I wrote a story about the origins of the Bremont brand back in July 2020 (http://www.theprisonerandthepenguin.com/?p=1411 ) but on a recent visit to the Williams F1 pop up store In Westfield I saw the Bremont concession stand and went to take a look. (They are Williams sponsors)
In main original blog I talked about how Bremont’s differentiator was its storytelling, and the delightful man on the stand backed this up as he told the story of Stephen Hawking and the limited edition watch
Not only did he tell the story but he described how little details are built into the watch designs.
He showed me an astronomical map on the back of the watch incorporating actual little circular parts of the scientist desk to represent the planets and even tiny paper snippets from the academic papers he wrote
Later looking on the website I found this description
The classically styled Bremont Hawking Rose Gold Hawking features a retrograde seconds hand and grand date, contains 4 wooden discs inlaid into the back of the watch taken from the desk at which Hawking contemplated the mysteries of the universe. This exquisite chronometer also contains some meteorite to symbolise the cosmos displayed at the centre of the striking hand-finished case back, as well as an etching of stars from the night sky in Oxford on date that Hawking was born. The serial number is printed on paper from original copies of a 1979 seminal research paper commonly referred to as “The ‘nuts’ and ‘bolts’ of gravity”.
(Having a go on the Williams esports simulators was pretty cool too)
The second of my new space related brand stories, starts with a scientist but not a rocket scientist.
William Mitchell was General Foods’ top food scientist and the man behind a variety of American icons of the 1950s and 60s. Brands like Pop Rocks, quick-set JELL-O and Cool Whip. His obituary in 2004 in The Atlantic said of him that he “never became a household name, but most households you can name have something of his in it.”
In 1957, he developed what he called “Tang Flavor Crystals.” They went on sale in the United States initially; Venezuela and West Germany followed in 1959. It was marketed as a breakfast drink packed with vitamin C that “you don’t squeeze, unfreeze, or refrigerate” but wasn’t a high flyer in terms of sales until it was chosen by NASA to be part of its space programme.
Technicians at NASA had been faced with a problem the onboard life support system water didn’t taste very good (due to a nontoxic chemical reaction) but with General Foods as an already approved supplier to the US military they reviewed the company’s portfolio of brands and found what they thought was the answer – Tang.
A deal was struck to buy the powder in bulk but while the product was identical, a provision was put into the deal specifying that it would not say “Tang” on the NASA packaging, but simply what the flavour was – “orange drink.”
Another issue that had to be solved was zero-gravity. The normal means of dilution – pouring crystallized powder into a cup of water – wasn’t going to work. NASA engineers came up with a system that involved squirting water with a needle into a vacuum-sealed pack that contained the powder, shaking it and then sticking a straw into the pouch.
So on February 20th when John H. Glenn, Jr. took off in Friendship 7 and went on to become the first American to orbit Earth, Tang went with him. The mission was only about five hours long and records are not entirely clear if Glenn actually ever used the Tang during that first flight.
That didn’t bother General Foods who began marketing Tang as a space-age drink.
Tang continued to accompany astronauts and for the next decade (through the Gemini and Apollo programs), General Foods proudly produced print and tv ads talking about the link and promoting Tang as packed with vitamins, easy to make and tasting great. In 1968, Tang sponsored ABC’s coverage of Apollo 8, America’s first manned flight around the moon.
Tang became one of the best-selling drinks of its day. John Glenn’s famous flight and Tang retained a place in many Americans’ memories and when the former astronaut ran for President in 1983 he was repeatedly asked if he really liked Tang.
He ignored the question.
In 2013, another astronaut, Buzz Aldrin – the second man to walk on the moon – did answer the question.
The never-subtle Aldrin, replied that while he did drink it, “Tang sucks.”
Can you just nip down to Sears and buy a future icon?
I have previously told the story of how Coca-Cola used the Apollo 11 homecoming to run a PR campaign and claim earth as “home of Coca Cola”. In fact, I named one of my ‘story’ books after it – “How Coca-Cola took over the world” – so, you can imagine how pleased I was to hear two new space related stories.
One features ‘Tang’, which I will tell in a future blog, and the other which may be apocryphal features Sears.
It appears that with the focus on the ‘rocket’, the landing craft and the astronauts, the flag was almost an afterthought.
