Feature

After decades of inching towards the creative edge, Levi’s is basking in the mainstream

The Drum continues its series exploring the origins of the world’s best-known companies with Levi’s, a brand finally embracing its ubiquity and inclusivity after a century of hunting for an edge.

The story of the Levi’s brand contains none of the perilous drama featured in the movies of its homeland. It’s a chapter straight out of the American Dream storybook: a German immigrant moves to New York, heads west amid the Gold Rush, sets up a dry goods store, experiments with rivets in jeans with a Latvian tailor and patents the blue jean on 20 May 1873.

From then on in, the brand of Levi Strauss & Co found itself zipped into each and every stylised moment of modern Americana. It dressed the cowboys and prospectors of the Wild West, the riders who still feature on the ‘Two Horses’ patch sewed onto every modern pair of 501 jeans to this day.

It dressed the tourists who came seeking ranches and campfires once the gold had all gone, and the actors who fanned the fire of Western glamour in Hollywood. Once it had made its way through the studio lot doors it dressed Marlon Brando, James Dean, Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe.

It dressed the protestors of the Vietnam War, supporters of the Civil Rights Movement and the German teenagers who pulled down the Berlin Wall. It dressed Beyoncé at Coachella. It dressed the Kardashians at Christmas. Its chief marketing officer, Jennifer Sey, believes the brand to be “democratic”. It would be difficult to argue against her description.

Yet for all its ubiquity, the brand has dangled itself over the cutting edge of society for most of its existence. Levi’s has taken the lead from youth culture since 1960, when it realised teenagers had stopped calling its denim trousers ‘overalls’ and started calling them ‘jeans’. It promptly printed the term on all of its advertising.

During the second half of the 20th century the brand’s creative developed dogmatically with the times. A poster made in 1967 – ‘Bravo Levi's’ – is so in keeping with the groovy aesthetic of the flower power movement that it borders on satire. The brand even gave notorious acid-droppers Jefferson Airplane free rein to record a series of psychedelic radio ads.

It was only in the 1980s – a decade that absorbed what was once provocative into cultural convention – that Levi’s carved out its own identity by stepping onto the edge deserted by the hippies and revolutionaries. “The 80s was a real period of momentum for us,” says Sey. “We [dressed athletes] for the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, we launched the 501 Blues campaign and it was the point in time when Levi's really went east of the Mississippi – we had largely been a west coast brand in America up until that point.

“It also coincided with a moment, an inflection point in Europe.”

There are no prizes for guessing what that inflection point was. Bartle Bogle Hegarty was barely three years old when Levi’s signed off its script instructing Nick Kamen to unbutton his stonewashed 501s in a public laundrette and spark a British obsession with a glossier, sexier version of the real 1950s America. Sales of the jeans reportedly jumped 800%.

“It changed everything about my entire [school] class,” recalled Brothers & Sisters' chief executive Matthew Charlton in 2015. “Within weeks the whole class was listening to classic Marvin Gaye instead of The Police, all of us had slicked-back hair, we all had Levi's jeans and were buying very uncomfortable boxer shorts that had replaced the quality 1970s Y-fronts we were accustomed to.”

The European success of ’Laundrette’ led to 1992’s ‘35mm’ (Brad Pitt gets let out of jail, hooks up with a beautiful girl, takes some photos, throws camera at jail officer), 1994’s ‘Creek’ (Amish sisters spy on a beautiful, topless man bathing) and Michelle Gondry’s ‘Drugstore’ (man buys condoms, takes out beautiful girl). If there was any question that sex sells, Levi’s ledger in the final decades of the 20th century put the dispute to bed.

But then again, up until the late 90s, Sey admits that Levi’s was “one of the only games in town”.

“Then we definitely started to experience some real challenges,” she says. “The category changed. The mode of selling through wholesale really started to change and we saw verticals popping up everywhere. We didn’t respond quickly enough, and we experienced a real period of decline and a loss of relevance.”

Levi's identity crisis was perhaps best represented in the creative switch from sex to puppetry. Sir John Hegarty remembered having to present Flat Eric to Levi’s three times because “the first time they thought I’d gone completely mad, and a lot of people here at the agency thought I’d gone completely mad, and I remember the account team saying to me: ‘are you really sure about this?’"

While very much of the era – and loved at the time – the Flat Eric ’Sta-Prest’ ads now feel incongruous with Levi's body of work in retrospect.

So – rather quietly – Levi’s changed the game. Former Procter & Gamble executive Chip Bergh was installed as chief executive in 2011 and Sey stepped up into the chief marketing officer role in 2013. A former professional gymnast, she looks at the iconic portfolio she inherited with pride, however accepts that Levi’s advertising had lost its true spirit as the world around it continued to change.

“We were striving so hard to be at the edge of cool that we kind of missed the heartbeat of the brand,” she explains. “I think one of the dangers of being old, like we are, is you sometimes feel like you’re not that cool. And now I think there's nothing cooler than being yourself.

“We are inclusive and diverse, and [speak to] everyone from very young hipster teenagers to 70-year-old guys who have been wearing the brand their whole life. This is a brand for all of them. It’s a great connector.”

Now, the jeans are kept firmly fastened in commercials, not least because Levi’s depicting Nick Kamen taking his trousers off in public today "would have a different cultural meaning”.

“It's sort of cheeky, he's a little flirty, and he's certainly not doing anything wildly offensive – he’s not talking to or touching any women ... [but] you have to pay attention to cultural context,” says Sey. “That used to be a trope for the brand. But we avoid that now.”

Levi’s ‘Circles’, an FCB piece that was one of YouTube’s most-watched ads of 2017, encapsulates what the brand stands for today. Outstanding similarities to a 2017 John Lewis ad aside (FCB says it wasn't aware of the UK spot until it had produced ’Circles’), it blends the diversity of community first featured in ‘501 Blues’ and prioritises a killer soundtrack just like ‘Laundrette’ did in the form of Jain's hit Makeba.

It’s still sexy – but not sexualised.

“’Circles’ has had such a huge impact and such a transformational effect on our business,” says Sey. Indeed, Levis's direct-to-consumer revenues grew 19% in Q2 of 2018, which Sey believes to be “huge for an incredibly well established brand“.

Success cannot be pinned purely on above-the-line though – customer experience, influencer campaigns and experiential have also played a part in conveying relevance among the younger generation of Levi’s consumers. But when Levi’s talks about influencers and experiential, it means more than a pop-up in a shopping centre. It means a fully-functioning customisation station in Coachella manned by Snoop Dogg.

Sey is relatively nonchalant about the success of Levi’s live activity, particularly when it comes to the success of its Coachella activation, which she says garnered 6bn impressions this year.

“We choose influencers not based on followers but based on whether or not they’re real-life Levi's lovers,” she says. “We might invite them to a festival with us as our guests, but we don’t pay them, and they're not required to post.”

DAY 24 #ChristmasEve

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And the Kardashians' 2017 Christmas card, which featured nearly every member of the clan wearing Levi’s? Sey and her team had nothing to do with it. “That was them,” she says. “We didn’t dress them. With authentic connections, we don't need mercenaries.”

The CMO’s next plan for growth is China. Japan’s fanatic levels of respect for Levi’s have not quite spread to its Asian cousin, a place where the brand “doesn’t stand up above the fray”. She’s looking to market the relevance of the brand in balance with its heritage; as such her main ideas involve a “museum tour” and working with the influencer William Chan.

“He's a musician, dancer and host of a dance show so his impact is amazing. He's got about 40 million followers and if he wears something and everybody wants it.”

And you can’t get much more mainstream than that.

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