CASE STUDY Levi’s /
This article appeared in Contagous issue Twenty Four.
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get to work
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case study / levi’s / get to work / after a tough decade, one of the world’s most famous brands has pressed the reset button, returning to its pioneering roots and pitching a new definition of what it means to work. equal parts elbow grease and empowerment, levi’s prolific new strategy incorporates csr initiatives, an overhaul of the women’s range, and a focus on digital communication as the most effective way of creating meaningful campaigns. finally, the performance sportswear of the 1870s has found a way to marry heritage with contemporary relevance – demonstrating that hard work really does pay off / by jess greenwood /
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T here are few brands that can be described as truly ‘iconic’. coca-cola, obviously, and apple. nike air jordan, perhaps. the golden ms? when you put your mind to it, you can count on the fingers of one hand the brands genuinely deserving of the moniker. yet still, the promethean task of creating an icon keeps marketers awake at night. how do i make my brand recognisable to everyone? how do i associate it with a way of life? how do i build it into the biggest in its category?
lost in all of this is the fact that icons, like idols, can teeter and even topple. in 2005, much beloved and universally recognised denim brand levi’s was in the doldrums. following years of – there’s no other word for it – iconic pan-european advertising from longstanding incumbent agency bbh, the brand that had successfully paired all-american values with a sense of edgy sexuality had fallen from grace. ‘there was a strong feeling from myself, and others in the company, that we had lost our way. the core of the brand, what we were about, had been lost,’ explains doug sweeny, vp of brand marketing at the company.
sweeny’s feeling was more than borne out by the company’s lacklustre sales figures. the rise in popularity of the denim jean as a flexible, must-have fashion item in the late 1990s saw the brand losing market share to a host of niche, exclusive upstarts like evisu and seven for all mankind. in 1997, after years of growth, the company reported that worldwide sales had dropped by four percent from $7.1 billion to $6.9 billion. in 2003, levi’s posted record $349 million losses, with revenues of only $4 billion – far below the company’s 1996 peak. this decade of decline was only reversed in 2005 – and yet in 2010, business is steadily improving for the world’s biggest denim brand, despite the effects of the worst recession since the great depression. second- quarter net revenues had increased eight percent in comparison with 2009 to $977 million, with ‘ongoing retail expansion’ and ‘innovative products’ indicated as reasons for the growth.
‘the resurgence started a couple of years ago, on a really macro level,’ sweeny continues. ‘we started trying to wipe the slate clean.’
brand activity in the ‘lost’ years reads like a checklist of all the obvious marketing essentials for an apparel company attempting to target the fickle fashion set. an association with up-and-coming bands in the form of festival sponsorships and a ‘ones to watch’ programme. collaborations with controversial artists like damien hirst, and magazine-style content pushed out through levi.com. the sexy, stylised tv campaigns that had so characterised bbh’s work for the brand. some frankly odd viral campaigns featuring sock puppets emerging from the product’s button fly through cutwater in san francisco. however, this prolific rate of execution
on a not-insignificant marketing budget only served to highlight the absence of a resonant, organising idea through which all the creative was filtered.
‘we were very connected with pop culture, but we needed to connect with something broader,’ reflects sweeny. ‘most of the apparel category relies on aspiration, and presents an ideal of what you should be. levi’s is exactly the opposite. we’re about being who you are, and presenting yourself in a way that’s completely authentic and true to yourself. whoever you are.’
this dark period in the brand’s history throws the perils of operating as a 150-year-old brand in a sector dominated by the prevailing notion of cool into sharp relief. levi’s had been criticised by market analysts for relying too heavily on heritage, and yet new attempts to thrust the brand into the here-and-now seemed forced and awkward. however, the levi’s brand boasts a long history of organic adoption by those who dare to be different, and as such has no real need to cultivate transgression for transgression’s sake (for reference, see competitor diesel’s current ‘be stupid’ campaign which attempts just that, in the most obvious terms possible). andy warhol and the ramones were levi’s fans, and the brand has enjoyed a long, fruitful and mutually supportive relationship with the lgbt community. ‘over the years we’ve been adopted by all of these disparate communities and groups,’ sweeny explains, ‘and we feel that that’s a result of always zigging when everybody else zagged. we try to do the right thing, rather than the thing that just feels right at the time. at our core, we’re a pioneering brand. we’re for, by and about pioneers.’