So, it was only a few months before the launch date that a plan was hatched. A team, led by NASA engineer Jack Kinzler, were asked to create a ‘flagpole’. The challenge was the ‘pole’ had to be set up by two men wearing space suits and who would have limited mobility.
The limited time frame meant that the flag was not specially made or ordered.
One ‘story’ is that flag was bought out of a government catalogue for $5.50.
The other which I favour, is that a number of flags were bought from Sears in Houston by secretaries from NASA who were sent out to get some during their lunch breaks. This would mean that the flags were made by Annin, the USA’s oldest and largest flag maker and the official supplier to Sears. It seems that an executive from Annin following up on this story called NASA and had the story despite the lack of any real evidence.
What is definitely known is the selected flag was made of nylon and that engineers cut the labels off to make the flag fit onto their specially made poles.
If the story is right this mean that the flag; the first one to be planted in the lunar dust, the one that Buzz Aldrin saluted, the one that was seen by a wide-eyed worldwide TV audience was bought for a few dollars at an everyday mainstream retailer.
However a slightly sad end is that the flag is no longer standing.
Buzz Aldrin has that said that Neil Armstrong told him that he saw the pole blow over during liftoff from the lunar surface.
On a slightly happier note, despite an assumption that the rest of the Apollo flags have blown away or crumbled into dust, in 2012, a lunar orbiter took pictures over the landing sites of Apollo 12, 16, and 17 and the photos showed shadows confirming that the American flags there were still standing, upright and intact, more than four decades later.
They are however all likely to have turned beige from relentless cosmic radiation.
Tom Burrell is rightly a truly famous advertising executive. His story is that of someone who went from the mailroom to chairman of his own very successful agency. He was “the first Black person to work in a Chicago advertising agency.”
He started working in the mailroom of Wade Advertising in 1961 and when the situation presented itself, he pitched some ideas to the creative director and got a position as a junior copywriter.
Burrell’s first accounts were Robin Hood All-Purpose Flour and Alka-Seltzer, and he recalls, “I had no contact with the client. It was radical enough for a Black person to be working in an agency. Presenting that person to a client was another three or four steps ahead.”
He does not hold that against the agency; “I was extremely fortunate to be working in a milieu of really positive people. I never had any racial issues with a hundred and some-odd people who were working at that agency, which I think was very unusual.”
Over the next ten years, he worked at Leo Burnett Company, Foote Cone and Belding and Needham Harper & Steers.
Then in 1971, he and his friend Emmett McBain founded their own agency, Burrell McBain. In 1974 he bought McBain out and renamed the agency, Burrell Communications Group.
It was at Burrell McBain he created what is, perhaps, his most famous campaign, the Black Marlboro Man.
In 1970 Philip Morris wanted to spread the reach of Marlboro cigarettes to the African American community. The face of the brand was The Marlboro Man, and the prevailing understanding of the time was that to appeal to a Black audience all you needed to do was to take the white people in an ad and replace them with Black people.
And that was what Philip Morris tried. Morris’ ads featured cowboys, complete with horses, lassos, and Stetsons just instead of being white, they were Black.
The ads were a failure.
Philip Morris decided to turn to Burrell who had a revolutionary philosophy for the time. He summed it up quite simply: “Black people are not dark-skinned white people.”
What he did was to look past the cowboy and identified the essence that the white Marlboro epitomised: he was independent, assured and utterly cool.
So, Burrell dropped the cowboy and replaced him with a young cosmopolitan Black man, woven into the fabric of the Black community and its culture. He was an authentic and far more relatable figure for the Black audience to whom Marlboro wanted to appeal.
Looking back on the original approach Morris took, Burrell was characteristically succinct in his view of the original approach. In 2015 he said to NPR, “The last thing I want to do is go back a hundred years with a bunch of rural, cowboy white guys—doesn’t sound too safe”.
Burrell went on and developed campaigns for other iconic brands, including McDonald’s and Coca-Cola. He retired in 2004 but remains chairman emeritus of Burrell Communications. In a 2018 interview, he recalled that “We got rid of the cowboy and we had the coolest guys that we could come up with going through their daily activities, smoking. That was huge.”
