Forty years ago, Luciano Benetton laid the foundations of apparel giant Benetton Group when he cycled around Treviso, Italy, selling sweaters hand-knitted by his sister. He's one of the richest men in the world now, and you can shop at any of 5,000 Benetton stores in 120 countries.
In India recently to launch the group's high fashion brand Sisley, Benetton spoke with Amit Ranjan Rai on the company's advertising, which has probably made more headlines than the company's $2.4 billion revenues. Excerpts:
Benetton is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. From a small, family-owned business, it has grown to become one of the most successful apparel brands in the world. What is the strategy that is driving its growth?
Everything started with the simple idea of producing fashion for the masses - good quality fashion at affordable prices. Over the years, this idea has been the cornerstone of our strategy.
In 1969, we opened our first shop in Paris, the world's fashion capital and a very difficult market. It turned out to be a big success and proved that our strategy is right.
This success created the conditions that helped us expand to other countries - if you start from a difficult market and you're successful there, it becomes easy to expand to other markets. It was an automatic consequence of our initial strategy and we are now present in 120 countries.
How does the Indian market compare?
We've always liked India and believed it has tremendous potential. Our attention to this market started many years ago and we are now collecting the fruit of that labour: for the past three years, we've been growing at 30 per cent here.
India is evolving and is now more open to the world. The younger generations are more fashion conscious than ever before. Which is why we thought the time right to launch a brand that is a little more extreme and provocative. We're quite optimistic about the future of Sisley as well.
Does Benetton believe in localised advertising? How about for the new brand?
Our campaigns are the same all over the world and India is no different. There's no special strategy for Sisley at the moment, since we have just started - we'll go step by step. But we do use the same institutional campaigns globally for all our brands.
How important is advertising in the growth of a brand?
Communication plays a very important role in the success of a brand. Throughout our history, we have invested in and focused on advertising, and our campaigns have helped create huge brand awareness all over the world.
Of course, Benetton's campaigns have always been unique. Contrary to the trends and strategies of all other brands, we decided to promote an idea more than a product. We were the only brand that created conditions for the people to discuss something different - an issue.
Of course, now we've institutionalised our focus on issues: we offer scholarships to Fabrica, where students from across the world gather to learn about and freely express their creativity in various communication fields, such as music, photography and so on. Such action creates multiple reactions, increased brand awareness being one of them.
As you just mentioned, Benetton's ad have historically been unique. The campaigns of the 1980s and 1990s focused more on multi-cultural diversity than selling knitwear...
We have always been a socially-conscious company. From the beginning, we wanted to launch a strong campaign against racism and create conditions for further discussions. And the strategy was also very much in line with our ambition to be present all over the world - independent of the colour of the skin or any other barriers.
And then [mostly after 1990] we enlarged the message against racism to focus on other important issues such as war, the death penalty and so on.
Around that time, AIDS emerged as a major issue, but there wasn't much information about the disease. So we also decided to launch a campaign against AIDS. And because our company was present in many countries, our campaigns attracted the attention of people all over the world. So our message was strong everywhere.
The impact of those campaigns was more controversial than beneficial. How did they help the brand's growth and sales?
Keeping in mind what our campaigns meant to us, we were not really interested in measuring their impact of on sales. Our advertising was not linked to our strategy for sales.
Having said that, I must add that, despite the controversial nature of our advertising, our sales kept growing and we expanded aggressively. The campaigns followed their own directions and the idea was to create awareness.
Where did brand awareness fit into this equation?
Of course, brand awareness was also important. But the campaigns were a part of the company's commitment to create social awareness. We also wanted to people to know that Benetton is a company that thinks differently and that it is committed to the society, and that is our philosophy.
This also came out quite clearly with our social campaigns in cooperation with organisations like the United Nations and programmes like Food for Life.
But your company stopped controversial ads after the "We on death row" campaign.
No, no, we didn't decide to stop because of the discussions that happened after the "death row" campaigns. It was already planned. Everything has to come to an end. So we had thought at that time that we have achieved our goal to create conditions for discussions about social issues. And that it was time to change, to think of something else.After these controversial campaigns, we entered into a new era that is also very important. Everybody remembers these controversial campaigns, but it is important to remember that after these ads, we started working with the UN for Food for Life and other initiatives.
Quickbite: Adding controversy
For the longest time, the clothes were the last thing you noticed in the United Colors of Benetton ads. All the colour - and controversy - was directed more towards the themes of these print campaigns.
The socio-political overtones to the ads started in the early 1980s, when photographer Oliviero Toscani came on board as creative director. The beginning was innocuous enough: multi-racial diversity was depicted in simple, cheerful images: children of different ethnicities standing together in brightly coloured sweaters.
The eyebrow-raising stuff came the following decade. Image after image Toscani shot for Benetton mired the company in debate and dispute: a priest and nun kissing; a blood-soaked baby fresh from the womb; a black woman nursing a white baby; a colourful mix of condoms; a black stallion mating a white mare; exposed, pulsing hearts during surgery; the emaciated body of an AIDS victim surrounded by grieving relatives, moments before his death; and so on.
Not one of these ads showed Benetton products. The uproar was furious. Why was a knitwear company venturing into such dangerous territory? Was there a social crusade in the offing? Or were the shocking images supposed to boost the Benetton brand in some mysterious way? There was no answer, and the photographs continued.
Sales climbed too: in 15 years, Benetton's sales multiplied 20 times. Then came the "We on death row" photographs in 2000. The images of 26 inmates from American prisons, all sentenced to death for various crimes, crossed some unseen line.
For once, customers weren't buying the social conscience argument - Toscani and Benetton said the ads were a form of protest against the death penalty.
As stores stopped selling the company's products and legal and consumer bodies protested, Toscani finally resigned.
Benetton ads are still colourful - but now it's the clothes.
We were modern and revolutionary in a way from the beginning. If you don't change and update yourself after a certain period of time you are not modern anymore. We knew our ads were fantastic.
They were unique and special, but at the same time we also knew from the start that they couldn't last forever. What was revolutionary 20 years ago may not be so today. So we decided to stop.
Also, when you advertise a specific product, it is quite normal for sales to rise. But the moment your message reaches a certain level, or you don't invest more, your sales will drop.
Traditional advertising is a narcotic - the more you advertise a product to keep up its sales, the more you need to advertise. It's addictive and is a negative effect. Since the beginning, we have wanted to avoid this deadly conjunction between sales and advertising.
What is special about our communication is that our brand is also known in those few countries where we are not present or amongst those customers who do not buy our products. The brand awareness is huge everywhere.
Another important thing is that if you advertise only the product, say, a coffee brand, you are only addressing the people who want to buy coffee or people who will go to that shop for that particular product.
Our strategy of talking about our company's philosophy means that we are talking also to those people who do not have access to our shops, or in countries where our presence is not big enough to talk to the majority of the people in those countries.
Still, your present advertising is product-centric.
We aren't against product advertising; we've done product ads earlier too. But the company philosophy is different, its main purpose has not much to do with sales.
The campaigns showing apparels are just a way to assist our partners around the world to promote our products. They don't reflect our philosophy.