levi strauss himself was a pioneering kind of guy, a german-jewish immigrant who headed west from new york to open a branch of his brother’s dry goods company in 1853. having arrived with rolls of rough canvas for tents and wagon covers, strauss innovated in response to consumer demand and began producing the first versions of what we now know as the iconic blue jean for the labourers flooding into san francisco as part of the gold rush. the denim came later, following complaints that the canvas chafed. (you try wearing a wagon cover as pants.)
at the tail end of 2008 levi’s us handed its creative reigns to wieden+kennedy, portland, following a pitch in which bbh us declined to participate. (the final ties between agency and client were severed in july 2010 when bbh london amicably resigned the rest of the account.) keen to avoid the pitfall of heritage in which the levi’s brand had so long languished whilst translating the pioneering spirit for a contemporary
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‘At our core, we’re a pionering brand. We’re for, by and about pioners.’
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audience, wieden’s response was ‘go forth’, a future- facing rallying cry designed to acknowledge 150 years of history and encourage consumers to explore ways of shaping the next 150. early iterations in which young americans were encouraged to ‘write their own declaration of independence’ proved moderately successful. however, the latest instalment of the campaign sees the brand celebrating the concepts of progress and hope, whilst being brutally honest about the issues facing contemporary americans.
wieden and levi’s built the entire campaign, ‘ready to work’, around the small american borough of braddock, pennsylvania. despite once boasting a population of 20,000, mostly workers at a local steel mill, the decline of the industry had seen braddock’s population dwindle to under 3,000. its young mayor, john fetterman (who has braddock’s zip-code tattooed on his arm), is encouraging artists, craftsmen and business owners to repopulate the town and revive its flagging fortunes, making the borough a showcase for urban renewal. levi’s partnered with fetterman to fund the completion of a community centre and urban farm, whilst documenting the process in a series of films and still images featuring real inhabitants of braddock, which would eventually form the advertising campaign for the brand’s new line.
‘levi’s is a workwear brand,’ says sweeny, unfashionably but truthfully. ‘it’s the performance sportswear of the 1870s. the whole point of ‘go forth’ is about translating our dna into today’s concept of work.’
‘we were inspired by the works progress administration (wpa) which was formed by the us government during the new deal,’ continues tyler whisnand, executive creative director at wieden+ kennedy. ‘people went to work to put the country back together during the great depression. with this in mind, we went looking for a place where a group of people were doing the new work in the interest of rebuilding and reviving their world.’
an emotionally-charged commercial launched the campaign on tv and online, making the point that ‘people think there aren’t frontiers anymore. they can’t see how frontiers are all around us’. john hillcoat, who had last used braddock as the post-apocalyptic background for the 2009 adaptation of cormack mccarthy’s The Road, directed the commercial and was by all accounts thrilled to be returning for more hopeful purposes. an hour-long documentary will be seeded in a series of five-minute clips online, and broadcast on the sundance channel in the autumn. aaron rose, of 2007’s Beautiful Losers film which chronicled the street art movement, directed.
‘there’s a two-year financial and legal agreement between us and braddock redux [the non-profit that governs the town’s regeneration], but the whole thing’s
become pretty organic,’ explains doug sweeny. ‘we just do what we can to help. members of the levi’s team have been down there painting walls.’ as well as lending their artistic talents, the company is donating its own office supplies to help keep the town’s library running, and its 200-strong sales team will be holding their annual meeting in the town’s new community centre. there is a palpable sense of enthusiasm amongst the levi’s team for this new direction, as much a reset of culture internally as it is externally. ‘it’s energised the entire company,’ confirms sweeny.
go forth, and particularly the work with braddock, represents the convergence of several trends in the advertising and marketing industry. first, putting your money where your mouth is. witness pepsi’s refresh everything platform, which invites community members to submit their ideas for projects worthy of pepsi funding. go forth is a more focused, less starry-eyed manifestation of the sense that consumer confidence and loyalty is created, not through simply shouting, but by using marketing budget to make a demonstrable difference in the world. ‘we’re building on the optimism that go forth created in the first year, and putting it into a tangible reference that you can see happening,’ explains whisnand. ‘disenfranchised youth are sick of seeing ads and stunts on the internet that don’t mean anything. by being a company that makes things by hand and makes things the right way, levi’s becomes meaningful.’
the second trend lies in the prioritising of engagement over reach. the work in braddock is tightly integrated across a number of different media, with tv, branded content, online, and point of sale creating myriad touchpoints, and hopefully the sense that the regeneration of braddock is a replicable model for hard workers everywhere.