His impact on advertising was immense and continues to this day. NPR reporter Sonali Gibson, who interviewed Tom Burrell in 2015, says, “I feel like what Burrell did open the door for the kind of ethnic micro-targeting that we see today. […] When you see an ad that seems like it was made especially for you, you’re probably right. And we have Tom Burrell to thank for it.”
The effects of his work and words can still be felt today. he showed how diverse talent can brings real value companies. Creative thinking and innovative strategies can only go so far when everyone in the room looks the same, thinks the same or comes from the same background. Through his boldness, the world learnt how we create better campaigns and brand strategies to truly connect with the diverse world we’re all trying to reach
What’s in a name? Well, if it’s the right name it could be the basis for a brand valued at over $2billion.
For Michael Acton Smith and Alex Tew, both of whom have previous when it comes to start-ups, it was a name that was to prove the inspiration for their next big thing – Calm.
And big it is. More than 100 million people now have Calm, after a huge surge in downloads during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic.
It is a brand that seems to have been built on a mass of contractions; it delivers an ancient practice via that essential tool of modern life your smartphone, it is a tension busting app on a piece of technology that causes huge amounts of anxiety, it is a highly active and rapidly growing start-up that sells doing nothing.
Prior to co-founding Calm, Michael Acton Smith was perhaps most famous for an online game called Moshi Monsters which caught on caught with a mere 80 million kids. However just as he was dreaming of becoming the next Disney, user-growth stopped almost overnight. As Acton Smith later told Inc; “It was a really humbling, painful lesson.”
Alex Tew was famous for a site called the Million Dollar Homepage which he built to help finance his business-management degree while a student at Nottingham University.
The idea was to sell blocks of a home page that consisted of a million pixels. The cost was $1 per pixel and they were sold in 10 × 10 blocks. Purchasers then provided tiny images to be displayed on these blocks and a slogan that would be displayed when anyone hovered over their block with their cursor. The final 1,000 pixels were put up for auction on eBay and went for $38,100, which meant the final total was $1,037,100.
Tew however dropped out of the course after just one term.
The two were introduced at a party on a houseboat on the Thames. Acton Smith recalls “I remember reading about the Million Dollar Homepage and thinking, Wow, this chap is either incredibly obnoxious or a genius.”
Clearly it was the latter, as they ended up becoming roommates in London’s Soho. There they would play video games and swap on business ideas.
It was during this period that the pair heard that the domain name calm.com was coming up for auction and as Acton Smith puts it “We saw it and thought, Wow, what a domain!” and immediately they started wondering “Should we try and buy it? We can build the world’s most incredible brand.”
Tew was already a dedicated meditator. It is something that he says helped him manage the stresses and strains of founding and running a business.
Acton Smith was a more sceptical. “I didn’t really understand it,” he said. “It just felt a bit weird and strange, and I thought it had religious connotations.” For him it was a bit “woo-woo.”
However, under ‘pressure’ from Tew, he started reading around the subject, and became a convert “Wow, this is actually neuroscience. This is a way of rewiring the human brain. It’s one of the most valuable skills for Western society.”
Studies show that as little as 10 minutes of daily meditation lowers blood pressure and cortisol levels, while improving mood and reducing the incidence of anxiety and depression. It makes people more focused, more self-aware, more resilient, and happier too.
Not surprisingly the pair translated this as a brand whose aim is to help people “Find their Calm” and they adopted a mission “to make the world happier and healthier.”
The two bought the domain name for less than the $1 million its owner wanted, though they decline to say just how much they did pay for it.
Tew built a few early versions and moved to California in 2011 to try and take advantage of its large pool of investors and engineering talent, not to mention an audience they felt would be open to its claims and willing to pay for. Acton Smith joined Tew in California a few years later.
Calm was launched as a website in 2012 and the app in early 2013.
Its success is in part down to an approach that makes meditation simple, accessible, friendly and not overly spiritual. It avoids using any Buddhist terminology.
Now it’s looking to build on its success. It is producing products including books, films, puzzles, meditation cushions, and weighted blankets. It is expanding into corporate partnerships, offering meditations on American Airlines and in UK Uber rides. Corporate partners include GE and 3M.
