Contrarian Marketing at Benetton's

Robert Abbott

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Perhaps, with apologies to Dale Carnegie, we should call this article: “How to make enemies AND influence people. "

The subject: United Colors of Benetton's campaign to promote its clothing, using photos and stories about death row prisoners in the U. S. It's what journalist James Bone of the Times of London called the “latest in a string of deliberately provocative campaigns".

In an age when most advertisers try their hardest to avoid offending anyone, this company takes a clearly contrarian approach. A cynic might call it a cheap trick to get attention and free media coverage (like this article). But, Benetton has run campaigns like this for quite some time, and important communication lessons come out of them, regardless of how we feel about the subject matter.

Let's start with focus. Obviously, if the company willingly offends the moral sensibilities of many potential customers, it must focus on a particular part of the market, specifically people with liberal social and political attitudes.

In marketing terms, that suggests Benetton segments with psychographic criteria. Psychographics refers to the lifestyles, values, and attitudes of consumers, including social and political viewpoints.

Given that it has run campaigns like this one for some 20 years, we have to believe that Benetton knows this segment well and focuses on it intently.

Turning to positioning, just about every other clothing company uses warm and fuzzy advertising themes. Advertising that makes you feel good about yourself because you look good, which makes you attractive to others, and therefore popular, and all of that should satisfy some of your important goals.

Benetton, on the other hand, apparently wants its customers to feel good about themselves because they have a social conscience, because they feel moral outrage about one of the hot-button issues of our time.

This positions the company very distinctively. While no end of warm and fuzzy strategies may get mixed up in consumer minds, Benetton has a clear and unequivocal position that won't be mistaken or soon forgotten.

Diversity is the next issue: we who live in North America sometimes forget other large markets exist beyond our immediate borders. Benetton, an Italian company, probably recognizes those markets.

Voters in all major industrialized countries, except the U. S. , have rejected the death penalty since World War II. That includes people in the powerful economies of Western Europe.

So, from Benetton's bottom-line perspective, it can afford to offend some potential American customers as it builds or maintains markets in Europe and Asia. Not that Benetton has been reticent to offend Europeans either. Another recent ad campaign showed a nun and priest kissing, which raised many hackles among European consumers.

As you can imagine, this contrarian strategy could backfire easily, if used by a firm with that couldn't carry it off well. To succeed with it, you need to know your marketing and markets very well indeed.

In summary, a contrarian positioning strategy like Benetton's, one that might offend some potential customers while increasing the loyalty of others, presents a high-risk, and possibly high-reward, option.

Robert F. Abbott writes and publishes Abbott's Communication Letter. Learn how you can use communication to help achieve your goals, by reading articles or subscribing to this ad-supported newsletter. An excellent resource for leaders and managers, at:


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