Benetton’s Confusing Legacy of Brand Activism

I grew up preppy. A Canadian kind of preppy. Often Ralph Lauren polos were out of reach both due to cost and supply. This was the 1980’s. When an outlet store of Ralph’s opened in my neighborhood of Tuxedo in Winnipeg, I was a frequent browser. More affordable were Roots and Beaver Canoe brands (you have to be Canadian to fully understand). My friends and I lived in either brand’s sweatpants which were considered preppy. I wore out Ellesse knock-off polos that my father came back with from a trip to Asia.

One very influential brand while growing up was Benetton. Founded in the year of my birth, 1965, it still numbers 5,000 stores worldwide. I say, “still”, because it is amazing it is still relevant given its marketing tone and very real controversies. Benetton was once iconic, gaining huge recognition in the 1980’s and 1990’s but has since struggled. In 2000, it ranked 75th in Interbrand’s ranking of best global brands but by 2002, it had dropped out of the list (I was Chief Marketing Officer at Interbrand at the time).

In 2017, the company posted a loss of €180 million. Luciano Benetton, who was then 83 years old, came out of retirement, returning as Executive Chairman. Revival efforts also included appointing Jean-Charles de Castelbajac as artistic director and re-appointing photographer Oliviero Toscani to regain some of the old glory. But was it glory or gory?

Benetton first hired Oliviero Toscani in 1982 as creative director. Toscani focused the brand’s advertising on raising awareness for various social issues. Long before brands like Nike embraced activism, Benetton made it its cornerstone.

Toscani framed the advertising strategy as the “United Colors of Benetton”. The ongoing campaign’s graphic, large scale ads (they loved billboards) depicted a variety of shocking subjects, including the deathbed scene of a man dying from AIDS. Another featured a bloodied, unwashed newborn baby with umbilical cord.

The newborn ad prompted complaints around the world. The British Advertising Standards Authority, noted in its 1991 annual report that the Benetton baby ad “attracted more complaints than we have ever previously known.” A third ad included a black stallion copulating with a white mare, while a fourth advert showed a light-skinned girl with blond hair hugging a dark-skinned boy with hair shaped into devil horns.

The brand’s legacy of jarring ads continued to 2011, when Benetton created the UNHATE Foundation, launching a communication campaign described as an invitation to leaders and citizens of the world to combat the “culture of hatred.” The UNHATE series used altered images of political and religious leaders, such as then-President of the United States Barack Obama and Hugo Chávez, then President of Venezuela, kissing each other. Following Vatican protests, Benetton removed an ad purportedly showing Pope Benedict XVI kissing Ahmed Mohamed el Tayeb, the imam of Egypt’s Al Azhar mosque. Benetton won the Press Grand Prix at the 2012 Cannes Ad festival for the campaign.

Controversy for Benetton has taken some real turns outside of communication campaigns. In the 90’s, it became the largest private landowner in Argentina. Benetton faces criticism, particularly from Mapuche organizations, over its ownership and management of traditional Mapuche lands in Patagonia. Protests and occupations began anew in 2015. Activist Santiago Maldonado was last seen being evicted by the Argentine National Gendarmerie from the disputed area in 2017. His body was found two months later.

Benetton has aroused suspicion for using RFID tracking chips that violated consumer privacy, so the project was shut down. Further, PETA launched a boycott campaign against Benetton for buying wool from farmers who practiced mulesing. 

Then came the collapse of the eight-storey Rana Plaza commercial building in 2013 that housed a factory where Benetton made its clothing. At least 1,130 people died. Benetton first denied reports linking production of their clothing at the factory, but clothes and documents linked to Benetton were discovered at the site. Of the 29 brands identified as having sourced products from the Rana Plaza factories, only 9 attended meetings to agree on a proposal for compensation to the victims. 

Several companies refused to sign including Walmart, Carrefour, Bonmarché, Mango, Auchan and Kik. The agreement was signed by Primark, Loblaw, Bonmarche and El Corte Ingles. A year after the collapse, Benetton faced international protests after failing to pay any compensation. Protests included shutting down Benetton’s flagship Oxford Street store in London.

In 2015, Benetton Group announced that it had doubled compensation for Rana Plaza victims recommended by independent assessors. To the company’s credit, they address RFID, Rana Plaza, and ethical wool buying practices on their website (as to the land in Argentina, they are less forthcoming).

Let us get back to the ads. In 1991, the brand launched the coloured condoms campaign to help address the AIDS crisis. This included selling “a complete range of coloured, reliable and up-to-the-minute condoms”. Toscani is quoted at the time, “I have found out that advertising is the richest and most powerful medium existing today, so I feel responsible to do more than to say, ‘Our sweater is pretty.’ “

Another ad from 1991 was a comment on the religious and sexual conflict of human nature. It showed a priest and a nun in clerical vestments, kissing. The Roman Catholic Church was outraged. In the same year came an image suggesting an interracial, homosexual family at a time when advertising was almost devoid of such depictions.

In 1996, the supposedly “human” hearts were revealed to be pig’s hearts but that didn’t stop people all over the world calling the image, taken by Oliviero Toscani himself, racist. Toscani has used his global platform to address racism on numerous occasions.