It even has ambitions to move into hospitality. There is a plan for an island retreat “We were inspired by Richard Branson buying Necker Island all those years ago,” Acton Smith says. A second inspiration is a more accessible one and one Acton Smith has previously aspired to emulate – Disney with its theme parks.
And the moral is names don’t always come after the idea for a new brand, they can be a source of inspiration. Pick a name you would love to own and think what brand you would create under it.
Seeing the steady stream of celebrities being used to encourage us to have our COVID vaccinations reminded me of a story I wrote about an early use of celebrity endorsement which helped successfully launch a new treatment.
FROM GERMANY WITH LOVE
If Beyoncé and Jay Z may be America’s “it” couple now, if you went back to the mid 1930’s it would have been FDR Jr and Ethel Du Pont.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt Jr was a Harvard student and the eldest son of the President of the United States. Ethel du Pont was the heir to the du Pont family fortune and so one of the richest socialites of her day. The paparazzi loved them and followed them to every event they attended, and their pictures filled the society pages.
Attending the Hock Popo Ski Club party at the Agawam Hunt Club, Rhode Island, in November 1936 was nothing out of the ordinary. Nor, at first, was the sore throat and slight cough that FDR Jr complained of the next day. It hadn’t even been bad enough for him and Ethel to leave the party early.
However, things soon changed. The throat got worse and a few days later FDR Jr had a fever and was put to bed. Just before Thanksgiving, and now diagnosed with an acute sinus infection he was admitted to the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
Still nothing too much out of the ordinary or so everyone thought. He was a strong young man, and with some rest and something to take the fever down all would be well again.
Only it wasn’t. The infection didn’t clear up and in fact got worse. He remained in hospital. His mother, Eleanor Roosevelt was getting more and more worried and insisted on a new doctor, a top doctor specializing in ear, nose and throat.
Checking over his new patient the doctor was very concerned, there was a tender spot under his cheek which looked like it was infected and the beginnings of an abscess. He immediately took a sample and discovered a highly dangerous strain of strep, one that could release poisons and other infections into the blood stream. If that happened it could ultimately lead to the death of the President’s son.
While the White House medical staff considered the option of a risky surgical procedure, the new doctor remembered reading some reports about a new drug, Prontosil, developed by Bayer in Germany. The reports spoke of near miraculous results and initial tests at John Hopkins were also very positive.
He recommended it to Mrs. Roosevelt.
At first, she wasn’t sure but having read more about it and in the face of the still worsening condition of her son, she agreed.
Some carefully wrapped glass phials were duly shipped from Germany to the USA.
The doctor gave him a dose and followed it with further doses every hour.
Ethel sat in the room with FDR Jr, his mother sat outside working on correspondence. At first nothing seemed to be happening and the hours seem to stretch on and on but in the morning, things started to change.
The swelling around the abscess looked like it was shrinking. FDR Jr was sleeping better and seemed to have more energy when he was awake. Later that day his fever broke.
The doctors were amazed; never before, had they seen a strep case that was resolved so well and so quickly.
FDR Jr was released a few days after Christmas.
He would later marry Ethel (the first of his five wives), be decorated for his service in WWII and go onto serve three terms in Congress.
However, what he also did was prove that celebrity sells. Headlines in The New York Times and other prominent newspapers, the story of his recovery, and the role of the new wonder drug, heralded the start of the era of antibacterial chemotherapy in the United States.
MORAL: Celebrity sells. Is there a role for celebrity endorsement in your marketing?
Footnote: Eleanor Roosevelt had her own brush with celebrity endorsement. She agreed to do a commercial for Good Luck Margarine in which she said, “The new Good Luck Margarine really tastes delicious.” Not only did the brand fail, it wasn’t all good news for Mrs. Roosevelt either. Asked about it some time later she recalled getting a sack full of letters in which “one half was sad because I had damaged my reputation and the other were happy that I had damaged my reputation.”
‘Medicine’ and ‘fun’ don’t sound like they go together. Medicine is all about science, laboratories and research. It’s serious and professional. On the other hand, ‘fun’ is about playing games and laughter. It’s light-hearted and enjoyable.
However, it’s the clever combination of the two that has led to the development and marketing of a brand which 14 years after its launch has over 100 million members.
The brand employs everyone from neuroscientists to visual artists.
The brand is Lumosity and its parent company is Lumos Labs.
