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Marketing Brand Strategy WFA Global Marketer of the Year

Levi Strauss & Co CMO on why TikTok is key to the brand’s marketing success


By Jennifer Faull | Deputy Editor

January 30, 2023 | 8 min read

Karen Riley-Grant has been nominated for The Drum and the World Federation of Advertisers’ (WFA) Global Marketer of the Year award. We catch up with her on the brand’s “social, social, social” marketing strategy.

Karen R G

Karen Riley-Grant, Levi’s CMO

Riley-Grant became Levi Strauss & Co’s chief marketing officer in 2021 and since then, has led a sustainability agenda that has seen the brand encourage consumers to shop less often – a brave move for a fashion giant.

She says the brand is “the strongest it has been in decades”, in part thanks to a social-first marketing strategy that has seen her teams spend more time and budget on the likes of TikTok.

You can vote for Riley-Grant to be named Global Marketer of the Year here.

Levi’s has put sustainability at the heart of its marketing recently. How is that resonating with consumers?  

It’s resonating very well with our consumers. We recently launched the second season of our ‘Buy Better, Wear Longer’ campaign, which initially debuted in 2021. Through it, we are asking consumers to be intentional with their purchasing decisions and look for garments that they can wear and love for years, if not decades, to reduce the number of natural resources needed to style their wardrobes. We are incredibly proud to share that this campaign was the highest-scoring piece of copy in the last decade with our target consumers and has helped to boost our brand equity with them.

Because we recognize both the role we have played as the creator of the denim category and the responsibility we have as the leader in this space, we’re making demands of ourselves, too. We are driving toward more sustainable and circular practices and products across our operations to reduce our environmental footprint. We’ve focused our efforts on introducing innovative programs that can extend the life of garments and prevent the overuse of natural resources. This includes prioritizing quality and durability in design; reducing the environmental footprint of cotton cultivation; scaling the use of alternative fibers such as rainfed hemp; decreasing waste; physical samples; and overall inventory, among other initiatives. And driving awareness of conscious consumption among our consumers every day.

Can you share how you are reflecting that in your media strategy as we see more sustainable media options become available to advertisers?  

We are committed to a more sustainable future and are constantly looking for ways to reduce our impact on the planet. Better understanding and quantifying the carbon impact of our marketing and paid media activities is something we’re actively pursuing and digital will be a big part of that, including the data centers that our partners run their businesses on. We’re also looking at how we work more actively with partners who share our goals on sustainability and provide trusted environments and combat misinformation.

What media channels are you prioritizing in the year ahead?  

Social, social, and social. TikTok, specifically, has been really important for the brand in helping us connect with Gen Z. We’ve had some great recognition from the industry for the creative we’ve delivered through this channel. We’ve had an incredible amount of likes and followers this year alone. Making sure we’re creating content for that channel versus deploying a campaign toolkit that’s been spread across all channels is key to effective messaging. You need to really think about the platform, what type of storytelling works for that platform and understand the consumer/user and know how to partner with their influencers. As the social landscape continues to evolve, we’ll focus on platform diversification to ensure rich connections with our consumers, always.

What are the biggest challenges facing retail marketing leaders today? 

Our biggest challenge today is delivering tailored messages to our consumers 24 hours a day, 365 days a year across an increasingly complex communications landscape. This is the requirement to remain competitive and win the hearts and minds of our consumers. But we know the brands that will “win” are those that stay 100 steps of consumers – anticipating their needs and connecting with them through the right message in the right channels at the right times.  

No longer do we live in the days of a single ad campaign heavily reliant on traditional formats – we’ve witnessed a proliferation of channels and platforms, ranging in relevancy among segments of consumers and geographies. Our messages need to be effective across all channels – owned, earned and paid – while also utilizing data to create a personalized approach for a richer consumer experience.

Levi’s is a 170-year-old brand with consumers spanning all generations and geographies. Not only do we need to deepen our consumer base with the next generation of shoppers, but we can’t alienate our current fans. Our communication mix is critical to ensuring we recruit new fans and retain our existing ones.  This balancing act has pushed us to be laser-focused on our message and approach – ensuring we last for another 170 years.   

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How are you planning to work more effectively with agency partners in 2023?   

We recently partnered with Droga5 to help create a new emphatic ad campaign to celebrate our 150th anniversary of Levi’s 501 fit. That said, we work with a rich network of agencies spanning across activations, media, brand partnership and so on to help bring our 360-degree communication strategy to life, around the world.

What’s exciting you most about the year ahead? 

We have so much to celebrate. The Levi’s brand is the strongest it has been in decades, and I’m very proud of the work our teams have delivered to achieve these results. Levi’s brand equity is at an all-time high – #1 Global Jeans Brand, #1 Unaided Brand Awareness and #1 across core measures such as denim authority and quality. Additionally, our marketing ROI is at record highs across our measured markets, and we grew new categories, including tops & athleisure. Our success is a culmination of hard work and focus throughout the last decade.

Our youth fanbase is active and growing across geographies – critical for the long-term success of the brand. The traction we’ve made with youth demonstrates the brand’s continued relevancy, quite a feat for a 170-year-old brand. Our actions this year are giving us momentum as we embark on one of our most exciting years ever as we look to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Levi’s 501. Reaching these milestones wouldn’t be possible without our talented, hardworking teams across the business who have built and strengthened the brand into what it is today.

Marketing Brand Strategy WFA Global Marketer of the Year

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