Now comes a truly strange one that I cannot adequately explain. In 1982 the Mafia killing of Benedetto Grado in Palermo, Italy, was captured by Franco Zecchi. Ten years later the photo was featured in Benetton’s spring/summer 1992 campaign. Various publications refused to publish the image and the dead man’s daughter claimed she would sue, asking: “How does my father’s death enter into publicity for sweaters?”

There was an abrupt change from earlier Benetton ads that are explicit celebrations of diversity and inclusivity that carried a message of global harmony. They could be described as safe and wholesome. Then came images like the blood-drenched clothing of a ‘Bosnian Soldier’ during the hostile breakup of the former Yugoslavia. I remember that one. I also remember wondering at the time, ‘What the f@ck?’.

Kate Collins, a researcher at Duke University, summed it nicely, “Did Benetton’s advertisements pioneer this modern phenomenon of “brand activism”? Or were Benetton’s ads an example of a company commodifying social causes and taking advantage of the ethically murky waters of fashion advertising?” It is clear that to this day, reactions to ads of this content and tone indicate that consumers remain uneasy with the confluence of commercialism and social commentary.

This was true of Colin Kaepernick and Nike. Jeff Beer of Fast Company analyzed the impact of the original ad one year after its debut, it “lit up the cultural discourse like no ad had done in recent memory. People loved it. People hated it. People bought Nikes. People burned Nikes. People talked about it at home, at work, on the news. Everywhere.”

Beer continued, “It was divisive because it jumped on America’s biggest fault lines—race, patriotism, sports, and business. But according to Nike founder Phil Knight, that was kind of the point. “It doesn’t matter how many people hate your brand as long as enough people love it. And as long as you have that attitude, you can’t be afraid of offending people. You can’t try and go down the middle of the road. You have to take a stand on something, which is ultimately I think why the Kaepernick ad worked.” ”

And there were very real business results. Despite some pundits on social media and the Fox News network predicting the Nike’s downfall, “the company claimed $163 million in earned media, a $6 billion brand value increase, and a 31% boost in sales.” I am really divided on brands of any type weighing into social issues. Sure, I want them to be ethical and transparent, but I am unsure if I want them trumpeting a cause. I state this as a consumer, not as a branding guy.

Where Nike has surged in performance by leveraging social causes, Benetton has failed to keep up with its customers and chain rivals. Several factors have contributed to the decline of the company such as prices which are less competitive. Competitors are more relevant by quickly adapting their collections by launching copies of on trend clothes from fashion runways within weeks. Benetton designs are now considered dated. Also, the company owns only 25% of their stores worldwide while companies such as Zara own all their stores. This makes the chain difficult to manage as a global brand.

Advertising, once a strength, has become a weakness. The company keeps trying to create a new buzz, it keeps going back the ‘controversy well’. When Benetton launched a campaign publishing pictures of 26 American prisoners sentenced to death, it provoked outrage. American sales decreased and distribution contracts were cancelled. In 2018, the use of photographs of recently rescued migrants from the Mediterranean, was not well received. Social media lit up with a similar refrain, ‘how does tragedy fit with selling clothes?’

Benneton does not have any stores in Canada but sells through department stores like Simons. My recent search shows Simons carries just 8 Benneton items. A news item from two weeks ago states that Benetton is pulling out of Belgium.

In August of this year, Benetton India launched a digital campaign titled #UnitedByCause, “capturing heartfelt stories of kindness warriors who are going above and beyond to help the ones in need in these challenging times.” The Economic Times profiled the launch, “The campaign aims to highlight this strong emotion and convey that ‘kindness’ is more than just a feeling and as we navigate life in times like these, any act of kindness, big or small, plays a major role in reminding everyone that they are not alone and uplifts their spirit.”

This told me two things. First, poor business performance may be influencing a switch in tonality in the brand’s marketing. This notion of kindness is a throwback to Benetton’s earlier message of global harmony. Second, and this is even more telling, the brand is clearly breaking down. How can a truly global brand allow one country to do its own thing? Sure, you can think global and act local because there are regional and cultural differences, but you cannot be two brands at once. Benetton’s brand management will be interesting to watch.

When it comes to brand activism, Benetton has repeatedly doubled-down on controversy. The question is, does it do so for commercial awareness or for social effect? I think they have lost the distinction.

Mad Man-era icon, Bill Bernbach, once said, “A principle isn’t a principle until it costs you something.” Arguably, Benetton has lost business with its marketing. I am case in point. I have never owned an article of the brand’s clothing. I have found their advertisements off-putting and off-the-mark.

Bernbach also said, “Be provocative. But be sure your provocativeness stems from your product. You are not right if in your ad you stand a man on his head just to get attention. You are right if you have him on his head to show how your product keeps things from falling out of his pockets.” Benetton has existed on provocativeness alone. That, in a way, is taking a stand. However, by embracing so many causes, Benetton has revealed that the brand is surprisingly vacuous. The dead mafia don’s daughter deserves the last word, “How does my father’s death enter into publicity for sweaters?”

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