Mike Scanlon is, by training, a neuroscientist- a specialist in brain plasticity; the brain’s ability to modify its own structure and function following changes within the body or in the external environment. It’s an interest which he recognizes was in part motivated by his family history. Both his grandmothers suffered from Alzheimer’s disease.
He had moved to California after college to further study neuroscience at Stanford and while there he got in touch with Kunal Sarkar an old college friend who was living in San Francisco and working at a private-equity firm.
The friends got together often and talked about the possibility to take advantage of the brain’s plasticity to improve cognitive abilities. The basis of the idea was what we now know as ‘gamification’, a concept that was already being applied in other marketing sectors. They wondered if they could take brain training to the next level.
Scanlon recognized that for years researchers has created tasks to measure cognitive abilities. These were most often used during in-person studies in a lab using pen and paper. Their idea was simple – could scientists and game designers work together to turn common cognitive and neuropsychological research tasks into exciting games which hopefully would improving the user’s brain’s ability in a way that felt like fun, not hard work?
In 2005, Sarkar quit his job, Scanlon took a leave of absence from Stanford, and they teamed up with Dave Drescher, a technology expert with the aim of creating a palette of online games said to help sharpen memory, attention, and other brain functions.
Their classic games have clear links back to well-known scientific tests.
Lumosity’s Color Match is inspired by the Stroop Test, a classic task first published in 1935. It measures your ability to focus on the difference between naming a color used in the letterforms of a word, even if the text of the word conveys a different color. Color Match tests should, over time, improve your ability to suppress your response to what the word says and focus on how the word looks. It challenges your response inhibition: the ability to quash inappropriate responses that get in the way of your goal.
Lost in Migration is based on the 1974 Flanker Task, which challenges selective attention: your ability to ignore distracting details and focus only on the target. Just like the original Flanker Task, Lost in Migration challenges you to respond to the central target — in this case, a bird — and ignore distracting information from the surrounding flankers.
Lumosity.com launched in 2007 and since then has grown rapidly.
The team see links with academia as vital for the long-term future, not least because they are still seeking strong independent research that their games do actually deliver improvements. Therefore, Lumos Labs is involved in the Human Cognition Project which has partnerships with more than 100 different collaborators at University level. This partnership allows qualified research professionals to make use of the tools and tasks available through Lumosity in order to assist them in conducting studies.
One other challenge that this interesting melting pot of expertise raises is how engineers, designers, artists and researchers can work side by side to create effective products and services, despite different mindsets, goals and timelines. Research is measured in years, game development in months.
According to Scanlon, “The one key thing that has really helped to resolve a lot of those challenges is that everyone has the same mission at the end of the day. I think everyone at our company is in part there because they believe in the mission of improving people’s brain health. So, you can resolve a lot of conflict by taking a step back.” Scanlon as a non-marketer may not realize it but he is expressing a well-known marketing principle namely the need for a clear brand purpose.
MORAL: Who knew medicine can be ‘fun’. How could you use gamification in your product and service development?
In Mexico, childhood cancer is the main cause of death from the disease amongst children aged between 5 and 14. About 5,000 new cases are diagnosed every year. Many of these children lose all their hair and with it their confidence. Making a good wig is expensive as it needs a lot of undyed human hair. One wig can cost $1500.
Traditionally, not-for-profit organizations have targeted women. Your challenge is to come up with an alternative group who could be targeted. And for bonus points how will you get them to donate their hair freely?
Not an easy one, is it?
You might want some creative thinkers to help.
That’s what “Casa de la Amistad” (Friendship House), a non-profit organization that supports children with cancer and living in poverty, decided. They approached Ogilvy and Mather (Mexico) and asked for their help.
The objective they set, was to obtain donor hair to make wigs for these children and restore their self-esteem during their treatment.
Their answer was to mix medicine and ‘metalheads’ heavy metal music lovers and at the heart of their idea was The Hair Fest. It would be the first festival in the world for which the entrance fee wasn’t money but hair.
The Hair Fest would take place in Mexico City in April 2014 and nine of the biggest Mexican Heavy Metal bands (Black Overdrive, Profanator, Raped God666, Intoxxicated, Voltax, Maligno, Los Viejos, Ágora and Luzbel) would play in a festival that would last 8 hours.
