Alessandro Benetton on building a brand out of controversy

The Benetton chairman tells Judy Attwell about swapping a career in finance to take the helm of the family business, why he took the retailer into private ownership and the benefit of gritty ads.

Alessandro Benetton on building a brand out of controversy

On the fourth floor of Benetton's Parisian flagship store on Boulevard Haussmann, sitting among fluorescent sweaters and down jackets, Marketing finds Alessandro Benetton, the urbane chairman of the eponymous Italian fashion brand.

Timeline of controversy


The second-generation scion of the Benetton family, and one of four brothers, Alessandro is nearly a year into the tricky job of rejuvenating the 48-year-old business. Once, Benetton was a leader in cutting-edge, yet affordable, fashion; now it is buffeted by a plethora of challenges, not least the euro-zone crisis and the rise of fast-fashion rivals.

Nonetheless, Alessandro is relaxed. Though he does not say so, his crusade appears to be a personal one, to prove a family member still belongs at the top of the fashion empire. Why take on this responsibility when he could have left it to hired professionals? It helps to understand that Alessandro is a driven man, one whose initial career choice was to go it alone and apply the Benetton entrepreneurial flair to the world of finance.




1987: Graduated from University of Boston 1987-1989: Analyst, Goldman Sachs International, London 1988-1998: Chairman, Benetton Formula 1991: Achieved MBA from Harvard 1992: Set up equity investment holding company 21 Investimenti 1998: Joined Benetton Group board of directors 2007: Appointed executive deputy chairman, Benetton Group April 2012: Became Benetton Group chairman

Since last April, however, Alessandro has transferred that drive to transforming Benetton, a commitment that led to him turning up in Paris last month to unveil United Colors Of Benetton's latest brand campaign for its spring/summer collection.

The effects of nimbler rivals, such as Zara, the rising cost of raw materials and the eurozone crisis were evident when group revenue for 2011 was reported to be EUR2.03bn (£1.7bn), down from EUR2.1bn in 2010, weighing on Benetton's Milan-listed shares.

Interrupting a successful career as the head of his private-equity firm, 21 Investimenti, Alessandro stepped up from deputy chairman last year to take the reins from his father, company founder Luciano. His first major move as chairman was an audacious one - taking Benetton into private ownership.

Its latest fashion campaign, featuring nine socially minded celebrities modelling clothes, is the first time Benetton has put social messaging in its brand campaign. It is also, some would say, a welcome break from its unrelentingly gritty socially themed marketing (see Timeline, right).

Lean and tanned, Alessandro looks less like the former Goldman Sachs analyst he once was, and more like the ski instructor he remains. Born in Treviso, Italy, in 1964, he is married to former Italian ski champion Deborah Compagnoni and led Benetton's successful Formula One team for a decade. His latest task is to extend that run of success into revamping the family business.

What are Benetton's most acute challenges?

There are many. The Italian and Spanish markets are the two most relevant ones for us, and with their current economic situations, we have to sail against the tide at the moment. Remaining present in 120 countries in the world is a big effort. We have many positives in our brand that we are revitalising. However, we need to modernise the machine because the competitive environment is completely different. Consumers behave very differently from 20 years ago, when they'd go to town (to shop) once a month.

Last April, you took Benetton from public into private ownership. What advantage does that give you?

We did it because we recognise we have a strong brand and history. But the competitive environment and the fact that we are dependent on Italy and Spain requires important changes.

My goal is transformation. I was not expecting to join the family business, and one reason I was asked to do this is because of my private-equity experience, where you accept the risk of changing things.

So we are transforming from a family-run company into a managerial one - with definite supervision from the shareholders, but with a team working independently.

It would not have been practical to do this as a listed company. It was the right choice.

Will you open any more stores?

We need to focus on using the stores we have in a better way. The problem today is not to have more stores - we already have 6000 - but rather to create an environment where we let the consumer know about the quality of our product.

If you were starting Benetton today, would you avoid having stores at all?

