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How Benetton Group plans to maintain momentum of Italian fashion brand's colourful movement

Alessandro Benetton, chairman of Benetton Group says if one wants to be relevant in a fast changing world or to be ahead of others one must try to look for new ways to reach the consumer.
Alessandro Benetton, chairman of Benetton Group says if one wants to be relevant in a fast changing world or to be ahead of others one must try to look for new ways to reach the consumer.
In 2011 when the Benetton Group launched Unhate, its campaign for the foundation of the same name, for many it was a sign of Benetton's return to controversy. When giant billboard size posters of antagonistic religious leaders, presidents and prime ministers kissing appeared it seemed classic Benetton, taking up from where photographer Oliviero Toscani left off. Through the 90s, the apparel brand gave Toscani free reign and, love it or hate it, he ushered in a period of communication that defined not only Benetton but also the period — fearless, topical, provocative and, always controversial. Unhate of course came years later. But this time it had to be more than just an arresting photograph. More than a picture of a man on his deathbed or a young priest and a nun about to kiss or a photograph of a boy with hair shaped like the devil's horns or pictures of electric chairs and human organs or an image of genitals representing different races or a child at birth, umbilical cord still attached. It had to become a movement of sorts with tangible merit.

Realising that Unhate could start and end as just one more ad campaign that relies on fancy creatives and then forgets about the issues raised, Benetton went a step further and launched Unemployee of the Year, a campaign that invited young non-employed people between 18 and 30 from across the globe to submit outlines of projects. The 100 most deserving of these, built around ideas that would have a concrete social impact in their community received support from the Unhate Foundation.

Alessandro Benetton, chairman of Benetton Group says if one wants to be relevant in a fast changing world or to be ahead of others one must try to look for new ways to reach the consumer. “Sometimes you succeed sometimes you succeed less,” he says. “I think Fabrica, our research centre for communication never stops imagining what the future can look like. So the edgy image that everybody has in mind of Benetton belongs to a moment when nobody was recognising that. Today one of the main issues, one of the main goals that I have in my mind is to demonstrate that even non-profit activity or social sensitive elements need to be a normal part of company work of an industrial group.”

Over the past few years brand Benetton it seems is attempting a resurgence backed by a return to the controversial advertising that once made it famous. But is this a reaction to the chaos riddled time we live in or are the reasons more prosaic? Is it, in fact, a manifestation of an internal transformation at Benetton, driven by unimpressive sales in its core market Europe and the success of younger, edgier fashion brands and retailers — Zara, Diesel and H&M among others?

Benetton however is quick to draw the distinction between us and them; “We are not a fast fashion retailer and would never aim to be. Youth relate to us because the Benetton brand has grown to be much more than a clothing retail chain. We talk about what matters to them and I think it is this dialogue that matters the most.”

Now well over two years after the institutional campaign (Unhate) that rocked the world for however short a period of time, United Colors Of Benetton recently launched its newest product campaign featuring a small group of brand ambassadors with diverse backgrounds — fashion, food, philanthropy and music. Also, for the first time in its communication history Benetton has celebrity brand ambassadors. Interestingly, the brand does not, for lack of a better phrase, milk their uniqueness at all. For instance, a German model with one leg or a transsexual model from Brazil or the fact that one of the models calls Charlie Chaplin her grandfather. Far from confrontational, this campaign is nothing like the campaigns that preceded it. The images rely entirely on the clothes and colours with zero shock value, which has been Benetton's forte in the past.

In fact the product campaign which marks a strategic shift returns focus on the clothes. Colour is key to a new website, a platform that will aggretate user-generated feeds with colour-hashtags — pictures, posts, phrases, tweets — from Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter and Benetton will build an online community entirely dedicated to colours. How does this campaign contribute to the momentum the brand generated due to Unhate? Well, for starters, we don't think this one will be winning any Grand Prix awards at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity; Unhate won that title in 2012.

According to Benetton, his brand's advertising has always been much more than showcasing products. “Every company has its own DNA. I think especially in the case of Benetton, a company that perhaps is not perfect, but has been around for 40 years successfully, we shall never make the mistake of looking at our history and our roots and our basic value and abandon them. We have done a lot the last couple of years and so we can provide more collections and faster re-assortment at the store level. We are much more contemporary from this point of view. We have many areas in which we plan on growing. Markets like India, Russia, South America and their changing market dynamics and consumer preferences are always on my mind. I think we are capable to do all of this without changing our basic values.”

Their campaigns he says has given a sense of value to its brand and has helped build a lasting dialogue with the people of the world. But the question is can their colourlful campaigns help Benetton retain a new generation of consumers whose interest the brand triggered with a kiss?

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