Hip Check

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The Memo Lee jeans were way off the cool meter with young consumers. The company didn't want to alienate loyal buyers -women 35 and over-but it had to shed its "mom's jeans" image to appeal to kids. How could Lee Apparel Company connect with 15-to-34-year-olds who think Lee is, like, totally unhip?

The Discovery Early rounds of focus groups found that kids under 17 changed their minds daily on what was cool to wear, while adults in their late 20s and early 30s felt comfortable in their broken-in Levi's. The 17-to-22 segment, however, seemed open to new brands, a finding reiterated in a large-scale study by the Cambridge Group and Roper Starch Worldwide. The study divided consumers into 11 psychographic profiles, among them "Fit Me/Fit My Lifestyle." That segment included a number of 17-to-22-year-olds who were style leaders, influential among their peers. If Lee could grab them, their friends would follow.

The study also confirmed that people thought Lee was more durable than other jeans, and that didn't necessarily mean uncool. The success of Timberland and Doc Martens had shown that functional brands could still be fashionable. Additional focus groups revealed that 17-to-22-year-olds wanted their jeans to give them the confidence to do anything, whether it was playing basketball on the court or watching it on TV. Lee needed to connect its durable image with the indestructibility that the target market craved.

The Tactics A truly break-out campaign needed something that would set Lee apart on the rack. Perhaps, Fallon McElligott suggested, there were icons buried in Lee's archives that would click with today's savvy young consumers-and link unmistakenly back to the brand. In interviews with target buyers, three "antiques" grabbed the spotlight. A slogan from the 1940s, "Can't Bust 'Em," had a retro appeal that also suggested strength and quality. The word dungarees, resurrected from an earlier line, lent a James Dean authenticity. And then there was the Buddy Lee doll, an all-but-forgotten icon from the 1920s. Buddy Lee reflected the target market's idealized view of that era-and he was cool, like Bart Simpson.

The iconography study also influenced product design for the Lee Dungarees line. Researchers had a radical proposal: dump the signature leather patch and pocket stitching. Kids said the details reminded them of their parents' jeans. Lee leaders gulped, but gave the go-ahead. Tapping into the retro vein, designers incorporated styling similar to jeans circa the 1920s.

The media strategy was anything but vintage. Tests of various creative concepts found that those "Fit Me/Fit My Lifestyle" 17-to-22-year-olds considered themselves cool hunters: they needed to discover Lee Dungarees before everyone else did. A phantom campaign-posters of Buddy Lee, sans type -were plastered around cities like New York and Los Angeles to pique the interest of early adopters. After a run of commercials on cable TV that introduced Buddy Lee, "Man of Action," the pint-size hero hit the mainstream in spots during primetime shows like Dawson's Creek.

The Payoff Initial retail orders of Original Straight Leg Dungarees, the line's flagship product, hit 1.3 million units, 300 percent more than anticipated. From January to October last year, Lee's sales jumped 11 percent in young men's departments and 8 percent in juniors' over the same period in 1997. Roughly 26 percent of 17-to-22-year-olds thought Lee was cool before the rollout. Four months into the campaign, that figure reached 42 percent.

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