External Influences in Consumer Behavior

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The Benetton Group is a native Italian company whose core business is clothing. Founded on 1945, Benetton has reached 120 countries with more than 5,000 stores located around the world. With estimated sales around 1.7 billion euros at the end of year 2004, Benetton is still one of the largest retail clothing companies in the world. But as stated in its own company's Website, sales of Benetton products have fallen from 2,098 billion euros in 2001 to 1,686 billion euros in 2004.

In this paper we will analyze, the role that some external influences have taken on the drop on sales for the Benetton Group. We will also try to find a link between Benetton's controversial advertising campaigns around the world and consumers perceptions towards the brand's products.

Benetton's advertising campaigns

In 1989, Benetton became the first company to eliminate pictures of its products from its advertisements. In their place, Benetton uses images of AIDS victims, racism, war, and death row inmates. This campaign strategy and philosophy is the result of the combined efforts of company president Luciano Benetton and photographer Oliviero Toscani.

While trying to convince the public that this advertising strategy is legit and that it is not driven by economic purposes, Luciano Benetton (United Colors of Benetton co-founder) says that he is "only interested in the world and people…I have always been sympathetic to people's problems, to minority rights, birth control, disease, wars, racism, religious intolerance. I cannot offer solutions to these problems, but if I can make people more aware than that is all I offer" (www.benettongroup.com 2005)

Despite claims made by Benetton's top management that profit was never a motive and raising social conscience is their single goal, Benetton ads have been widely criticized and banned worldwide. While some markets (like the UK and the Italy) have been more tolerant to Benetton's advertising styles, other countries have reacted differently. Why? The answer could probably be found by analyzing how external factors such as Culture, Social stratification, Reference groups and Family can influence on the buyers perception of a brand or product.

Culture, reference groups and family and the Benetton ads

According to Blackwell, "Culture represents the behavior, beliefs and, in many cases, the way we act learned by interacting or observing other members of society." In other words, culture is a learned behavior shared by members of the same country, community or society. When advertising a product or brand it is vital to understand the cultural values of the intended audience since cultural factors have a significant impact on customer behavior. In 1991, when Benetton started its AIDS campaign, the world knew very little about this deadly disease. While in some developed countries, people where starting to understand the causes of the disease and how everyone was a possible victim, other third world countries visualized the concept of a gay men and drug-addicts problem.

Benetton's first AIDS related campaign showed a photo of a man named David Kirby who at the time was dying of AIDS (See appendix I). While the same photo received praises from the public when it was first published by Life magazine, Benetton's ad was perceived as "obscene", "disgusting", and "a despicable exploitation of a tragic situation" according to Britain's advertising Standards Authority. Benetton's move was criticized as exploitation of the victim as a way to gain brand recognition and sell more clothes.

In this case we can see how cultural values can make a society react differently to a same situation depending on the messenger. While Benetton's ad was clearly trying to appeal to a mature, well informed and probably economically stable audience, it reached the society as a whole and caused a chain reaction against its brand that included their target audience and...
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