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Benetton Uses Empathy To Rework The Brand's Legacy For A Modern Era

The new campaign's approach is less shocking than in the past, but still honest and true to life.

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Fashion brand Benetton could never be accused of deploying a conventional approach to marketing. In the 1980s its multiracial "United Colors of Benetton" press ads and billboards were remarkable at the time and its later shift into politically charged topics, including AIDS, war causalities and the death penalty had those of a delicate disposition reaching for the smelling salts. More recently, its 2011 "unHate" campaign used images of President Obama kissing then Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez (among others) on the lips, and the Pope was pictured locking lips with leading Sunni Muslim imam, Egypt's Ahmed el Tayyeb. Being provocative has always been in the brand’s DNA.

Today, the company is taking a gentler approach with its new campaign '"Clothes for Humans," but it is no less unusual for all that. A series of short films, press and outdoor ads show people in everyday situations that will be familiar to most of us. They are intended to convey the feelings all humans experience, sometimes joyful, sometimes painful and messy. In one film, a woman sobs alone over a broken relationship, in another, after a video interview ends, the job applicant stands to reveal she only bothered dressing her top half for the call. These are small, real life moments intended to foster empathy.

Benetton’s brand position is underpinned by a "manifesto," first introduced in August this year. It is essentially a statement on the human condition and of how the brand designs and makes clothes for "all humans." Al Moseley, president and chief creative officer of agency 180 Amsterdam, which created both the manifesto and the campaign, says it is a "stake in the ground" to reiterate what Benetton has always stood for. "We wanted people to feel connected through basic human traits and feel empathy for their fellow humans," he says. "Benetton has always made clothes for all people, and this [manifesto] was a way of declaring that, as Benetton 2.0, we still do."

Turning to the Clothes for Humans campaign Moseley says, "We wanted to stay true to that Benetton perspective, but in light of the new company philosophy, we wanted to make people feel. We wanted to play in the fashion category, but bring that different point of view—an honesty and a realness that often escapes this industry.’

This new, more intimate and sometimes tender approach is not entirely disassociated with the brand’s controversial marketing past, however. "Benetton came to 180 with the challenge of bringing its provocative advertising and its product closer together, to be relevant and meaningful to modern women," Moseley says. "The legacy of bringing a thoughtful or alternate perspective on the world still holds strong. So the DNA of 'United Colors' is still strong—a commitment to social commentary and a commitment to color as a design feature. But we know it has to evolve to drive a more relevant role for modern society and drive the business."

It’s the need for evolution, to appeal to today’s audiences who live in a world where every moment is documented and shared, which has driven the strategic direction. Moseley explains, "Benetton's target audience is young women who share Benetton's idealism, global outlook and open-mindedness. She lives in a world of instant opinions, curated status updates, and filtered photos.

"The approach of showing moments of humanity, with elements of raw and honest emotion shown in a truthful light, are a recognition for her of the smaller, more personal moments of life that aren't widely published or posted, but are real and just as important in our lives," he says. "Benetton knows that choosing what to wear is like choosing a personality for the day ahead. This is why it creates emotional clothes for emotional beings - to empower them to get the most out of their experiences. This Fall/Winter campaign was about bringing that philosophy to life as a creative brand platform."

The new campaign follows "Face of the City" from February this year, which used demographic analysis to reflect different ethnic groups in various capital cities around the world. Software then arrived at an algorithmic average "face" for each city. The approach is one of making a social point but in an upbeat, positive way. Like the Clothes for Humans campaign, it interprets the brand's long-standing positioning, but in a modern way.

"Benetton has never been a traditional fashion brand in terms of its communications," Moseley says. "It has always showed the alternate truth, or 'the other side of the coin' to make people think."

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