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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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Waste Not: The Staggering Business, Societal and Environmental Cost of Returned Goods

Did you know that in 2018, luxury purveyor Burberry admitted it had destroyed £90 million worth of clothing and accessories over the previous five years. After a public outcry, the company stopped burning returned and leftover merchandise. Now they focus on recycling and donating.

Unfortunately, that is just a drop in the bucket. You see, it is cheaper for businesses to throw away returns rather than go through the process of reselling. So much focus is put on our supply chains…getting something to market, it seems there is very little focus on the “remarket”. It is incredible in this time of tech, how retailers mismanage inventory and promote returns.

Thanks to the CBC program, The Current, for investigating this astounding issue in our society. They call out consumers who order two or three different sizes of clothing, knowing they can return the one that doesn’t fit (this is called “bracketing”). That return, more often than not, is sent straight to landfill. With about half of U.S. customers engaging in bracketing, the returns built into the sales cycle are staggering. More so in Germany, where 72% of consumers bracket clothing orders.

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Palessi is an Indictment of Our Times

You may have seen this clever, compelling, and creative campaign from Payless, the discount shoe chain. Payless took over a former Armani store in a Santa Monica mall. The chain stocked it with an array of their $19.99 pumps and $39.99 boots. Then they invited groups of so-called “Influencers” to the grand opening of the faux retail brand, “Palessi”.

The event attracted tons of media…

AdWeek:Payless Opened a Fake Luxury Store, ‘Palessi,’ to See How Much People Would Pay for $20 Shoes, The answer? A hell of a lot

CNN:Payless dupes fashion influencers into buying $640 shoes

CTV News:Payless Tricks Social Media Influencers into Paying $600 for $20 shoes

Fortune:Payless Opened a Fake Luxury Store With $600 Shoes

USA Today: Payless marked up discount shoes to $600 at luxury event ‘Palessi’    

AdWeek reported, “Party goers, having no idea they were looking at discount staples from the mall scene, said they’d pay hundreds of dollars for the stylish shoes, praising the look, materials and workmanship. Top offer: $640, which translates to an 1,800 percent markup, and Palessi sold about $3,000 worth of product in the first few hours of the stunt.”

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Pop-Up Retail: Where Will It Go Next?

In 1997 Patrick Courrielche devised what was later called a one-day “ultimate hipster mall.” This is notable for two reasons. First, it was one of the first examples of what we know now as a pop-up retail. Second, I was unaware that the term “hipster” existed in 1997. My research shows it was coined in the 1990’s but did not become uber popular until the 2010’s. Did you notice that I fit “uber” into that sentence. Did you also notice that I am wildly off topic because this is supposed to be about pop-up retail?

Courrielche’s event was actually called The Ritual Expo. It was the catalyst for companies that liked the idea of creating short-term experiences to promote their brands to specific audiences. It prompted AT&T, Levi-Strauss, and Motorola to work with Courrielche on pop-up shopping experiences.

This form of retail goes back before 1997. Circuses, ice cream trucks, farmer’s markets, hot dog stands, and even the old bookmobile rate as pop-ups. For decades, Halloween shops have popped h-m-pop-upup prior to October 31st every year. Even the seasonal Christmas tree sellers meet the definition of a pop-up retailer. One could argue that many of the 5th Avenue flagship stores in New York are longstanding pop-up shops. That is because few make money from those locations and maintain the investment for awareness only.

The format has multiple benefits for the brand. It allows an interesting connection with existing customers while making a splashy introduction to new ones. Awareness tends to be the biggest benefit and not only for the foot traffic who happen by. Pop-ups are notorious for gaining traditional media and social media attention. As a whole, the investment is relatively reasonable. The square footage costs and promotion are upwards of 80% cheaper than a traditional retail store.

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