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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?

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