Italian clothing brand United Colors of Benetton launched a vibrant, tech-enhanced new flagship in London’s Oxford Street last month. GDR’s Hannah Hunt paid it a visit to see how the brand immerses shoppers in its activist ethos.
Benetton’s new Oxford Street flagship in London is the brand’s 16th UK store, but there is something markedly different about this one. Every single element of the store, from the façade and the in-store merchandising to the use of technology, is used as an opportunity for brand storytelling. In this way, the store is much more about selling the brand, its history and way of thinking, than it is about selling colourful sweaters and skirts.
This is backed up by the brand’s global head of retail design, Michele Trevisan, who says: “When we started the project, the brief was not just to do another flagship store; the idea was to create a brand amplifier, a place where the customers can become users of the brand’s philosophy, not just simple consumers. Therefore, we decided to use three drivers for the project: attract, explore and inspire.”
This approach becomes clear before you even enter the store.
The flagship is positioned yards away from the Tottenham Court Road tube station, and as soon as you walk out of the station you can’t help but be struck by the eye-catching store front. The exterior is all glass, allowing passers-by to see the whole store. But what grabs your attention is the imposing 12-metre-high digital archway that blasts a curated selection of branded imagery on to Oxford Street. The shape of the LED screens are inspired by classical Roman architecture, while the colours, textures, images and illustrations are hand-picked by Benetton’s in-house research communication centre, Fabrica, to capture the brand’s essence.
If the digital screens set the tone of the store from the street, the merchandising of the brand’s clothing carries on that immersive experience as shoppers enter the 1,500 sq metre three-storey space. Across the men’s, women’s, and children’s collections, which are linked by a stylish loop-shaped staircase, the brand’s clothing is merchandised in neat colour-coded displays. This creates a powerful visual effect that calls to mind the Arket store in nearby Regent Street, and which amplifies the brand’s championing of diversity.
The Benetton website says: “The colour of products has always inspired the entire philosophy of the brand, looking to a society where individuals and communities act with respect to diversity and the environment around them.”
The displays act as a visual representation of this ethos in-store.
The book collection
What is particularly interesting about this store is the way it takes relatively common retail executions and puts a branded twist on them. Take the library-style lounge area; it’s almost five years since Club Monaco partnered with The Strand Bookstore to create a lounge-cum-bookstore in its New York flagship to invite customers to relax and spend more time with the brand. Since then we’ve seen a number of retailers mimic this approach and Benetton’s iteration, upon closer inspection, is clearly a vehicle to highlight its activist credentials.
The majority of the publications on display are issues of the brand’s Color Magazine dating back to 1991. The magazine, the brainchild of former Benetton art director, Oliviero Toscani, is extremely controversial for its warts-and-all coverage of dying Aids victims, disease, sex, and war, which most brands were steering well clear of at the time. Looked at through a modern lens, some of the coverage retains that shock value. But, in a vastly different retail climate where every disruptive new brand and startup is aligning its proposition to a cause, Benetton is positioning itself as a trailblazing brand that has been taking this activist approach for decades.
Another familiar in-store feature given a distinctly Benetton flavour is the three in-store touchscreens. Customers can scan the labels of any clothing to find out product information and receive styling tips. Fundamentally this isn’t a new idea, but Benetton injects its own personality by creating quirky moodboard-style recommendations that feature unexpected, and often bizarre, household items alongside more standard complementary product suggestions. For example, when I scanned a tulle skirt, the touchscreen suggested that I pair it with latex body paint and a bottle of soy sauce. The seemingly random products all link back to Color Magazine, where they have been heroed as items of cultural significance over the years.
Adding this element to the touchscreens allows Benetton to air its irreverent sense of humour, which, much like its political stances, probably makes a lot more sense to consumers in 2018 than it did in the 1990s.
Benetton isn’t the first retailer to focus on brand education over product sales in a flagship, but usually this is done to create a new type of experience and to expose customers to new areas of a brand they haven’t considered before.
This store is interesting because Benetton doesn’t have a new identity that it is trying to educate shoppers about. Instead, it is reaffirming what customers already knew about the brand and asking them to re-evaluate its purpose, relevance and importance in the context of a very different world.