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How Benetton moved from shockvertising to be ‘never shocking’

United Colors of Benetton

As fashion brand United Colors of Benetton introduces a new creative platform and marketing strategy to strengthen its brand identity, The Drum takes a look at the evolution of the once provocative and politically charged brand.

From its early beginnings in 1965, Benneton’s marketing strategy was to challenge social norms, using shocking images to champion issues that affect humanity. From images of the Pope kissing Ahmed el-Tayeb, imam of Egypt's al-Azhar Mosque, to a picture of an HIV-positive patient as he lay dying in hospital, Benneton’s campaigns whipped up controversy and placed the brand front and centre in the public eye. Throughout the 80s and 90s the brand’s penchant for courting controversy fanned the sales fires, leading to Benneton’s chain of shops hitting 7,000 worldwide by 1993.

But then its fortunes changed, and while brand awareness was still high, sales were not. Benetton’s business model of not following fashion trends and only changing them seasonally meant it started to fall behind its trendier fast fashion rivals such as Zara. Sales were sluggish, rising only two per cent between 2000 and 2011.

Last year the brand decided to change tack to turn the tide of its falling sales. Previously it had kept its advertising and retail campaigns separate, but with a focus on purpose not product failing to empty rails, the fashion retailer released a campaign that unified its brand communication and product collection. However, it failed to act as a stop gap with revenues in 2015 down 1.2 per cent to £1.25bn from the previous year.

In response, Benetton is now looking to create a stronger brand identity with today’s (27 July) launch of a new creative platform and marketing strategy named Clothes for Humans that aims to celebrate “the beauty of everyday moments and everyday emotions”. The retailer has split its product lines in to three categories; Dress up, Dress down and Dress to move, which the brand is hoping will still reflect its social mission of valuing the lives of ordinary people.

The shift is being supported by a £16.8m marketing campaign around the brand’s manifesto and will include digital and social activity, print and in-store messaging, as well as the launch of a new ‘magalogue’, a publication that will contain “50 per cent product and 50 per cent quality content”.

Speaking to The Drum John Mollanger, chief product and marketing officer at Benetton, said that the campaign aims to reflect different emotions in life but in a way that is “never shocking”.

“Creatively we looked in to an insight based on emotions and what people feel. We tried to paint a picture of life that is extremely authentic and real. Some moments are great, some are not great, some are light, some are heavy and we tried to shoot that in a way that is never shocking but always real.”

Explaining the reason for the shift, Mollanger added that in a competitive environment Benetton needed to make people more strongly aware of its raison d’etre.

“The reason that I believed in a greater level of identity was that our market has become extremely competitive to a point where consumers have many choices and we feel that the most important thing in this changing climate is to clarify and amplify the reasons for being at that Benetton level.

“It’s a marketing platform. It’s not just a campaign that will come or go, it’s really an ecosystem that will impact all of the media plan and all of the tools that consumers will play with. This in itself is a change since inception where it was not the goal to integrate the various touch points. Secondly the creativity in the past 7-10 years had a strong focus on product with a crisp, clinical, background and we had an approach to human beings that was heavy on stylisation and mainly studio shots with picture perfect casting. You’ll see this campaign has a stronger degree of personality, a wider range of emotions being shot, and a lot of real life shooting opposed to studio.”

Benetton’s digital platform has also undergone a revamp to give it a better balance between “commerce and brand” and will for the first time feature a series of online films with each focusing on a specific emotion or activity.