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United Colours of Benetton: how a small Italian brand became a bastion of diversity

The United Colours of Benetton may not be on the lips of consumers or hot on the press of newspaper campaigns anymore. But they really should be.

For decades the brand lead the way in ‘shock-advertising’ bringing to the fore some of the most controversial topics of the day. An approach to advertising little seen before.

In their heyday, the Italian brand managed to entice consumers with their one of a kind garments and became a staple in many European wardrobes. But since then their fortunes have dwindled somewhat and no longer resonates the way it used to.

Where did it all start?

Since its inception in 1965, the brand has been a trailblazer in many areas of the industry. Understanding the relationship between brand and consumer set them apart very early on. One of the main areas of buy-in was the organic nature of operating and is something that has massively influenced brands in later years.

Giuliana provided the nouse and know-how behind the initial garments produced. She was also culpable for providing what has gone on to be the brand’s trademark colourful jumpers. Next in the creative line is Luciano who sold the iconic range.

Finally, it was the late Carlo and Gilberto, the latter looking after finances whilst his older brother was charged with production management.

But it wasn’t until 1982 when a certain appointment made the brand recognised the world over. Oliviero Toscani was tasked with the role of Creative Director. A much-coveted position in any big name brand. His appointment lead to a huge change of tack from the company and undoubtedly set them apart from their contemporaries.

More than clothes

It’s difficult to explain just how important the appointment of Toscani was, not only for the brand on a personal level but in the wider context of the industry altogether. He wanted to go down a different route with his branding in a way that had never really been seen before. He moved away from the typical ‘models wearing the latest releases’ to displaying socially controversial billboards, some might think it as unnecessary or ‘not their place’ – but these campaigns were a masterstroke.

What was so remarkable about the campaigns was that no one had tread these paths before. There was no template for success whatsoever. Completely unchartered territory. It was the pinnacle of creative insight from Toscani. It has been well documented that he believed and used the idea of ‘message over product’ in his advertising decisions, it derives from a notion that the best way to sell a product is by convincing consumers of a tangible ‘message’ that they can buy into.

As a photographer by trade, he knew how to position and manipulate shots to his advantage and this was abundantly clear in the precision and ability to convey a message across each and every campaign.

All are United – 1984

In one of the first campaigns of his tenure, we saw the All are United. Featuring young kids and teenagers pictured together in overtly colourful clothes (although importantly nothing to do with products the brand where selling).

He wanted to convey that regardless of race or religion we are ‘all united’. Coupled with that was a clear nod to the idea that we’re all united by the colours of Benetton.

Toscani here had set in motion what was to come in later years with a clear display diversity across races and ethnicities amongst the roster of those in the campaigns.

Blanket – 1991

Benetton began the new decade in a familiar fashion with the Blanket photograph depicting two mothers holding their baby. Again Toscani used his shock tactics by placing different ethnicities together whilst also at the same time here presenting an atypical family set up with same-sex parents something that at the time would have sparked controversy for some audiences.

Today, an image like this wouldn’t shock us in the slightest. But nearly thirty years ago the world was a very different place. The idea of not only a multi-racial family but a homosexual one would have been met with rejection and prejudice in some corners.

AIDS – David Kirby – 1992

The Benetton AIDS campaigns were possibly the most controversial of the Toscani tenure. This image, in particular, garnered disapproval from AIDS activists which finally culminated in a worldwide campaign to boycott the brand. In this part of the campaign, we see David Kirby dying in a hospital bed surrounded by his family, which was one of the main causes for anger from AIDS activists as we see Kirby in extreme pain. Activists saw this a ploy from Benetton to conjure shock.

However, Kirby’s father spoke of his appreciation that Benetton used the image. The brand said it was a show of ‘solidarity’ on their part.

A lasting legacy

Recent years has seen a significant downturn in fortunes for the once trend-setting Italian brand. The shock-advertising campaigns remained in place after Toscani’s departure in 2000 ultimately leaving a legacy of his own on the brand.

They may not be the brand they once were in a commercial sense, but Benetton paved the way for a whole host of brands both in the fashion industry and elsewhere proving it was possible to use their platform to enter the field of politics.

The brand, probably more than any other before or since has championed diversity by putting people of different ages, races and sexualities at the forefront of their brand and for that, they will always be remembered.


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