Benetton goes from death row to diapers

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United Colors of Benetton hopes to make more of a fashion statement than a social one as it rolls designer diapers out to U.S. stores.

The diapers are being imported by Ledysan USA, a Miami-based unit of the Italian diaper maker that licenses and distributes United Colors of Benetton diapers in Europe and Asia. The first shipment reaches U.S. stores this week amid lingering controversy over the brand's recent anti-death-penalty campaign.


"More than just a diaper. . . . It's an Italian designer garment," reads a Ledysan sales presentation. The high-fashion brand's Year 2000 Collection features diapers in vivid red, orange, blue, green and yellow designs. Ledysan expects the diapers to be priced at parity or even slightly below Huggies and Pampers in the U.S. Though the brand focuses on fashion, Ledysan claims the diapers are about as absorbent as Pampers.

Despite the "designer garment" pitch, the diapers won't be sold in upscale boutiques. Winn-Dixie Stores has agreed to carry the brand, and Ledysan is in talks with other chains, including Kmart Corp., Kroger Co. and Eckerd Drug Co., said Pedro Perrino, senior VP at Ledysan USA.


In typically edgy Benetton style, the diaper packages feature a black baby kissing a white baby -- an image one buyer for a southeastern chain believes won't play well with some shoppers. That buyer said he declined to carry the brand, but cited congestion in the $4.2 billion category, not potential controversy because of the package graphics.

Benetton diapers are already in 27 countries, including such current hot spots for ethnic tensions as Austria and Croatia, with market shares ranging up to 20% in some retail chains, Mr. Perrino said.

The brand claims a 3% share in Safeway stores in the U.K. and a 10% share in Belgium's Delhaize chain, which owns Food Lion and Hannaford Bros. supermarkets in the U.S., he added.

Still, the brand name appears a strange fit for diapers. Benetton is better known in the U.S. for its controversial ads, which have included empathetic profiles of convicted murderers; a nun kissing a priest; an Arab kissing a Jew; black and white men chained together; a black woman breast feeding a white baby; colored condoms; genitalia; and an AIDS patient on his death bed.


After its recent anti-death-penalty ads, protests from victims' rights groups ensued, leading Sears, Roebuck & Co. to drop its Benetton USA clothing line earlier this year. Protests and media coverage of the ads are a concern, Mr. Perrino acknowledged, but he doesn't believe the uproar will hurt the diaper rollout.

"I think the Benetton ads have not penetrated the U.S. market that much," he said, noting that the $20 million anti-death-penalty campaign centered on a 90-page insert in Talk.

Ledysan handles its own ads via Cosegni Advertising, Piscatta, Italy, and ultimately will launch print and direct mail in the U.S., focusing more on the brand's fashion positioning. Benetton's agency, Fabrica, handles brand identity and packaging.

Diaper ads will wait until the product reaches "significant national distribution," Mr. Perrino said. Ledysan also will roll the brand into Argentina, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay this year.

European consumers of Benetton diapers tend to be middle class, though lower-income consumers tend to favor the brand in Brazil, where it rolled last year, Mr. Perrino said.

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