JEANS HOPE DARK COLORS WILL BRIGHTEN MARKET: LEVI'S, LEE SEEK AIR OF AUTHENTICITY WITH AD CAMPAIGNS THIS SUMMER

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Leading marketers in the fading jeans market -- hoping to benefit from the return of dark denim -- are designing strategies to win a battle centered on authenticity.

Starting in mid-June, two of the nation's top jeans marketers, Levi Strauss & Co. and VF Corp.'s Lee Apparel Co., will launch ad campaigns pushing dark jeans popular in bygone eras.

The Levi Strauss TV work, the first from TBWA Chiat/Day, will include ads emphasizing qualities such as the toughness of its denim.

"You'll see more [advertising for dark denim] going forward," said Kendra Kallan, senior advertising manager for the Levi's brand.

At the same time, Levi Strauss is preparing to sell jeans online directly to consumers, cutting out retailers, marketing executives said. In the past, Levi Strauss has tested the sale of logo goods such as baseball caps online, particularly for its Silver Tab products.

FOLLOWS MARILYN, BRANDO ADS

The Levi's TV campaign, slated to break June 17, follows two outdoor efforts from TBWA Chiat/Day, Venice, Calif., and San Francisco, the most recent featuring Marilyn Monroe and Marlon Brando wearing cuffed, '50s-era Levi's.

Spending on the Levi's effort is undetermined. Last year, Levi Strauss spent $58 million on its Levi's brand, according to Competitive Media Reporting.

Lee, a 109-year-old brand, is not about to concede originality to Levi Strauss. Lee last year conducted more than 3,000 interviews with 17-to-24-year-olds. The respondents found comfort and security in things that appeared "authentic," said Gordon Harton, VP-consumer marketing for the Lee brand.

"Look around. See how people are responding to" Volkswagen's new Beetle, he said.

Lee is beginning TV advertising for its biggest product launch ever, a $30 million campaign backing Lee Dungarees (AA, May 11). Ads from Fallon McElligott, Minneapolis, feature 1920s icon Buddy Lee and the tagline, "Can't bust 'em."

About two years ago, Lee began a program to develop products based on consumer research. As a result, Lee has experienced rapid growth, increasing sales by 16% from October 1997 to March 1998 compared to the same period a year earlier, according to NPD.

LEVI'S SALES FALL IN '97

Levi's 1997 sales of $6.9 billion were down 4% from the previous year. At the same time, Levi's share of the jeans market dropped to 26%, from 48% in 1990, according to Tactical Retail Monitor.

"Jeans manufacturers are trying to re-fashionize and add a note of romance to jeans," said Kurt Barnard, president, Barnard's Retail Trend Report.

While most jeans sellers will carry dark and stiff denim this fall, some are reacting cautiously.

"I'm not sure where it is on the curve right now," said Richard Crisman, exec VP-marketing for the Old Navy chain.

Contributing: Carol Krol.

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