The year is 1985. In America, Reagan is in the White House, Michaal Jackson and Lionel Richie are writing “We Are The World”, and Cliff Huxtable is dazzling us with his wardrobe of knit sweaters. In Italy, the country’s largest clothing maker, The Benetton Group, coins the phrase “United Colors of Benetton”. The phrase is blasted into pop culture, not only referencing the company’s colorful clothing but also the idea that cultural diversity is good. Today, Benetton colorfully dresses customers in 120 countries and is in the process of rolling out an evolved graphic identity system designed by Pentagram partners Daniel Weil and Michael Bierut with the internal Benetton team.
[Note: Image showing a breast in this post, fourth image down.]
The origin of “United Colors”is an interesting one. The notion of bright colors has been integral to Benetton since the 1960s, but became further pronounced during the 70s when Benetton developed a technique of dyeing pre-knit garments made of unbleached wool. Previously, clothing had always been knit from pre-dyed batches of yarn. This made it possible to produce many colors of garments quickly, cheaply, and on demand. In the early 80s, Benetton began producing communications with Oliviero Toscani, who used this concept to the company’s advantage. The phrase “Tutti i colori del mondo” or “All the colors of the world” began appearing in ads, serving as a metaphor for not only a collection of clothing, but also as a collective identity for youth of different races and cultures. This was eventually replaced with the slogan ”United Colors of Benetton”, which later became the brand signature altogether, replacing Benetton’s original knitting stitch signature.
During 1996, Toscani refined Benetton’s identity with Massimo Vignelli, creating a comprehensive visual brand identity and refining the brand signature. All the company’s retail activities were centralized under the single name, “United Colors of Benetton,” written flush left in white Gill Sans on a green rectangle. An identical paper tag (and usually an identical woven label) went on every piece of merchandise whether it was an inexpensive t-shirt, luxurious men’s suit, or women’s dress. It was monolithic, and certainly “united”. Its restraint complemented Toscani’s shock and awe photographic style eloquently.
Over a decade later, Benetton began looking for an evolutionary change to increase their relevance in a changing atmosphere. Working with Pentagram, a new set of visual tools has been developed harkening to their heritage, embracing their culture, and providing the ability to appear more fashion-forward in a faster paced world. The resulting project is comprehensive, but would appear subtle to most onlookers.
The most subtle, but central change is the United Colors of Benetton signature. It utilizes the company’s new proprietary typeface (replacing Gill Sans) designed by Joe Finocchiaro. This change welcomingly resolves the personal issues I have with Gill Sans (predominately the “R” and “S”) in the signature and provides a more modern, contemporary, and ownable type family which has been extended to a number of stylistic sets for various uses including apparel graphics.
Utilizing this new type family, Benetton chose to further articulate their breadth of retail offering. This involved developing a new naming system, introducing, among others, Sartoria Benetton, Stile Benetton and Benetton Jeans. To go along with this, a differentiated range of tags were created to emphasize the differences between product lines. While these different names seem to help knowing what products are made of, for example Benetton Cashmere, or who the audience is, others are less clear unless explained to a global audience, such as Sartoria Benetton, which refers to their higher end tailored line. Upon question, a number of Benetton salespeople did seem not to know what the named refereed to, other than “more expensive”. Since most product lines are differentiated in English, it is curious that some Italian names have been retained — possibly to appear higher class in foreign markets or to maintain preexisting internal naming conventions.
In stores, the element that shines the most is the revived Benetton knitting stitch symbol. Applied as large, cropped environmental graphics and in multiple incarnations on merchandise, including patters, the mark serves as an ownable, fun, flexible graphic element that can easily evolve over time. Having this visual emblem allows Benetton a similar flexibility as other fashion companies who use their symbol in iconic and creative ways such as Louis Vuitton, Chanel, and Gucci.
Over the last decade, the Benetton brand has moved away from shock campaigns and controversy towards high fashion and social dialog (as exhibited in their ongoing “It’s My Time“ campaign below). This visual system allows the company to be graphically more creative, embrace the ebb and flow of fashion, champion their heritage, and at the end of the day, be more Benetton.