Marketing and Ethics (United Colors of Benetton)

Often regarded as a leader in the multinational marketing industry, United Colors of Benetton continues to face the challenge of effectively marketing clothes across racial, cultural, and religious borders. Renowned for using social issued-themed pictures to promote its brand, Benetton has strayed from traditional marketing techniques to provide customers with an idea of the many issues that plaque societies from continent to continent. This unique approach has been met with extreme emotions, and people have both praised and damned the Benetton advertisements. Although the advertisements often are considered controversial, photographs that feature such images as human suffering and sexual organs continue to grasp the attention of the world media. Benetton’s focus on universal campaigns that represent different races, cultures, and lifestyles, often in direct opposition to acceptable standards, has become a concept used by companies that choose to maintain a common worldwide image.
As a company that is based largely on outsourcing, subcontracting, and relationships developed between a large company and several small producers and distributors, Benetton’s success has become an example for multinational business around the world Benetton’s ability to maximize profit and to minimize expenses has played a large role in its foundation. The retail market is not served directly by the company but by investors who purchased the right to sell Benetton items in their stores. Therefore, Benetton is a “pure manufacturer,” providing only clothes and use of the Benetton names to franchisees.
Benetton’s focus on creating an integrated relationship between the parent company and its licensees is further reflected in its efforts to speak personally to each consumer through the company advertisements. By using pictures of social issues that are familiar throughout the world, Benetton’s advertisements appear to establish an intimate connection with all consumers, regardless of their ethnic background, language, or culture, by speaking through a medium that transcends national boundaries. As does its distribution method, Benetton strives to incorporate a sense of familiarity and family in each business sector. Because Benetton is largely managed by members of the Benetton family, the company can easier sustain the intimate communication network that many U.S. companies attempt to develop by organizing individual departments into teams.

Maintaining Luciano Benetton’s ability to transform “sweaters into messages, shirts into signs, and jeans into signifiers,” the company sought out an artist, not an advertiser who respected the rules of traditional marketing . Benetton hired Oliviero Toscani, a photographer who has earned recognition from his edgy photography style. Toscani chose to use print and poster as his media, a very unusual advertising decision for a clothing company. In addition, because television advertisements historically have cost retailers up to 62% of their advertising budgets, Benetton initially refused to promote itself on television. They later agreed to do so only on specific networks outside of Italy, such as MTV in the U.S.2
At the heart of Toscani’s basic advertising and marketing strategy was what he often referred to as a “communications strategy” based on the diversity-focused slogan integrated into the United Colors of Benetton Campaigns. With this theme of unification, Toscani chose to transform advertising into “news,” paying close attention to current events.2 Because Benetton’s clothes were sold around the world, the expenses incurred to tailor campaigns to specific national markets would have been enormous. To reduce these high costs, Toscani attempted to bring the world’s markets together by using a single advertisement that would appeal to many cultures, races, religions, and lifestyles. The goal was to reach people’s souls, to invoke discussion of controversial topics, and to bring societies to the awareness that humans share many similar concerns. Even Benetton, a clothing company, can offer support to world-wide social issues.

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Although many people considered it awkward that a clothing company, used humanitarian issues to promote itself, Toscani’s ability to present devastating and critical events in unprecedented ways, such as photographing the death of an AIDS patient, succeeded in capturing people’s attention and challenging their beliefs and ethical values.3 Because Toscani’s approach to arousing public consciousness has received mixed reviews, it would be difficult to determine how the contentious images have deterred them from purchasing Benetton products, but others have praised the unique advertisements that promote messages of racial equality. However obscure the world’s view is of the exclusive advertisements, when Toscani left Benetton in the summer of 2000, the company’s sales were twenty times greater than they were when he arrived4
As Toscani continued to present his campaigns, consumers’ responses varied from country to country. The advertisements even created feelings of hostility among Benetton’s retailers that believed the advertisements had decreased sales3. Although Toscani was criticized for using politics to promote products, he stated that the issues he chose for the Benetton advertisements genuinely inspired him.3 To capture consumer audience, Toscani attempted to reach consumers by challenging the values that are often disregarded in retail advertisements and by stimulating discussion about extreme issues. Toscani’s campaigns included scenes such as U.S. death row inmates, a newborn baby with its umbilical cord attached, and a black woman breast-feeding a white infant.

Because the guidelines for acceptable advertisements vary throughout the world, Benetton’s campaigns were praised in some countries and damned in others. For example, a photograph of a priest and a nun kissing did not produce the extreme outcry in the United States as it did in Vatican City. The cultural perceptions of these photographs created diverse responses in global consumer markets. The traditional notion that what is acceptable in one society may not be acceptable in another is helpful in explaining why campaigns that exceed the limits of traditional advertising are liked by some people and disliked by others. Even though some campaigns caused market controversy, Toscani’s attempt to integrate world concepts into his art also earned Benetton recognition in the art industry, which regarded his work as “the most inspiring thing ever seen.”4 For example, today formerly culturally unacceptable images of scantily dressed models line the walls of airports and billboards in socially conservative countries like Turkey and Iran.