‘ready to work’ also dovetails with a number of current consumer trends. the hipster/cynic ipod generation y, relentlessly consumerist and newly in thrall to the power and potential of the internet, has had its priorities firmly realigned by two years of economic crisis and political instability. shiny globalism has been replaced with a sense of the importance of ‘local’, and community. an emphasis on tactile creativity trumps the easily disposable and ephemeral digital-witness the rise of online craft vending hub etsy, responsible for $181m in sales in 2009. oscar wilde’s cynic who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing is no longer in vogue, and the down-home earthiness of the all- american workwear brand no longer seems outdated. it’s a timely synchronisation of brand promise and zeitgeist, and the executions just keep coming, allowing
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‘Levi’s is the performance sportswear of the 1870s. The whole point of ‘go forth’ is about translating our DNA into today’s concept of work.’
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for engagement everywhere from social networks to a local street corner.
Arts and crafts
the first levi’s workshop opened in the brand’s hometown of san francisco in july this year, developed by new york agency, sub rosa. reinventing the done-to-death ‘pop-up shop’ with a practical twist, the two-month workshop focused specifically on the craft of print-making, with a series of presentations, demonstrations and events giving attendees a chance to learn new skills and create something of their own. a second workshop, due to open in new york, focuses on photography. the san francisco outpost has so far proven wildly popular with 4,000 visitors passing through in one weekend, and levi’s is using each event to create content for social media channels and http:// workshops.levi.com.
‘wieden+kennedy’s latest offering for levi’s, ‘go forth’, nicely touches on the growing focus on live events, getting in touch with the great outdoors and feeling real rather than polished and sharp,’ explains chris sanderson, strategy and insight director at london- based trends analysts the future laboratory. ‘by using words from whitman rather than kerouac it extends the levi’s style canon rather than recycling it. we expect to see a growth in what we’re calling the rurban ideal – where the rural meets the urban – which allows levi’s the scope to develop a stylistic language that plays on
pioneering, adventure and risk in some exciting and challenging new ways. expect to see the influence of photographers such as bill henson, where the sexiness or the sense of risk-taking is augmented.’
it wasn’t only the levi’s consumer base that saw a change in worldview following the epic economic wobbles of 2008 and 2009. many marketers have taken this as an opportunity to centralise their efforts, with individual markets given the right to localise only in execution of a broader creative strategy, and levi’s is no exception. how will the go forth campaign translate its very specific brand of americana to audiences outside the us? sweeny is adamant: ‘go forth is a universal idea. it says that levi’s is a brand for people who want to get shit done, and that sentiment resonates everywhere.’ a latin american campaign for the brand focused more on artisans and musicians over physical labour, but retained the same sentiment, look and feel.
there’s no doubt that this gritty approach is representative of the current zeitgeist, but it’s in the nature of the zeitgeist to change, and it is a careless brand that rests
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on its laurels. ‘the key to our strategy and the way to stay relevant is for us to have an unprecedented level of consumer-centricity in all we do,’ says jaime cohen szulc, cmo at levi’s. ‘we are starting to invert the way we thought in the past – from “advertising to consumers” to a much stronger consumer and market-backed mentality, centered on engagement, consumer-generated content and therefore earned media. in essence, we will do the right things for consumers and if we get it right, they will carry the brand forward. the brand has a relevance that is unique to each of us. so, there is nothing more appropriate than each of our consumers to voice how they feel about the brand in their own ways.’
