Levi's fights back with image ads

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Levi Strauss & Co., battling competition from designer labels and private-label brands, in early August breaks an estimated $90 million-plus image effort tagged "Levi's. They go on."

The campaign is intended to portray Levi's jeans as a link between Americans of all ages, races and lifestyles. The centerpiece is a series of dreamlike TV spots that use quick cuts to random events, and feature all-American icons and a smattering of celebrity cameos.

Foote, Cone & Belding, San Francisco, created the broad branding effort, which replaces separate, critically acclaimed campaigns for Levi's 501 ("501 reasons"), Wide Leg ("It's Wide Open") and Jeans for Women lines.

Company executives said the campaign is the biggest ever for Levi Strauss, which spent $86 million last year on advertising for the Levi's brand, according to Competitive Media Reporting.

BREAKING AUG. 4 ON MTV

The first of six spots will break on MTV around Aug. 4, before moving to national broadcast networks. One ad is 90-seconds long, while the others are :60s; all were Levi's image advertising directed by Tarsem.

The campaign also includes a print effort. One multipage ad features photos of a woman from age 10 through her golden years, while a spread shows a flashy skateboard rider, who reappears in another ad several pages later with a cast on his arm.

Levi Strauss had moved away from brand advertising for more than a dozen years until March 1995, when it put an estimated $10 million behind two spots featuring Works Progress Administration era-style animation with the tag, "They're not Levi's jeans until we say they are." The spots were dropped after a short run.

MARKET UP 10%

The $8.7 billion jeans market grew 10% last year, according to NPD Group, but Levi Strauss got off to a slow start in the first quarter with sales up only about 1%, and is undergoing an $80 million downsizing.

Among its major problems are substantive marketing efforts from designers such as Ralph Lauren Polo, Calvin Klein, Guess? and Tommy Hilfiger, as well as traditional competitors such as The Gap, which has renewed national advertising. At the same time, J.C. Penney Co. and Sears, Roebuck & Co. have in place strong national branding efforts for their own private-label products.

FCB initially developed two competing campaigns for the branding effort. One, from a team headed by Group Creative Director Chuck McBride, was themed "A story in every pair." The jeans marketer instead selected the campaign proposed by a team headed by Creative Director Suzanne Finnamore and Art Director Kim Schoen, along with creatives Sean Mullens and Susan Treacy.

Group Creative Director Brian Bacino, who co-created the 501 "Pool Boy" spot--also directed by Tarsem--oversaw the effort.

The six TV spots, viewed together, tell a story. But each can also run on a stand-alone basis.

COWBOYS AND CHEVYS

The first commercial begins with a cowboy driving a classic Chevy Impala filled with stuffed animals. He pulls into a waffle house where he meets a disc jockey about to move to New York. During the conversation, the cowboy imparts wisdom on such topics as how to succeed in winning county fair plush animals (by aiming "beyond the balloon") and gives away a garish stuffed dinosaur.

Another ad is shot in a hip, techno-music club patronized by, among others, an elderly Asian woman and Quentin Crisp, author and New York personality. The scene segues to one featuring an old-time Brooklyn ice cream vendor who won't turn over his goods until his young customer can answer questions such as "Charlie Parker had what club named after him?" The child correctly answers "Birdland," then asks for more difficult jazz-trivia questions.

KRAVITZ IN SEGMENT

The series also has a segment in which some women are pushing a car into a gas station where singer Lenny Kravitz has been stranded. His Los Angeles agent, on line in a supermarket, is barking into a cell phone about getting Mr. Kravitz an appropriate hotel room.

Another ad features a 1978 Gremlin with an all-Levi's interior.

A brief teaser for the next spot appears at the end of each commercial, but the next commercial in the series opens with the same scene shot from a different angle. Characters from earlier spots, and the dinosaur, reappear at random in the various ads.

"Levi's wanted to do something different, and they meant it," said one marketing executive.

Copyright July 1997, Crain Communications Inc.

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