Two leaders kissing. A killer app or a sex tape?

I always grin when people do that whole “any publicity is good publicity” thing. Because it’s simply not true. That observation it seems to me is predicated on a belief that awareness is the doyen of marketing, whereas I would argue that, in most cases, perception overwrites straight recall in terms of bankability.

The temptation, if you follow the former line of thinking, is to assume that successful marketing is just about gaining attention. It’s an attitude that the advertising industry and the online world has done much to encourage. Gain attention and the business will follow. But a sex tape will get you plenty of eyeballs. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you have the foundations of a durable commercial model.

Notoriety does work if your brand is built on a ‘bad boy’ reputation. As I’ve noted before, if you’re Gordon Ramsay, for example, or the Sex Pistols, then outrageous behaviours are both scandalous and intriguing. In these circumstances, people love to be shocked. Antics are in fact part of what people expect and buy into. 42 Below were past masters of outrage as a marketing tool, but the permission to do so was predicated on them being perceived as an outrageous vodka – as outrageous as a vodka from New Zealand in actual fact. Occasionally such brands do overstep the boundary, but a quick apology where necessary – and it’s soon business and brand as usual.

So what to make of the new Benetton campaign “Unhate” that features a number of the world’s leaders smooching? The most controversial of these is probably the Pope kissing a leading Muslim cleric, which quickly got both the Holy See and the imam hot under the collar (sorry!).

Cue: outrage. The official explanation from the Vatican was that the use of the Pope’s image in a commercial setting was an unacceptable use of his image (which probably means copyright infringement or something) and that the faithful would be upset.

Pretty much what you’d expect.

Now what?

Surely Benetton will be banking on the fact that the pushback from the ‘establishment’ to their campaign translates into a viral storm that in turn pushes more people to the racks to express their solidarity with Benetton’s position (the killer app). Just like they did last time with the label’s world issues campaign. But this is a 20 – 25 year old technique and it remains to be seen whether shock alone is enough to make Benetton the force it once was in a sector that is now much more competitive and well used to publicity stunts. The concern must be that the new campaign may gain a lot of attention and swallow acres of media columns but then, just like its sales over the last decade, largely flatline (the sex tape scenario).

As many of you will be aware, I’m a huge believer in a brand having a strong worldview and for that view to be inculcated into everything the brand stands for. In a world packed with bland advertising and me-too claims, I applaud Benetton for once again going out on a limb. The images are certainly arresting. But whilst I’ve always loved the audacity of Benetton’s marketing and refer to them often as an early mover in the bid to politicise consumers, one of my reservations is the lack of a direct link between what Benetton publicises and what it stands for as a brand. How does buying the clothes promote Unhate? Because if there is no cause and effect, the risk is that Benetton have simply linked their brand to a universal (and nicely named) principle, and that principle itself is not that disruptive or controversial, even if its expression is.

We’re talking about world peace, people.

In other words, what makes this more than a universal principle expressed in an edgy way, and why will edginess alone incite a buying frenzy and, even more importantly, sustained and accumulating loyalty in a market that is packed to the changing room walls with talented people and wonderful designs?

It’s a concern well founded. According to the Wall Street Journal Online, Benetton has been losing ground over the last decade to competitors such as Inditex SA’s Zara and Hennes & Mauritz AB’s H&M. The label is struggling to find its place in fashion which is why it has revisited its publicity strategy. The “Unhate” campaign is part of a three-pronged plan to relaunch Benetton’s brand, product and retail network. The label is streamlining its collection and focusing on knitwear and colours—two of the company’s 1980s staples. It is also firming ties with franchisees to better control brand image.

But going back to what worked once is not usually a sign of a brand in charge of its destiny. And as Robert Bean is quoted in the article as saying, “Fashion lends itself easily to pushing boundaries. But one won’t be rewarded just for making controversy. The product must fit the advertising.”

Attention seeking is not a brand strategy.

Attention converting is.

And that’s the real challenges it seems to me for this brand: not just getting the attention (relatively easy), but getting the leverage and being able to link all the kerfuffle back to the brand, what it sells and what it stands for. Turning that attention into bottom-line commitment. Mentions and likes cost nothing – but they earn nothing either.

The media love scandal because it absolutely works for their business model – it sells papers.

It doesn’t necessarily or automatically work for yours.

Lady Gaga’s found a relatively simple way to make that conversion. Gain attention and build intrigue in public – convert that to dollars in album sales and live concerts. The Kimmed One too has managed to do it (actually off a tape ironically), because her business model, it seems to me, is predicated on converting the attention and intrigue generated on TV into what fans buy from a store or what companies pay for live by way of personal appearance fees. But then there’s always the risk, as per the wedding, that outrage tips the other way.

And so, here’s the irony. So many brands let opportunities pass them by because they fail to see the potential in a message or a position or an idea. Because they fail to see that a seemingly ordinary concept has the potential to change their audience, their bankability, their reputation – if it’s handled in an exciting, inspiring and disruptive way … But just being interesting without a clear corridor to the money will not be enough.

Can Benetton turn Unhate into Unbeatable?

We’ll have to wait and see.


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