Fashion brand Benetton has made some of the most provocative and overtly political ads of the past half-century. As the brand turns 50, however, it is moving away from shock tactics and entering a new “mature” phase, led by chief product and marketing officer John Mollanger. His aim is to bring product and social causes together.
Since its inception in 1965, the Benetton brand has challenged social norms and championed issues that affect humanity; communicating this stance through images that shock, make people think and raise awareness for causes the brand believes in. They include famous print and poster ads by photographer Oliviero Toscani – one featuring three human hearts and another depicting a newborn baby still attached to the umbilical cord, for example.
Campaigns have included images of the pope kissing an imam; same sex parents; people affected by war or poverty; and depictions of diversity – whether pertaining to race, religion or gender.
However, in recent years the focus on purpose over product has led to consumers neglecting to buy its clothes. Benetton Group sales, including those of its Sisley brand, were over €2bn five years ago but in 2013 they fell 10% to €1.602bn as the company slipped into a loss, with most of that revenue not recouped by a 3% rise in 2014. While brands such as Zara and H&M have surged ahead by using their ‘integrated’ manufacturing and retail operations to constantly reinvent their fashion styles according to the latest trends, Benetton’s formula has been delivering progressively worse results.
“Going forward the brand communication and the product collections will go hand in hand.”
John Mollanger, Benetton
Now Mollanger, who was poached from Japanese brand Asics in January, has begun implementing a new brand strategy to turn this around. It is part of a three-year plan that will also transform the Benetton Group’s business model to focus on selling from its own stores instead of third-party retailers.
An ‘important departure’
At the launch of the brand’s new campaign last month in Treviso, Italy, Mollanger said: “This is not a social campaign, a product campaign or a brand campaign – it is all three together. It’s an important departure; one that we feel is mature, conscious and very positive.”
He explained that this departure is not a rebrand but rather a “mature evolution”, and not a “revolution [against] campaigns from the past”. Mollanger said: “It crystallises an important decision we took, that going forward the brand communication and the product collections will go hand in hand.”
Although the campaigns of the past gained traction by using shocking imagery, the products were left behind while the social issue took centre stage.
“Provocation is not at the top of the list for the brand, but [instead we want] to make people react; to make people feel like individuals, not consumers,” worldwide communications director Gianluca Pastore tells Marketing Week (see Q&A, below).
He adds: “There were 10 years where the product was never mentioned; journalists talked about only the social issues, not the company. We are in a different stage of social engagement. We are no longer happy to just talk about social things but [want to] stimulate change, promoted through advertising.”
At Benetton’s launch event, Mollanger explained that the brand needed to back social causes where it could actively contribute rather than just point the finger. He said: “Hopefully, [consumers] won’t see this as being less emotional or weaker than some of the campaigns from the 80s.”
He also believes that campaigns should not be created in a reactionary manner because if the brand starts choosing social campaigns by the flavour of the moment, it gives the impression of using tragic events for business reasons.
“There is no guarantee that being shocking and graphic will encourage people to play and interact with you in the long run,” Mollanger tells Marketing Week.
“There were 10 years where the product was never mentioned; journalists only talked about the social issues, not the company”
Gianluca Pastore, Benetton
Benetton’s new campaign therefore features advertising that promotes a diverse group of women sharing experiences of their life-changing events, while wearing the brand’s knitwear. It is certainly tamer and more product-driven than previous Benetton ads, but ties into the brand’s new Women Empowerment programme, which it also launched last month.
This is a long-term initiative, which supports projects and actions that are key priorities for women including sustainable living, equal opportunities, access to quality education and healthcare, and an end to all forms of violence against them.
Value of social commitment
Two factors will play a greater role in this new phase of communication and social engagement: younger consumers and campaign measurement.
“Youth are the main target because young women can make change the more they are aware and sensitised on these issues,” says Mariarosa Cutillo, corporate social responsibility (CSR) manager at Benetton Group. Cutillo adds that there’s a need to provoke a change in line with the United Nations’ development goals for 2030 and that young people up to age 30 would be a more fruitful audience for this sort of campaign.
Pastore agrees that young people and young families play a crucial role for the brand because they are more aware and more willing to deal only with companies that act responsibly.
Playing up to the new approach of tackling social issues where an actual change is sought means that measuring the success of campaigns will factor highly for the brand.
Pastore says: “We want to set specific objectives and we aim to be measured, which is why there is so much focus on one issue. The scope is not to just have a goal to reach but to ask why if we don’t reach it.”
At present, the empowerment programme is in the phase of looking for partners. “We want partners that are happy to be measured and measured publicly,” he says. “It’s important because we want to win the battle but it’s [also] important to share results and ask what we can do if it doesn’t happen.”
Talking about women’s empowerment is nothing new for Benetton, and consumers – young and old – are alert to claims that lack authenticity. For Mollanger, this has become central as more companies begin to place a marketing focus on ethical practices and social commitments.
Social purpose has been “present in the brand for decades” and is part of citizenship, he explained at the Treviso launch. “We are a brand for the globe and we may hope and think that Benetton could help it become a better place. This can be easily misunderstood as a CSR statement but for us, social commitment is not CSR.”