As Toscani furthered his projects with the establishment of Fabrica, a center based just outside Treviso, Italy, designed to deal specifically with the communication goals of Benetton, he continued to develop his advertisements by including new editorials to accompany the pictures. The advertisement do not make “explicit statements about a subject: they simply set out to grab attention and make people consider and confront their own views”1 In early 2005, a book entitled “Fabrica” was produced by the Benetton Company and dedicated to “ten years of ideas, projects, personalities, events and experimentation” that came out of its creative laboratory, Fabrica, founded by the madcap genus and visionary Oliviero Toscani together with Luciano Benetton.5 The idea of the book Fabrica was to bring together communicators from across the world who were willing to take the kind of risks Benetton has become famous for.
Much of Toscani’s campaign success has been attributed to his ability to merge problems faced by many people into a single, recognizable package. The forum for his messages became Colors, a quarterly magazine publication that addresses humanitarian issues. Colors is a company-sponsored medium that presents and discusses worldwide issues, such as AIDS, poverty, and hunger. Toscani’s use of models of different ethnicities in his photographs further supports his desire to show that the hardships faced by citizens in one country also exist in the lives of others. This method attempts to dissolve the economic, political, and religious barriers that exist throughout the world.
Benetton’s advertisements appear to have achieved a type of universality, or an environment in which common global problems can be localized. The assertive imagery Toscani uses to depict scenes of recognizable “enemies,” such as a German and an Israeli, or a Greek and a Turk, has further captured the attention of worldwide audiences1 Benetton’s campaigns did not include advertisements that showed “carefree, attractive” models wearing the company’s bright-colored garments. Instead, they attempted to raise a sense of ownership for the social problems that people face around the world. Whether the issues reviewed are of a political or a religious content, recent or historical, Benetton’s advertisements blatantly reflect the conflicts in the world.
Today, these conflicts might include the more frequent racial injustices in the United States that have resulted from September 11 terrorist attacks and the U.S.-Iraq war. Because a traditional layout that used models of the same race probably would not have had the same impact on presenting such widespread troubles, Toscani’s “shocking” method appears to have been essential in grasping hold of the problems around the world and bringing the people who confront them face-to-face. As a result, Benetton has been able to avoid the common retailer stereotype of using one or two ethnic groups in its promotions.

Although uniform ad campaigns often depict utopian images of consumers using a certain product, Benetton achieved its goal of unifying the world, breaking down barriers, and stirring debate by avoiding the standard approach. Toscani’s authority to work independently of management’s controlling eye enabled him to break away from organizational establishments and to “produce something incredible.”5 With the elimination of the need for management approval, traditional productions were disregarded and what remained was a raw vision of humanity based on pure emotion and instinct. The commonness achieved through the messages is a result of both the similarities and the inequalities that exist among world cultures, which together hold a melting pot of different views.

Although Benetton’s advertisements have received positive recognition throughout the world, recent social problems may require the company to become more sensitive to the unique characteristics of market cultures and to develop a more culture-friendly presentation. For example, advertisements addressing current religious and/or political disputes (the conflict between the US and Iraq) may create animosity in multiple markets. Because such events can lead to a heightened sense of patriotism (as proved by September 11) in certain countries, there are consumers who might view the advertisements as direct cultural criticism. In addition, because Benetton’s consumer market included religious and ethnic groups that historically have opposed one another, it may be difficult to create a promotion that remains effective in each segment.
As more multinational companies begin to realize the benefits of marketing products cross-culturally and using models of different ethnicities for their promotions, modern marketers will have transformed traditional uniform strategies into ones focused on reaching the most consumers across ethnic, linguistic, and religious boundaries. Moreover, Benetton’s approach is an example of how a clothing company can become an advocate for discussions about ethics by using creative marketing strategies. Benetton’s intent was not only to “increase sweater sales” but also to reach people’s heart through this creativity because such issues speak to the public through a representation of emotional states and scenes1. Because of Benetton advertisements’ ability to conjure extreme human emotions, they have become an icon of creativity recognized by marketers and consumers worldwide.
Bibliography
emailprotected “Those Outrageous Creatives at Benetton Haven’t Settled Down to a Cosy Life.” The Times (United Kingdom) 15 Jan. 2005: 19.

DJ Mateo, Gabriele. “The Notorious Campaign of Luciano Benetton.” Print 47 (1993): 52-55.
Ganesan, Senthil. “Benetton Group: Unconventional Advertising.” Global Ceo (2002): 53-59.

Mantle, Jonathan, retold by Susan Fearns. Benetton. Harlow, Essex, England: Pearson Education, 2000.

Rich, Tim, “Toscani and His Critics,” Print 52 (1998): 174-77.

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