity to share its ideas with the world.

While annual reports have a reputation for being rather dull, uninspiring and, definitely, grey, Pirelli accompanies the all-important facts and figures with a theme and creative approach that are designed to offer a window on its thinking. The 25th anniversary of the company’s slogan “Power is Nothing Without Control” provided the theme for the 2018 report, the latest published, for example. In addition to a specially commissioned typeface that embellished the cover in gold-hued letters, three leading writers – Adam Greenfield, Lisa Halliday and JR Moehringer – were invited to muse on what the slogan meant to them in the spheres of technology, art and sport. Which means that Pirelli must surely be the only company to have mentioned a New York Mets baseball pitcher, the Italian novelist Italo Calvino and genetic engineering in a single edition of its annual report.

All this is just one strand of Pirelli’s content strategy, which it has carried out in partnership with FirstWord since 2015. And it shows how far-reaching the strategy is that it has managed to enter the hushed realm of financial reporting. While some companies have played with design and graphics to make their annual reports hit home, few have made it a means of cultural expression in the way Pirelli has. That’s in line with the company’s longstanding connections with the worlds of art and culture, and the sense of innovation at its heart.

Important issues

The new approach began when Pirelli wanted to ensure its stakeholders fully understood its increasing commitment to the environment and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. A conventional report seemed too limited in scope to describe the mood of the company and the importance of the issue. Words, numbers and graphs were not enough. The creativity of a different discipline was needed. And so several students from the Nuova Accademia di Belle Arti (NABA) in Milan were commissioned to illustrate the issue of sustainability in their own way.

Stakeholders loved it and Pirelli began to make sure its annual reports reflected its corporate culture in a creative and original way. It started to commission leading cultural figures to investigate themes that resonated with the company’s philosophy.

In 2011, Pirelli asked the Dutch graphic designer Stefan Glerum to interpret some of the company’s key values – reliability, flexibility, speed, technology and innovation – in 18 drawings. They were accompanied by written pieces from four renowned authors: Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Guillermo Martínez, William Least Heat-Moon and Javier Cercas.

A year later the theme was “imagining the future”. In graphic form, the New Yorker cartoonist Liza Donnelly interpreted 10 words chosen by university students from around the world, who had responded to a global social media campaign (see below for two examples). Each word expressed a value they believed was vital for the creation of a brighter future: honesty, curiosity, innovation, flexibility, humility, empathy, perseverance, fraternity, simplicity and switching a point of view. The strategy brought young people into the heart of the company’s activities.

Creative forces

When the award-winning playwright and novelist Hanif Kureishi gathered a team of 10 emerging young talents in 2013 he was on a mission to develop an inspirational story. The plot, however, was not for his latest book or film. It was to reinvent the wheel – the theme of Pirelli’s Spinning the Wheel annual report.

The 10 young contributors, who came from disciplines ranging from architecture and physics to film animation and fashion, each approached the challenge in a different way. In doing so they told a fascinating story, but they also revealed the vital creative impulses needed to tackle a design project, such as intuition, tenacity, passion and vision.

Sleek and beautifully packaged, the Spinning the Wheel report also made a resounding design statement. It had a minimalist black cover and could stand on a table at a 45-degree angle. It won multiple awards including a platinum Graphis award and Gold at the 2014 International Design Awards, which praised the work as “a dynamic and original treatment for an annual report which, like Pirelli, is not only about numbers but also about values such as innovation, creativity, intuition, commitment and passion”.

“This is what happens when you turn a report into art,” wrote Katy French at US creative agency Column Five. “The sculptural presentation is inspired by the theme and the brilliant design of the seemingly off-balance position makes it feel as if the reports are actually rolling.”

In short, the report told a fascinating story that supported the company’s wider philosophy: its desire to be innovative and creative in its approach to crafting the finest tyres. And that is particularly appropriate at a time when storytelling has been hailed as a “strategic business tool”, according to Harvard Business Review. “Data can persuade people, but it doesn’t inspire them to act,” writes business author Harrison Monarth. “To do that, you need to wrap your vision in a story that fires the imagination and stirs the soul.”

