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The Art of Deliberately Courting Controversy as a Branding Exercise
The Art of Deliberately Courting Controversy as a Branding Exercise
By: iMedia News Bureau

Benetton created the ‘Unhate’ campaign despite knowing that it would face backlash and would have to be soon taken down? Why and what you can learn about branding from it?

In a cluttered media space where hundreds of brands vie for audience attention with thousands of different types of messages, it is difficult for a brand to stand out and be remembered. In such a scenario that is already bleak, would a brand deliberately go out and launch a campaign that it knows would land it in a big soup and be removed in a matter of days, if not hours? Conventional wisdom says, no. But modern branding thought, gives a vehement thumbs up to this activity. Proof: the recent and deliberately-made-to-rake-up-a-controversy of the ‘Unhate’ advertising campaign of United Colors of Benetton.

The campaign featured leaders on the opposite side of the divide kissing each other on the lip in photoshopped images. You had US President Barack Obama kissing his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao, the Pope Benedict XVI kissing a Muslim Imam and so on. The message: stop hating each other or kiss and make up.

One look at any of the ads and one realizes that there was no way these ads would have survived, at best, beyond a few days. And indeed, it caused such a controversy that they had to be brought down in merely a day. The question is: why do such an advertisement campaign at all? The answer lies in looking at it for what it is: it was not meant to be an advertisement campaign. Aware of the power of social media, the brand hoped that the idea would create enough controversy for it to become a media and social media sensation. Thus, if you can look at it that way, it was actually a very well thought out and executed branding and marketing campaign in the guise of an advertising one.

United Colors of Benetton is a brand owned by the Benetton Group S.p.A, based in Italy. The group has a network of around 6,000 stores in 120 countries with a turnover of over 2 billion Euro. In its previous advertising and branding campaigns, the brand had emphasized on the unity of the world idea, where different races of people were shown to be united by the Benetton brand. Over the last few decades, it had stayed consistent with this messaging, not deviating much from it. Yet, it was time for something new, while continuing on the tradition. The unique global events of 2012 provided just such an opportunity.

The biggest branding and marketing opportunity of the year - the spirit of revolution brewing globally – has sadly and surprisingly been missed by most branding and advertising gurus. First the world saw the Arab Spring, then the anti-corruption movement in India and then the Occupy Wall Street movement that spread like wildfire to the western, capitalistic world. There were very few parts of the world that did not see some kind of massive national protests in 2011. The mood in the world is of anger and frustration in the true spirit of bringing change.

Thus, one would have expected that the big branding and advertising gurus would take the cue to create advertising and branding messages that would take inspiration from the general mood prevailing all across the world. But, none did. That is until the UCB ads.

The ads seem to be in bad taste, but only in the context of the leaders it shows kissing. To the rest of the world it is not only amusing, but extremely what they aspire for. The leaders that are shown to be kissing, are on opposite sides of each other and in their own way, are responsible for much bad blood and hatred in the world. The word and concept of ‘Unhate’ thus hit bulls eye with the audience and buyers and potential buyers of the UCB brand.

Though the ads were taken out just after a day, it created enough controversy and ensured that literally every media outlet carried the news, thus ensuring them billions of dollars worth of branding. Then, there’s social media, the ads were a rage there, with tweets, and status updates linking to the photos and article of the ads.

Brand Benetton would perhaps be hated by a few for offending their leaders through this campaign. But it managed to please many more than could perhaps have anticipated. And therein lies the branding success of the new millennium. It’s time for other brands to think out of the box just like Benetton did. For in it lies, branding salvation.