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Aug 2014 01

causing brand offence

Posted in blog
causing brand offence

With Benetton’s latest round of controversial advertising causing global headlines, you might start asking yourself if this is a strategy worth considering?

Benetton make and sell  t-shirts and jumpers.

They don’t develop vaccines for underdeveloped countries.  They don’t create solutions for feeding the world’s starving.

They are, in fact, no different to a company that makes egg boxes or biscuits for a crust, yet somehow they have managed to craft for themselves this brand mantle of world spokespeople on progress and change.

Last week saw the Italian chain make headlines once again with their latest rounds of billboard and press ads designed to provoke, titled ‘unhate’.  This time we are treated to manipulated images of world spokespeople appearing to kiss on the lips.  Interestingly, only a brief series of ads in the early noughties has ever featured any of the brands products.

After a very predictable backlash, a particular  ad containing the Pope and Ahmed Mohammed has been withdrawn, once again bouncing it onto the front pages, and gaining the brand worldwide exposure worth millions.

This all started back in the early eighties  when the little known (outside of Italy) brand employed well known photographer Oliviero Toscani as creative director and added the strapline “United Colours of Benetton” to their campaigns.

With a definite “less is more” approach, the ads are defined by a single image making a subtle, often ambiguous, statement on society and our sometimes less than tolerant attitudes.  Infamous examples such as an unclean newborn baby, AIDs victim David Kirby, and inmates on death row have caused such apoplectic outrage in some quarters that they have seen themselves being sued, banned and even blacklisted by some stockists.

However, they also saw the brand leap from a relatively unknown to a worldwide recognised player.  Only after the Sears chain in America refused to stock their clothes did Oliviero eventually leave  the company after 18 controversial years.

Yet still they have persevered.

One cant help wondering what kind of strategy meetings take place at Benetton as they discuss ideas. “So, what do you think Antonio – is the dead baby a bit much?”.

For make no mistake, these ads are designed to create such a stir.  Yes, occasionally they cause fractious relationships with distributors, but the execs at Benetton will have been lapping up the controversy with glee and the fact they withdrew the “Pope” meant far more people saw it on the front pages than by conventional paid for advertising.

Does that mean that any publicity is good publicity?

Not necessarily – just ask BP – but by deliberately choosing very polarising topics, although they alienate a large section of the consumer market, they also delight another large, and hopefully profitable section. “Youth” is their target market, and what youth doesn’t embrace change and a bit of provocative confrontation?

Cleverly, they also never go so far as to take a definitive stance.  Instead they throw out topics and ask you , the viewer, to question yourself about how you feel.  Of course, by disassociation they are able to then present themselves as the facilitator of change.  If anyone has a problem with it – it’s you who has the problem – not them.

“What does this have to do with sweaters?” is what many people ask. And so we are back to brands and our emotional relationships with them.  If you can convince a consumer you share values on an emotional level then they identify your organisation as one they want to do business with, and purchasing your services is a way of them showing that affinity.  In a strange sort of way, the product attributes become less important – just look at celebrity endorsed perfumes and aftershaves.

Marmite took a brave decision some years ago, deciding to parody the idea that some people find the product’s very strong taste so repulsive it actually makes them retch (in a poll 38% of people said they ’hate’ it)  – and in admitting so gained huge armies of fans who on the other side of the coin – love it.  Let’s face it, with a product like that, you have a hard job convincing  someone to change their mind.  What you might do of course, is get some Marmite’virgins’ to try it to see what all the (carefully managed) fuss is about, and furthermore get your loyal ‘lovers’ to get emotionally involved enough in your campaign that they show their allegiance at the checkout.

So is it a strategy worth considering?

The problem is that with any polarising strategy you are always going to take a risk.  You have to be sure your target market agrees with your stance.  And in the fashion industry that can be a fickle as as a five year old at mealtimes.

Remember only a few years ago the fashionistas were all shunning fur?  Nowadays you wouldn’t catch any aspiring catwalk model without a dead rodent around their necks (or a ciggie in their mouths for that matter).  Only this year Marks & Spencer had to battle their hardcore ‘silver’ consumers at their AGM who vociferously complained that the brand had become far ‘too young’ and the cleavage far too low, resulting in a rethink of the brand strategy.

So there you go.  With risk can come reward, but just make sure you can handle the flak if you start offering  free fox-hunting trips with your countryside muesli bars.


Posted by: Rob Paton, Director, The Marketing Box