If you wanted a ticket and lots of metalheads did, they could get a ticket in exchange for 25cm of their hair.
The organizers set up podiums at the entrance to the site and provided stylists to do the actual cutting. It created a camaraderie and spectacle as those who had had their cut and those waiting could shout encouragement, support, respect or just generally make light of what was happening.
(For those whose hair wasn’t long enough there was an option to buy a ticket)
The results were amazing, in terms of social media and awareness:
9 million hits on social media – Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
€500,000 worth of free media.
In terms of attendance:
They had expected 400 but over 1000 attended.
In recognition of Ogilvy’s creativity:
Hair Fest campaign won 2 silver lions in Cannes 2014 (the first in the ‘Shows’ category and the second one in ‘Charities’)
But most importantly in terms of success:
The events collected enough hair for 107 wigs.
MORAL: Lateral thinking can lead to new solutions. Can you identify a new ‘target audience’?
In previous brand stories I’ve told, there have been a few where brothers who started working together fell out and ended up going their own ways.
The most famous of these was the one about the Dassler brothers, Adolf and Rudolf, who founded the Gebrüder Dassler Schuhfabrik (Dassler Brothers’ Shoe Factory).
They fell out and went on to form two separate and competitive brands – Adidas and Puma.
This story, however, tells of an incident over which the two brothers could easily have fallen out but instead together they made the most of their mistake which has in the end turned out to be part of their success.
The story starts in 1824, with their father, Dr. Johann Siegert who was Surgeon General for the Venezuelan military leader Simón Bolívar. Using a blend of herbs and spices, he created a medicinal tonic designed to be a cure for upset stomachs for the soldiers. Originally called Dr. Siegert’s Aromatic Bitters, it would later be renamed after the Venezuelan city of Angostura.
The bitters were first exported to the UK in 1830, and then in 1862 one of Siegert’s sons exhibited the bitters in England where they were mixed with gin – and the Pink Gin was born.
When Dr. Johann died in 1870, his two sons took over the business. They decided that to help them expand the business they should try and build greater awareness and so started competing in the many ‘drinks’ competitions throughout the world. Their aim was to showcase their product’s quality.
However, when getting their samples ready for one of these competitions, there was a mix-up, the sort of thing that could have ended their partnership. Due to limited time available, the brothers agreed a division of labour; one brother was assigned the task of sourcing the bottles, while the other would oversee the designing and printing of the labels.
Both set to work, but when they came to get everything ready, there was a problem; the labels were too big for the bottles or looking at it the other way the bottles were too small for their labels.
With the competition rapidly approaching there wasn’t sufficient time to alter anything and the brothers had to go with what they had and luckily both were big enough not to just blame the other.
Angostura in its new ‘packaging’ unfortunately didn’t win the competition but all was not lost.
A friendly judge suggested the brothers keep the over-sized label (under-sized bottle) and make a feature out of it. He pointed out that it made the packaging distinctive and memorable.
The brothers agreed and kept the new look, and it has proved to be a powerful communication equity that has served the brand well over the years.
The brothers, I’m glad to say kept on running the business together but did try and make sure they aligned on things a bit better going forward.
And the moral is packaging is your ‘silent salesman’ and making it interesting, distinctive and memorable helps the silent salesman shout out from the shelf. Have you got a distinctive feature in your brand identity (and if not, why not?)
Oliviero Toscani followed in his father’s footsteps and become a photographer. He obtained a diploma at the Kunstgewerbeschule Zürich> he went onto work with several high-profile fashion magazines, including Elle, Vogue, L’Uomo Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar.
In 1982 he became an Art Director for the Benetton Group and a year later, under his guidance, they launched a series of ads that were designed to be explicit celebrations of diversity and inclusivity. The “All the Colors of the World” campaign, promoted global harmony and featured young people of different nationalities and cultures dressed in bright colourful Benneton clothing.
However, in the early 1990s things would change for the campaign, for the brand and for Toscani.
In the first ad that signalled the changes that were coming, the line-up of teenagers was replaced by a line-up of test tubes… all filled with blood. Each vial was labelled with a different first name. The global inclusivity theme remained, as the names were ethnically diverse – Fidel, Kaifu, Helmut, Jiang, George, and Mikhail.