The Benetton Group’s ethos is to combine business growth with social commitment, competitiveness, care for the environment and ethics, Mollanger added. “This is our DNA; it is not a fad, a trend or something that we woke up with yesterday. We have done this since day one.”
Back to the beginning
Just as Benetton is striving to change its product marketing while maintaining its wider purpose, the same is true of its corporate reorganisation.
Benetton Group has been wholly owned by the Benetton family’s Edizione Holding company since de-listing from the Milan Stock Exchange in 2012, though the family stepped back from day-to-day management in 2003. The company was recently split into three separate entities focusing on manufacturing, real estate, and brands and products.
Mollanger believes that despite restructuring, the group’s three core values remain in place. These are: knitwear expertise, colour innovation and social commitment. “Those values have never changed. In a way, they are very old and in another way they have never been so modern.”
The focus on knitwear emphasises manual expertise and the fact that Benetton was built and will continue to be built by craftsmen. The company believes that the passion and mastery behind this craft still have a place in the modern world.
Colour innovation is the brand’s creative side. According to Mollanger when Benetton talks about colours, it is not talking about garments only. Instead, it means the brand is “extremely committed to colour diversity, ethnicity, sexual orientation and religious diversity”, because they are “part of our backbone”.
And social commitment relates to causes that affect humanity, including the latest effort to empower women.
Benetton is clearly not the only brand taking a stance on the subject of women’s equality. Procter & Gamble’s feminine hygiene brand Always has been running its ‘Like a Girl’ campaign for more than a year, aiming to question social attitudes that harm girls’ confidence.
Benetton’s level of marketing activity is far below that of P&G, so Mollanger is wary of appearing to compete with other brands on the ownership of the issue. “I don’t think that’s the deal – we are not trying to pick a fight [when] the fight is what we can do to make the world we live in a better place.
“If you start to do as such, you lose if you don’t play: it’s highly probable – in fact it’s a guarantee – that P&G will do more for longer with bigger resources. Should that be the reason for us not to do it at our size? Probably not. If everyone thought ‘we might be too small to try’, there wouldn’t be an impact,” he said.
The founding values Mollanger mentions look certain to play a big part in directing Benetton’s forthcoming marketing activity. In order to execute Benetton’s new strategy, Mollanger believes the company will have to go back to its beginnings to inform the approach it takes in future.
“We need to go back and have a little bit of the naivety and entrepreneurship that fuelled the venture when the company first started,” he tells Marketing Week.
He points out that “when you start a business with no cash or family the fear is not a factor”. He believes that recreating the feeling among employees of building a new enterprise from scratch will become crucial, because Benetton has been put off taking risks in the past for fear of jeopardising the brand equity it has built up over the past 50 years.
“We might not be as big as we wanted to be but we are not small. There are things to lose and that can sometimes become a paralysis. What we are going to need, from an interpersonal standpoint, is to make sure that we have the entrepreneurship and passion to try again and try different.”
Q. What is the biggest change in Benetton’s brand communications in the past 50 years?
We are not celebrating these 50 years, because we are more focused on what we want to do and what we can deliver to consumers. The ‘Collection of Us’ products and the Women Empowerment programme are a turning point; it’s a moment where the brand wants to move into a new phase that is based on evolution and our identity.
[We are] focusing on combination of the product and social issues because in the end we would like to have more consumers involved in what we are doing. We do our best to make it possible for people to have the opportunity to buy but also to think.
Q. Why has the communication changed from shock tactics to talking about both the product and social issues?
We are in a different stage of social engagement. We are no longer happy to just talk about social things but [want to] stimulate change, promoted through advertising. It’s about social commitment and product together. It’s an objective to have an impact, not just at a level of awareness [but] something more.
Q. How has your audience changed over the years?
It’s important to us to engage young people; we know there is a big change in consumer behaviour. Nielsen figures show that 52% of consumers are ready to pay more for a responsible brand in Italy. We believe in this. Young people and families play a substantial part in this. We are in many markets and it’s amazing to see growth markets where young families are ready to act for a better future.
Q. John Mollanger has previously stated that what Benetton does is not marketing. How would you describe your brand communications?
When we say we are a brand, we mean all aspects, from communication to retail stores and social issues, have to be linked. Communication is not just understanding advertising, it’s the way the brand lives and is interpreted by consumers. The difference is it’s not about inviting people to buy but giving them the opportunity to think about social issues. It’s what has made the brand so recognisable over the years.
1965 – Benetton founded by Luciano Benetton
1969 – Benetton opens first store outside of Italy in Paris
1980 – The first New York store opens on Madison Avenue
1982 – Collaboration with controversial photgrapher Oliviero Toscani begins
1983 – Benetton enters Formula 1 as sponsor of the Tyrrel team
1986 – The group is listed on the Milan, Frankfurt and New York Stock Exchanges
1991 – Benetton creates its Colors magazine, which goes on sale in 40 countries
2003 – The Benetton family takes a step back, giving responsibility to managers
2005 – Benetton Group is in 120 countries with 5,000 stores
2011 – Launch of ‘Unhate’, a worldwide communications campaign
2012 – Benetton Group delists from Milan Stock Exchange
2014 – The company is reorganised into three entities focused on brands, manufacturing and real estate
2014 – John Mollanger hired as chief product and marketing officer
2015 – Benetton begins three-year strategy to refocus its model on selling through its own stores