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Benetton calls on the Pope for inspiration as its sales tumble


Benetton knits were once one of the most popular picks on the high street. But after announcing losses yesterday, the fashion giant renowned for its kaleidoscopic shades is looking off-colour, with income down 33 per cent since last year, and shares which have dropped 22 per cent since January.

For decades, the chain's Pantone range of knitwear stood out like a clown at a funeral. In the days before catwalk trends were disseminated in seconds, Benetton represented an alternative to the mainstream.

The brand began in 1965 when Luciano Benetton sold his bicycle to buy a knitting machine. After a warm reception, the business grew. Its public face was as colourful as its clothes: groundbreaking and daring socio-political adverts featuring a new-born baby and children of diverse ethnicities grabbed headlines and attention. Added to this was an almost independent and painfully hip magazine, Colors, which pushed a wider message, with artistic and political content.

But after riding the Zeitgeist for social responsibility, Benetton later began to look tired and unadventurous. Clothing with a conscience was at odds with the rush for cheap, disposable and on-trend pieces.

A resuscitation attempt came yesterday with the launch of a new ad campaign. It pays homage to the iconoclasm of the earlier ads, depicting the Pope kissing Ahmed al-Tayeb, Sheikh of the al-Azhar mosque, an ad that Benetton pulled last night. But it could be a case of too much, too late – a brazen attempt to restore the relevance of the brand.

Retailers ignore the importance of brand identity at their peril. The profusion of trumped-up anniversaries and collaborations all over the high street is proof enough of how everybody has to work harder to remain relevant. But Benetton, which once set the agenda, seems to have singularly failed to recognise this.

The trouble is, in the shifting sands of what's hot and what's not, brands can't just hang in there waiting for their USP to come round again. Benetton still enjoys good sales in Asia – which may shore up yesterday's bad news – but the industry is ruthless at the best of times, and nobody, even the amiable Benetton, can exist on goodwill alone.