Before I became chairman, I relaunched Playlife, a sports brand in the Benetton portfolio. I developed a new-store concept, a multi-brand experience, addressing a younger consumer. We have 10 Playlife stores in Italy that are functioning very well.

That's (proof) that when you start something new, it's easier because you can test it when it's smaller scale. Doing it at Benetton is more complex. You have to offer the consumer a shopping experience, which is the product, the music, the smell, the atmosphere in the store. We certainly need to invest (more) in internet sales. The fact that our latest campaign is 50%-60% digital is an indication of that.

What is Benetton learning from fast-fashion brands such as H&M and Zara?

We will not go in the same direction as these brands; I want to underline this. I don't think we shall ever feel uncomfortable with the (Benetton) brand - it is some sort of treasure and needs to become better at showing the value of the product to the consumer, but we will not copy anyone.

We do, however, need to learn from these (brands), as the consumer has changed. Twenty years ago, it was an event to buy a sweater. Today, the speed at which we serve the consumer with the latest trend has condensed. We need to interpret these trends within Benetton values.

How does the controversy around your social-issue campaigns benefit the brand?

I consider the controversial element as a very good side effect of what we're doing.

It's part of the DNA of the brand to share views and vision about philosophical social issues. We've done it in the past and we'll do it in the future. Of the 500m people who saw the 'kissing' campaign, more than 80%, if I remember correctly, had a positive view of what we'd done. The fact that the Unhate Foundation supports good causes that link to the message of the campaigns, gives you a sense of the direction we're going in.

What was it like stepping into the shoes of your father?

Being a successful entrepreneur, I am not measuring myself against anybody else. I don't feel I'm taking my father's position, because I have different abilities and qualities to him. I think that's good for the company, as it requires so many more different elements than 10 years ago. When you come from the private-equity industry you have a very clear focus on having an agenda for the next three years, and I want to see improvements. It is almost a coincidence that I was a member of the family. Perhaps I can facilitate this dialogue between the past and the future.


Timeline of controversy

Benetton's strategy of using its symbolic photography to highlight the key social and political issues of our time made the brand synonymous with 'shock advertising'. The reportage style - the only nod to conventional marketing was the presence of Benetton's green logo - was created in-house by Oliviero Toscani, a photographer and Benetton's creative director from 1982 to 2000. Here is Marketing's pick of the most memorable ads:


1989: A picture of a black woman breastfeeding a white baby was part of Benetton's anti-racism campaign. The ad drew both brickbats - it was withdrawn after critics saw it as an unfortunate reminder of how slaves had been used to nurse white babies - and subsequently plaudits, at the Cannes Advertising Festival.


1991: An image of a mucus-covered new-born baby was intended as an 'anthem to life', but ended up as one of the brand's most censured images.


1992: At the height of the AIDS epidemic, Benetton used a photograph of a real-life death scene. The ad, featuring David Kirby minutes after his death in hospital in 1990, won the 1991 World Press Photo Award, but magazines such as Elle, Vogue and Marie Claire refused to run it.


1996: Toscani created this ad featuring three identical 'human hearts' to highlight racism. The organs used were actually pig hearts.


2000: The anti-death-penalty campaign created a firestorm for its sympathetic portrayal of convicted murderers on death row. Protests came from the state of Missouri, where some prisoners were photographed; consumers; the families of the inmates' victims; and department store Sears, which refused to stock Benetton products. The controversy caused Toscani to resign.


2003: Benetton was approached by the World Food Programme of the United Nations to help highlight world hunger. The result was a series of ads featuring people in Afghanistan, Cambodia, Guinea and Sierra Leone.


2011: Benetton's 'Unhate' campaign featured world leaders 'kissing' their adversaries. One of Pope Benedict XVI locking lips with Egypt's Ahmed el-Tayeb, imam of the Al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo was withdrawn hours after launch and its denouncement by the Vatican. The campaign won the 2012 Press Grand Prix at the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity for 'jumping off the page' and into online conversation.