elsewhere in the company, having finally found a genuine brand voice, the levi’s global team has opened the floodgates on a series of digital initiatives designed to translate the company’s pioneering spirit far and wide. these projects vary in size and scale, yet are as cohesively authentic as previous work was confused and disparate. as an extension of the braddock campaign, members of the brand’s facebook group are invited to submit their thoughts on how they might further contribute to the programmes underway. levi’s has also funded a short stop-motion film showing a levi’s clad man walking across the united states from new york to san francisco checking in at various american places of interest along the way. the film was pitched to levi’s when the filmmakers needed a sponsor, yet branding is minimal, with only a close-up on the actor’s back pocket at the end showing the iconic levi’s red tab. in one week, the film had just under 800,000 views on youtube, and a further 100,000 views of the ‘making of’ video. at time of press, the film stands at 1.7m views. http://bit.ly/leviswalk
meanwhile, two online contests in as many years have helped the brand to choose a ‘levi’s guy’ and a ‘levi’s girl’, sparky ambassadors selected from videos submitted via the company’s facebook app to serve a six-month paid stint in the levi’s hq in san francisco and share their experiences online. carolina girl turned new yorker meghan smith was selected by fans on the
company’s facebook page from a shortlist of five, and began her internship in august.
after having worked to establish levi.com and facebook as the twin pillars of the brand’s online presence, levi’s notched up a further digital first, being the first to integrate facebook’s ‘social web’ outreach into their e-commerce platform. in april 2010, the facebook ‘like’ button was integrated into levi’s online store, allowing shoppers to demonstrate their enthusiasm for a product in a way that their friends can see. ‘we’re trying to surprise people and have them experience the brand in different ways,’ explains sweeny. ‘facebook is just down the street, so we went along to see if there were ways we could work together. now, we’re on beta projects with them, they’re on beta projects with us, and the like button came from one of those conversations. it’s like an agency partnership.’ as friendly and organic as this sounds, there is business acumen rooted in the adoption of social commerce. a recent study by nielsen found that facebook users reported 6% higher purchase intent if they could see people in their social network had already clicked to signify their own support. whilst no clear path through the social web to purchase has yet been demonstrated, shopping has long been a social experience, and the relationship between ‘liking’ and ‘buying’ may yet prove fruitful. ‘we believe that our heritage is our future,’ explains kristin bannister, levi’s director of women’s and digital marketing. ‘our heritage gives us 157 years of stories, traditions and products upon which to build. this gives us a unique point of view, one which our competitors don’t have.’
in the last three months, levi’s brand activity has incorporated competitions, user-generated content, corporate social responsibility, an enormous product overhaul, interactive ipad content, a social media first, thousands of new skills learned and the regeneration of an entire town. with the definition of what constitutes ‘advertising’ changing almost daily, it seems almost poetic that the charge be led by a big brand closely associated with the age of television.
to all the other marketers teetering on the brink of a new era, we say go forth.
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the past two years have also seen the launch of a number of initiatives aimed at reducing levi’s environmental impact and establishing it as a good brand, for good people. in 2009, levi’s announced a partnership with the goodwill charity (brokered through bbdo san francisco) to incorporate a ‘care tag’ into every pair of levi’s, which recommends a three-step process for greener jeans; first, to machine wash cold and save energy; second, to line dry when possible; and third, to donate the jeans to goodwill at the end of their lifespan for one person, in order that they find a new home instead of heading off to the landfill.
care tag is an idea so simple it’s almost incredible that it hasn’t been done before – yet, as befits the newfound pioneering spirit of the levi’s brand, this is a first, and scooped a coveted spot on the shortlist for this year’s titanium and integrated category at the cannes lions advertising festival. this year, levi’s extended the ideas proposed on the care tag by launching the ‘care to air design challenge’, an attempt to encourage innovative and sustainable air-drying solutions for clothing. independent research into the life-cycle of a pair of levi’s 501 jeans commissioned by levi strauss & co indicates that 60 percent of the climate impact comes during the consumer phase, with nearly 80 percent of that down to tumble-drying.
the levi’s women division is currently a hotbed of activity, following what the company is claiming as a complete reinvention of the relationship between female body shape and jean. levi’s research suggested that buying jeans was a tortuous process, with each woman trying on an average of ten pairs before finding one that she liked, with the classic waist and leg measurement failing to describe the variation in shape of each individual body. with this in mind, the levi’s women curve id range now boasts not only style (i.e. skinny, boyfriend) and waist/ leg measurements, but a curve metric. one can select jeans incorporating a slight curve, a demi curve or a bold curve depending on how much room inside the jeans is needed. a fourth shape, supreme curve, will follow, and a september roll-out will see all levi’s retail outfits designed around the concept of ‘shape’.