Future ads would continue to promote inclusivity, the imagery took a dramatic turn. Ads would feature a new-born baby still attached to an umbilical cord, a priest and a nun kissing, a man with AIDS lying on his deathbed, surrounded by his family, three raw hearts, with the words “white”, “black” and “yellow” written on each and a white woman, black woman and Asian baby wrapped up together in a blanket.
Explaining the move, Toscani would tell the New York Times: “I have found out that advertising is the richest and most powerful medium existing today, so I feel responsible to do more than to say, ‘Our sweater is pretty.’
The new style was divisive, people either loved it or hated it but few could ignore it. It made Benetton top-of-mind, but some questioned the tactics Toscani used; “was a fashion billboard the right place to present this type of controversial image?”
His reply: “Why would you want to see clothes in an advert? If you want to see the clothes, you can see them in our shops. On a billboard, I can show you how the company thinks, what it believes, what it represents. Advertising is primitive and powerful – it is more than art. People can look up and see it. And if they don’t like it, they don’t have to look at it.”
While sparking almost constant controversary in some country around the world, the company stood behind their principles, and their man. That was until the company faced a huge backlash in the USA following on from a campaign known as ‘We on Death Row’.
At first the company said the photographs “aim at giving back a human face to the prisoners on death row” but as more and more US states condemned the campaign and retail chains Sears and Roebuck & Co refused to sell Benetton products following protests from victims’ rights groups, something had to be done. Under the threat of boycotts and with sales falling, they parted company with Toscani.
Subsequently, the state of Missouri filed a lawsuit against Benetton over the campaign, alleging that Benetton had made false claims to state officials in gaining access to the prison and misrepresented the purpose of the interview. The case was settled out of court with Benetton, a formal apology from Benetton, an undertaking to send letters of apology to the families of the murder victims and commitment to a substantial charitable donation.
Many say he was sacked as a consequence, but Toscani denies this, standing by the brand. He says, “I left because Tina Brown asked me to work with her on Talk magazine, but the press wanted another reason because no one could believe that I wanted to leave Benetton at the height of my career. I have no regrets about those pictures – they were fantastic.”
And his loyalty and the success he had had, eventually led to his return in 2017. The first campaign on his second era featured his previous trademark of a diverse cast of models. It was more upbeat, and more product led. It showed them smiling and holding bunches of flowers, wearing T-shirts emblazoned with phrases like “gender-free zone” and “colours don’t have gender”. Toscani described the images as being “about integration, humanity and the end of discrimination.” Still reflecting the brand’s core belief in inclusivity.
It wasn’t long though, before he returned to ‘shock-vertising’, repurposing two photographs from 2018 migrant rescue operations by the Franco-German charity SOS Méditerranée for an advertising campaign.
However, his second stint was to be shorter and less successful.
He was sacked over comments he made about the collapse of the Morandi Bridge in Genoa, Italy, that killed 43 people. During a radio interview, he said, “Who cares that a bridge collapsed?” and “This story doesn’t interest me.”
Two days later, an unusually contrite Toscani apologised on Twitter saying that his comments “had been taken out of context” and in an interview on another radio programme he said that he was “destroyed and truly sorry.”
It was too much for Benetton, who fired him. They released a statement in which they said that Benetton “completely disassociates itself from Mr. Toscani’s remarks,” and were “renewing their sincere closeness to the families of the victims and to all those who have been involved in this terrible tragedy.” They went onto acknowledge “the impossibility of continuing the professional relationship with its creative director.”
It is a sad end for someone who inspired and still inspired many with his view that “Creativity is not based on security. Once you’re secure, you’re doing something that’s already been done.”
And the moral is, if a brand has a purpose it should be willing to stand up and champion it even if it can be divisive. What should and would your brand campaign for?
FOOTNOTE: In no way, condoning Toscani’s shameful comments about the bridge disaster, it is perhaps still interesting to consider that, at a time when brands are increasingly wanting to stand for something and to have a purpose beyond just making profit, that Toscani, and the Benetton campaign he created, remain a benchmark about how a brand can adopt unconventional and controversial approaches to advertising as a way that not only connects with a younger generation but brings awareness to societal and environmental issues.