In France, Petit Bateau is one of those revered brands that belongs in the sacrosanct territory of childhood. The children’s clothing and underwear maker was founded in 1893, which means that every living generation has worn it, bought it and seen its advertising. Even its agency, BETC, has worked for the brand for more than 20 years.
“The agency has been a driving force,” says the brand’s image and communications director, Stéphane Wargnier. “I’d say they’ve always been about two paces ahead of us in terms of where they wanted our advertising to go.”
Stéphane himself has been with the brand for more than five years. Previously he worked at the luxury house Hermès. Do the two have anything in common? A couple of things, it turns out.
“For a start, for a communicator like myself, Petit Bateau has an incredible brand heritage, equal to that of Hermès. After all, it started advertising in the 1920s, when the notion of ready-to-wear fashion did not even exist in France.”
Not only that, he adds, but the advertising was created by the same illustrator, Beatrice Mallet, right up until the 1950s, giving the brand a solid and consistent image. “From the very start, Petit Bateau kids were not children dressed as little adults,” he says. “They’ve always been wild and mischievous. Petit Bateau is the anti ‘mini-me’ brand.”
Ironically, he points out, while grown-up fashion brands have often created clothing for children, Petit Bateau was so popular that it was able to launch a line for adults in 1994.
The other element that Petit Bateau has in common with Hermès is its insistence on quality, he says. “Although it’s an inexpensive brand, it makes clothes for children and babies, so it takes an almost insanely rigorous approach to ensuring that the clothes are soft, they don’t rub, they don’t cause allergies, that there will be zero problems with them.”
Unusually, in a world where outsourcing is the norm, Petit Bateau still employs 1,000 people in its factory in Troyes, in the north-east of France, although it admits that most of its clothes are made in Morocco and Tunisia. In terms of its customers, it is beloved in France and well-known throughout Europe, but it’s second biggest market overall is Japan. “The adult line works particularly well there,” says Stéphane. “They see it as French chic.”
Petit Bateau is top of mind again thanks to the latest ad from BETC, “a sort of torture test”, as Stéphane describes it, in which a zipped sweatshirt goes through a series of seam-stretching challenges over a day in the life of an energetic little boy. Unusually, the ad is shot from the point of view of the sweatshirt. The music is the 1977 punk hit Ça plane pour moi, by Plastic Bertrand.
“When the agency first came on board, they took this idea of the mischievous kid and ran with it. Everyone in France still remembers a spot from 1996 with a song by Jacques Dutronc, where the lyrics list all the things well-behaved children shouldn’t do, and we see the Petit Bateau kids doing them. The latest ad is in the same spirit.”
For a long while the brand concentrated on print ads – albeit exceptional ones, see below – as TV viewing had fragmented and the price of an ad break had become prohibitively expensive.
Then, three years ago, thanks to the explosion of social media and viral video, BETC decided it was time to return to film.
“They pointed out that everything had changed. Via the Web there were ways of reaching the public without spending a fortune, and of course if you’re going to show wild and turbulent kids it’s better if they’re moving. Even so, we took something of a risk.”
The result was The Mini Factory a 60-second epic directed by Patrick Daughters and featuring the music of Herbie Hancock. Kids from the age of 3 to 103 fell in love with it. Stéphane observes that a far cheaper viral spot might have generated a few days’ worth of buzz: “But when you make a real film, with high production values, you’re gambling on the fact that people will remember it and cherish it.”
The new spot plays a similar role. “BETC have an idea every five minutes, some of which we accept and some of which we don’t. In that respect it’s a real collaboration. This time they came to us with four or five possible scenarios. We chose this one because not only does it show a spontaneous, active little boy, but it also demonstrates the quality of the product.”
The ad is almost a music video, and Stéphane confirms that it was edited to match the tempo of the song. “We had another song in mind at first, but this one was far better suited to the idea. We wanted to do something fast, with rapid editing. Once you saw it set to the music, it all came together.”
In the digital era a film must punch above its weight, so there are several different edits – from full-length to a “snackable” version designed for mobile devices – and also a couple of cunning spin-offs. “We planted some cuddly toys in the spot that may become the subject of a virtual treasure hunt later on,” Stéphane reveals.
Naturally, one can also see the sweatshirt that’s the star of the show in the windows of Petit Bateau stores. As a parent, I have to ask: could it really survive everything it goes through in the ad?
Stéphane laughs: “I assure you it’s feasible.”
By Mark Tungate, editorial director