‘it’s another clean slate,’ says doug sweeny. ‘there’s been an issue surrounding the design of jeans for women for years, and we were part of the problem. finding jeans was an awful experience. so we scanned thousands of different body types to create a whole new way of shopping for jeans. everything fits with no gaping. we’re finding that women love it.’
as befits such experimentation in the product line, the levi’s women team is toying with a number of different platforms as well as the levi’s girl. ‘we’re playing with qr codes in our print ads to attach video showing the jeans on real women,’ begins kristin bannister. ‘and we’re one of a handful of advertisers partnering with Glamour magazine when they launch their first ipad application. all of our outreach starts with the product – and what the product was inspired by. the message that we decide to communicate is born of the process by which we arrived at that product – so the message, more often than not, is completely media agnostic.’
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analyst insight / leVi’s / by jeremy edwards / Xtreme insight /
when nick kamen walked into that launderette, it wasn’t just levi’s but advertising itself that became trendy. everyone wanted a pair of 501s. they crossed the demographic, class and gender divides. the advertising ensured the brand stood out, keeping it beyond the reach of the usual hipster cycle. remember flat eric, an odd brand mascot so eccentric he was cool (a decade before aleksander the meerkat’s social media rise to fame)?
back in the mid 80s, agency bbh’s strategy for the brand was to zag when others zigged to ensure levi’s was never just a fashion brand and thus couldn’t go out of fashion. of course, that’s exactly what happened – not just to levi’s, but to advertising too. both were built on the same model – blockbuster tv spots with chart topping soundtracks. both were connected to the globalisation (or should that be globalization) of americana. both now face the challenge of the anti-usa and anti-global backlash. both the jeans market and the media landscape have fractured into diverse niches.
levi’s has been searching for a new direction for a few years. its go forth campaign, agency changes and renewed youth focus reflect this quest for renewal. the recent tangible focus on practical working revival in the pennsylvanian former steel town of braddock concentrates on american workers and home town pioneers coupled with new frontiers and positive, meaningful change. by putting a contemporary spin on homage to its heritage, perhaps levi’s is hoping to bring the trend setters and fashionistas back to the brand, rather than bringing the brand to them and thus entering the boom and bust fashion cycle. it remains to be seen whether consumers can be genuinely convinced that a monolithic brand can be authentically motivated by small town, local entrepreneurialism. however, levi’s current 18-month plan is thought to include a move away from television towards an emphasis on open dialogue through digital and social media – which may help to create a voice with authenticity at its core.
Jeremy Edwards is the director of marcoms consultancy and Contagious sister company Xtreme Insight (www.xtremeinsight.net)
Challenge / Following a decade of straight sales decline from 1996-2005, the levi’s brand was just beginning to find its feet again with an increasingly fickle and fashion-conscious consumer, having lost market share to a slew of more exclusive niche denim labels. efforts to aggressively target the brand at the hipster set seemed awkward, lacking in focus and out of keeping with the company’s earthy beginnings. then, the recession hit and new jeans were the last thing on anybody’s mind. how could this once revered brand leverage its heritage, both real and in the advertising world, to recapture its iconic status? /
solution / a full-frontal assault on everything from product lines to social media strategy, tied together with a reworking of the brand’s pioneering spirit for a contemporary audience. in the go Forth campaign, levi’s put its money where its mouth is by funding community initiatives in a struggling Pennsylvania town, Braddock. imagery for the campaign featured Braddock residents, and a series of urban workshops encouraged participants to spend time learning practical skills like printing. meanwhile, content initiatives conducted in partnership with Facebook supported curve id – a total reinvention of the way in which women’s jeans are shaped and sold /
results / second quarter revenues for 2010 are up 8 percent on 2009, with much of the marketing activity around the new women’s range yet to emerge. the go Forth campaign has been credited with re-energising the entire company, and Facebook fans of the brand are up over the half million mark for the first time. as global rollout of curve id continues, complete with redesign of all retail outlets to accentuate the new range, further community-based initiatives seem sure to achieve the complete reinvention levi’s has sought /