Artistic interpretations

In 2014, the report took a look at street art – a natural choice for a company with such an artistic heritage that also, quite literally, connects the car to the road. “Street art is an expression of place,” explained Marco Tronchetti Provera, Pirelli’s executive vice-chairman and CEO. “Through the tyre, we can be in all places.” Marina Zumi from Argentina, Dome from Germany and Alexey Luka from Russia were commissioned to produce pieces that were then displayed in the Pirelli HangarBicocca exhibition space in Milan (see above).

Shining a spotlight on the concept of individuality Pirelli’s 2015 report was entitled Every Mark is Unique. The company asked Russian calligraphy artist Pokras Lampas to create works based on the fingerprints of 11 celebrities – from Formula One driver Sebastian Vettel to model Eva Herzigova – and the large-format results (see below) are striking and beautiful. They also make a clear statement that we are all unique and can leave a distinctive mark in life.

After a one-year break, when Pirelli de-listed from the Milan Stock Exchange then re-listed after reorganisation, the annual report returned for 2017 with a focus on the company’s digital transformation. Titled Data Meets Passion, it told the stories of five entrepreneurs using digital technology to grow their businesses. “Some of these entrepreneurs are harnessing technology to bring traditional crafts up-to-date – from tailoring to upholstery to making surfboards,” the report revealed. “Others are using technology’s potential to address current problems – whether to transform our relationship with food or protect the future of bees.”

Pirelli also commissioned artist Emiliano Ponzi and three writers – Ted Chiang, Tom McCarthy and Mohsin Hamid – to provide a cultural interpretation of the digital revolution. The message was clear: the digital age affects us all in many ways, both in and beyond the world of business.

Chiang, for example, examined the risks of technology, especially its potential to dehumanise, but also its immense power to improve our lives. “Digital technology will become a part of us by transforming the language in which we think,” he suggested. “It will expand our range of possibilities; it will give us new ways to be smart, new ways to be creative, new ways to be human.”

Reflections on human potential

As we’ve heard, more great writing was to come in the 2018 report on the theme of “Power Is Nothing Without Control”. Writers were asked to consider the relationship between power and control and how we can best realise our potential to the full; to be the best that we can be.

As a boy, the Pulitzer prize-winning author JR Moehringer remembers watching a young pitcher play for his beloved Mets. He doesn’t recall the young man’s name, but can’t forget his “right arm kissed by God” and his ability to “smoke” unhittable fast balls like “comets”. The pitcher takes the Mets to the verge of victory, bamboozling every batter, but then starts to lose his accuracy – his control – and so loses the game.

“He’s an object lesson for anyone struggling with this question of control, which is to say: everyone,” Moehringer reflects. “We all make the mistake now and then of thinking the great athletes, actors, painters, doctors, entrepreneurs are gifted with special powers. In fact everyone has special powers. The ones who succeed are the ones who find ways of achieving durable, consistent control over their powers.”

The writer Lisa Halliday talks about Italo Calvino’s control of language, the way words can be used to tell a story directly – without waste – or to digress and take us on an imaginative journey. Calvino’s thought-provoking motto is: Hurry Slowly. Each word has power. How should it be used?

Meanwhile, writer and urbanist Adam Greenfield considers Formula One driver Kimi Räikkönen driving his Ferrari around a corner at 300mph, which is only possible because he understands the parameters of what the equipment can do. He asks what happens when our growing power is exercised over more complex systems – the climate, the genome, human society.

“If we ever hope to operate effectively in such domains, we must give up our simple-minded insistence on linear force, and learn how to apply the power of our tools with all the suppleness, tact, insight and discretion the situation calls for,” he says. Control, in other words, is critical.

Such are the insights to be found in Pirelli’s 2018 annual report. And it’s clear how far the concept has come since the company first commissioned those NABA art students back in 2010. The annual report has become a key expression of Pirelli corporate culture, capturing its values in creative and original ways, while also providing investors with insights into the mood of the company. It’s become much more than just numbers.