OPINION: Mills on ... Ben Sherman

Round where I live, they're known as the Gary's. You may know them as something else but you'll recognise the breed: pale, emaciated youths aged between 16 and 24 who hang around shopping centres or games rooms, often with a mobile phone in one hand and a cigarette in the other. They are distinguished by their uniform: trainers, Adidas/Nike/Reebok/Ellesse caps with the brim pointing upwards at 45 degrees and a shirt worn untucked. More often than not, the shirt is a Ben Sherman. They may look like the urban underclass, but they're brand aware.

Round where I live, they're known as the Gary's. You may know them as something else but you'll recognise the breed: pale, emaciated youths aged between 16 and 24 who hang around shopping centres or games rooms, often with a mobile phone in one hand and a cigarette in the other. They are distinguished by their uniform: trainers, Adidas/Nike/Reebok/Ellesse caps with the brim pointing upwards at 45 degrees and a shirt worn untucked. More often than not, the shirt is a Ben Sherman. They may look like the urban underclass, but they're brand aware.

And good for Ben Sherman, I say. Its shirts are both fashionable and affordable. Better than that, it understands the Gary's - its target market - perfectly.

People who know me will testify that I am no fashion expert, but even I know it was Ben Sherman that led the way in the 60s and 70s with the button-down collar and pleated back. There followed a long period in the wilderness - let us call these the Levi's years - until the mid-90s or so when Ben Sherman narrowly escaped receivership and became fashionable again with a certain group thanks to its cult status as a retro icon. Whether this was due to an advertising campaign through Grey or to one of those trends that come from nowhere, I couldn't guess. A bit of both, I suspect, plus a genuine sense of heritage. Whatever, it has certainly worked: Ben Sherman currently holds about a third of the men's casual shirts market.

Which brings us to today and a new campaign from Ben Sherman, part of a 30 per cent increase in global spend and a 50 per cent increase in UK spend. If I say that the campaign, as exemplified by one ad that we print here, is by a small agency which goes by the name of Explosive, you probably won't be in the least surprised. I imagine if you call yourself Explosive, you feel obliged to produce work like this.

This ad, as you can see if you study it closely, features a ram and an inflatable doll. Clearly, it brings a whole new meaning to the concept of sheep-shagging. The animal theme is repeated throughout the campaign.

Other ads show a gorilla with lipstick, a bulldog with ear-rings, a pierced bear and a donkey (called Ben, strangely enough) with a penis enlarger in his mouth. Each ad contains a small product shot together with the line 'Cut from a different cloth' - inherited from the Grey campaign.

I don't know what the brief said, but I bet you can summarise it in two words: 'yoof' and 'attitood'. These are two elements of a potentially combustible mix. Add in some others - a fashion brand with a small budget chasing street cred - and you'd expect a poster campaign guaranteed to provoke an ASA ban followed by hundreds of Sophie Dahl/fcuk-type column inches in the media. But no. This campaign is booked into titles such as FHM, Loaded, Maxim and Q. Very conventional indeed for a brand trying so hard to be unconventional.

The second interesting issue is an old one: product versus idea. Most fashion advertising eschews the idea entirely in favour of making the product the hero. And why not? Who needs an idea when you've got an interesting product to show off? Instead, these take the opposite tack by playing down the product at the expense of the idea. My problem is that I'm not really sure I get the idea. Is it something about animal magnetism and Ben Sherman clothing? Or is it just a laddish visual joke that the target market will find funny?

Be that as it may. I am not in the target market so it's hard to judge.

But if you flick through the ads in FHM et al, you can see that Ben Sherman will certainly stand out from its rivals. On the other hand, remove the logo, tinker with the endline and this campaign could be for anything - even a standard lager, a spirit mixer or an energy drink - aimed at Gary and his mates.



Dead cert for a Pencil? The joint Draper's Record/Big Farm Weekly prize.

Will it work? An unequivocal maybe.

What would the chairman's wife say? At least it's not a Benetton.



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