Benetton Chairman Talks About New Ad Focus on 'Unemployees'

Five Questions With Alessandro Benetton, Former Private Equity Exec Who Took Control in April

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The latest chapter in Benetton's "Unhate" campaign has abandoned the shocking images of recent ads and instead focuses on an attempt to shift perceptions of unemployed young people.

In something like an online version of "The Apprentice," Benetton has asked NEETS (a U.K. acronym for "not in education, employment or training") under the age of 30 to submit ideas for grassroots projects that will have a positive social impact.

One hundred winners, voted for by the online community, will each receive 5,000 euros (about $6,560) from a Benetton foundation for their projects. Speaking at a press conference today in London, Benetton Group Chairman Alessandro Benetton said that he hoped the choice of winners, due to be announced at the end of October, will spark debate and "confrontation."

The idea is less provocative than its predecessor in the "Unhate" campaign, which included images of famous enemies kissing -- including Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and President Obama with Venezuela President Hugo Chavez. Mr. Benetton, however, insisted that the "Unemployee of the Year" contest is "in reality even more relevant and even more shocking" than those images.

Mr. Benetton said he hopes that other companies will follow suit by providing similar opportunities to restore dignity to the younger generation. The "Unemployee of the Year" competition will be promoted online and in newspapers, magazines and on MTV .

The new campaign, by inhouse Benetton agency Fabrica and MDC Partners-owned 72andSunny in Amsterdam, shows well-dressed young unemployed people in print ads and includes a spot in which they are trying hard to find jobs.

The Italian company, best known for its brightly coloured knitwear, is relying on the "Unhate" campaign to improve perception of the brand long-term. Group revenue, hit by the eurozone crisis as well as the rising cost of raw materials, was $2.65 billion in 2011, down from $2.68 billion in 2010.

Alessandro Benetton, 48, is the oldest son of founder Luciano Benetton and has spent most of his career as a private-equity entrepreneur in the U.S. He took control of the company that bears his name in April 2012 and is an enthusiastic blogger. One of his first acts was to unlist Benetton from the Italian stock exchange in order to take full control over its future. After the press conference, he sat down for an interview with Ad Age .

Ad Age : What was it like growing up as a Benetton?

Mr. Benetton: I founded my own company in New York at the age of 27 to stop people asking me that question -- I wanted to be fully independent and measure myself by my own resources. I was never brought up thinking I was special. When I was 11 and 12, my father thought that three months was too long a holiday, so he made me sweep the floors in the factory. When I was 14, I came to London and worked in a store folding sweaters while I learned English. I was always checking the window display and keeping an eye on how many people were working at the till.

Ad Age : You have said that "Unhate" is about brand-building rather than sales. How do you intend to boost sales?

Mr. Benetton: By putting the consumer at the center of the discussion, bringing in new products on a monthly basis, and changing the in-store experience. I'm convinced the campaign is not going to harm sales. We've not been good at making our difference clear to the consumer. We need to get back to the essence of the brand.

Ad Age : You are clear that Benetton is not fast fashion, but you still have to compete with fast fashion chains like Zara and H&M. How do you approach this?

Mr. Benetton: We want to sell more product but we would never sell something we don't believe in. We care about the product and there's a minimum quality level we would never negotiate. It doesn't mean we are not learning from the business environment -- with fast fashion, people have come to expect fresh merchandise, and we have invested in new technology and design that will enable us to bring in new products on a monthly basis.

Ad Age : How is Benetton different from its popular 1990s incarnation?

Mr. Benetton: In the 1990s, the Benetton brand was clear in people's minds, but today there is a more complex competitive arena and we have to get the message across in a more contemporary manner. The company has strong values. When you've been around a long time like us -- nearly 50 years -- it means you have been able to evolve, or you wouldn't exist. There have been moments of very radical change and profound discontinuity and you need to adapt to important changes.

Ad Age : What are your plans for the U.S?

Mr. Benetton: The U.S. is an important market for us, but we are not pursuing growth at any cost. We need to make sure the consumer gets to know Benetton again, and we have taken two steps back in order to take one step forward, by closing stores that are not what we have in mind. We have gone from 80 to 35 stores (in the U.S.). We are in an experimental phase and we are looking for the start of a snowball effect long term. As long as we get good feedback I can relax, because it doesn't matter if it takes one month or 10 months to find our direction.

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