Can the Pope and Barack Obama save Benetton?

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Yesterday, in an attempt to revive its fortunes, the fashion brand unveiled a new poster campaign to shock us back into its stores. But, asks Harriet Walker, will it work?

For decades, the chain's Pantone range of quality knitwear stood out from other, more monochromatic offerings like a clown at a funeral. In the days before catwalk trends were transmuted and disseminated within nanoseconds, Benetton represented a striking and idiosyncratic alternative to the mainstream – while, of course, firmly establishing itself as part of the retail landscape.

The brand began in 1965 as a small collection of jumpers produced by Luciano Benetton on a knitting machine that he sold his bicycle to pay for. After a warm reception, the business grew and he was joined at the helm by his three younger siblings.

"In the Sixties, Benetton really connected with the time," explained Jodie Ball, fashion editor at the Worth Global Style Network. "It was all about colour and poppy brights, which was a good, solid foundation for the brand. And in the Eighties again, with their provocative campaigns and shocking imagery, Benetton really nailed it."

Its public face was every bit as colourful as its clothes: groundbreaking and daring socio-political adverts were shot by esteemed photographer Oliviero Toscani, grabbing not only headlines but people's attention too. A line-up of exotic tribespeople, a viscerally new-born baby, a group of children who represent every ethnicity under the sun.

"Benetton very cleverly employed some brilliant creatives, who gave the brand an identity," said fashion commentator Caryn Franklin, who worked for street style bible i-D at the time. "The portraits with their bright make-up, mohicans, every skin tone – they gave it an individuality, which it really needed."

Added to this was a magazine, Colors – an adjunct to the clothing line, practically independent of it and painfully hip – to which Toscani contributed and which was edited by the legendary graphic designer Tibor Kalman. Published in seven languages, it pushed a wider message, with artistic and political content that reached far beyond its corporate origins. It was a type of social networking, before the term had been invented.

"There was no high street churning out trends," added Franklin. "That shocking reportage gave what was bland knitwear an identity. Whereas what you have now is just bland knitwear."

After riding the zeitgeist for social responsibility, Benetton's juices began to run dry. Products that had always been sensible, staid, preppy and even Sloaney, but which had been invigorated by the creative energies surrounding them, began to look tired and unadventurous, as the rest of the high street caught up. Clothing with a conscience was entirely at odds with the Primark-led "fashion fashion" rush for cheap, disposal and on-trend pieces. "They lost touch with younger consumers," said Jodie Ball, "and all that they had achieved felt out of focus. They struggled to find a place in the fast-fashion market, and they couldn't do a U-turn on everything the brand had stood for. They missed a lot of opportunities."

The success of stores such as Uniqlo and American Apparel are proof that the Benetton model was not initially beyond resuscitation. The Japanese chain has much the same USP as Benetton initially did, offering good quality and range at reasonable prices. But it has also pushed new technologies, fabric innovation and digital elements that have updated the genre, while American Apparel has targeted a specific "hipster" demographic. For a long time, Benetton has felt too broad in comparison, targeting everybody and nobody, losing its place at fashion's forefront.

The newest ad campaign, also unveiled yesterday, is a prime example; referencing and paying homage to the iconoclasm of the earlier ads, it depicts the Pope kissing Ahmed al-Tayeb, Sheikh of the al-Azhar mosque. But it could be a case of too much, too late – a brazen attempt to bandwagon us back into believing in the relevance of the brand.

These are trying times for all retailers, and players 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 with its campaigns and cultural significance, seems to have singularly failed to recognise this.

"Colour has been such a big message and a huge trend for the past two seasons," added Ball. "Given Benetton's Sixties pop heritage, they could definitely have tapped into that to raise their brand profile. Fashion is cyclical, but in the backlash to fast fashion, Benetton could push their green credentials."

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.

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