Few global brands thrive on controversy quite like Calvin Klein. A strategy it has spent decades perfecting, it shows little sign of changing course, as witnessed when new marketing chief Melisa Goldie signed up Justin Bieber as the latest celebrity ambassador.
Calvin Klein is a brand that endures. Traversing controversy and making headlines through its notorious celebrity ambassadors, it has a history of commanding public attention through striking images that both shock and generate a desire to possess its products – products that effortlessly ooze rebellious cool.
And, with new chief marketing officer Melisa Goldie now firmly in place, it looks like it is a history and attitude that is in safe hands – Goldie has spent 14 years at the company, working for Calvin Klein himself before he sold the company in 2002 for $739m, and one of her first decisions in the new role was to recruit bad boy pop star Justin Bieber as the face of the brand (of which she says “it was the hardest choice I have ever had to make”).
“I got here through creativity, and that is really what we are all struggling with today – how we leverage creativity is really the issue of our time,” she explains.
“Companies are trying to marry the needs of creativity with commerce and it is really hard to keep those two things perfectly balanced at all times when you have to both satisfy shareholders and your customers.
“But the power of creativity is undeniably the foundation on which great businesses are conceived, built and grown. At the heartbeat of inspiration is the soul of innovation and creativity is at the root of all innovation.”
Looking back over the brand’s advertising history, Goldie recalls the infamous Brooke Shields advert where the then 15-year-old starlet asked ‘Want to know what comes between me and my Calvins?’ and which shot the actress to worldwide stardom in the early 80s and instantly made the brand notorious and appealing.
“The brand is sexy but it is also approachable and it delivers luxury and appeals to the masses. It is also a fashion brand that satisfies the utilitarian need such as jeans and underwear. “Sexy and approachable, luxury and mass appeal, high fashion and highly practical: these are the apparent contradictions at the heart of what makes Calvin Klein a brand – our ability to live at that intersection.
“We do this by relentlessly applying four brand truths that have stood the test of time, technology and media disruption and consumer expectation.”
Those four brand truths are “dance with controversy, leverage tension, seek simplicity and embrace the culture”, and Goldie uses the example of 1992’s Mark Wahlberg campaign, which introduced Kate Moss as an innocent young model in contrast to his bad boy image, as a campaign that “leveraged sexual tension and new vibrancy” for the brand.
“We know how to disrupt with the innovators and we know how to leverage the resulting tension to get early adopters engaged. Now the hard part comes: we have these two groups involved but we have to cross that chasm and get to the other side and reach the masses – the early and the late majority.”
Meanwhile, when it comes to seeking simplicity, Goldie uses Michelangelo’s David as her metaphor (and also jokes that David would have made a great Calvin Klein model were he alive today). “When he was asked how he created David, Michelangelo said it was simple, ‘I just removed everything that wasn’t David’. Simplicity means being ruthless about what should and should not be in the work. We apply that discipline every day when presenting the brand.”
She continues: “For an idea to really work it must pass a simple test and you will need to ask yourself a simple question: ‘Why will anyone care?’
“It’s easy to say ‘we'll put the consumer first’, but you must genuinely care more about what matters to the consumer than what happens to you.”
This brings Goldie to the #mycalvins social media-led campaign fronted by Justin Bieber. “I felt that it was honouring the brand truths,” she says of the initial decision, claiming it harks back to the campaign featuring Moss and Wahlberg.
“Justin Bieber is a true reflection of our digital first culture that we have adopted. The line between Justin’s private and public persona is extremely blurred. He was first discovered on YouTube and lives an almost Truman Show existence under the microscope of social media. The real-time documentation of his life makes him a perfect representation of each of our brand truths. Justin Bieber is a disruptive and controversial figure and nowhere more so than in the US where 270,000 people signed a petition to have him deported by the White House.”
The success of the #mycalvins campaign, Goldie explains, is that it began through social behaviour with people taking pictures of themselves in Calvin Klein clothing, before developing and going on to sell 5.5m units.
Beyond the US, Goldie explains that the brand looks to be consistent through all its campaigns from country to country, but bearing in mind how it likes to dance with controversy, even within some states of America it won’t run the Justin Bieber activity in-store.
“We have other assets that would deliver that sort of product story so that’s what we do, but we really want to keep the global brand message out there and it’s really about trying to find a balance between delivering a product story in-store and delivering the brand DNA up top.
“So we are very agile as a group, we’re prepared for it. We have to take things down all the time. We get censored all the time, but it's pretty conservative in America, so the Middle East is easy too – well, none of it is easy but we deal with it.”
Clearly Calvin Klein is a global brand that has learned to thrive on controversy, but what is also clear is that it will continue to do so under its new marketing chief.
This feature was first published in The Drum's 10 June issue.