Johan Lindeberg, the 37-year-old Swede who is the first international marketing director for Italian sportswear marketer Diesel, hopes to change that with his own brand of distribution, advertising and hype that's already created a counterculture personality for the jeans in some European markets.
"We hope to open up a very big [Diesel] shop in New York [in 1995], and we want to have stores in all the major cities of the world," said Mr. Lindeberg. "We also want to have a base in Japan."
Despite the fact that Diesel doesn't have a major presence in Paris or London, the company claims it's the No. 2 jeans marketer in Europe behind Levi's on the strength of sales in Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Scandinavia.
Four years ago Mr. Lindeberg, then managing director of the Hans Brindfors Annonsbyra ad agency in Malmo, was turned away from Diesel's Molveno, Italy, headquarters. Mr. Lindeberg, who looks like a rock video refugee, continued to seek the Swedish distributorship although he had no retail experience. He pestered the company with calls and faxes, until, in 1991, he was successful. In the ensuing three years, Diesel's sales Swedish grew from less than 1,000 pairs of jeans a year to about 200,000.
A key part of Mr. Lindeberg's international strategy is to copy the successful formula used in Diesel's Stockholm and Berlin shops. Those stock Diesel jeans-priced comparably to Levi's at about $80 a pair-plus shoes, jackets, underwear, kids' clothes and, starting in April, sunglasses.
The stores create an atmosphere. Walking into Stockholm's cement-floored Diesel store with red brick walls, customers find a juice and coffee bar and a vertical rack displaying trendy music and fashion magazines. Rock blares.
Recognizing the buzz Mr. Lindeberg created in the previously negligible Swedish market, Renzo Rosso, Diesel's 39-year-old motorcycle-riding founder, made Mr. Lindeberg international marketing director in 1992.
It was Mr. Lindeberg's local print and TV spots from Paradiset Annonsbyra, the Stockholm agency bought by DDB Needham Worldwide in 1990 and now Diesel's international shop, that converted Mr. Russo into an advertising believer. The ads that seduced the founder reflected Diesel's jeans-with-attitude personality and have taglines such as like "Recipe for successful living," a parody of the fashion industry concept that the right jeans or sports shoes will change a person's life.
This fall Diesel and Paradiset won the Grand Prix at the Nordic Advertising Festival for a spot showing a monster emerging chasing a screaming girl who leads him into a trap with a big net. The spot ends with a meat grinder and grilled monster burgers.
The $17.5 million campaign runs mostly on international channels like MTV and in style and fashion magazines.
The offbeat ads will also play a role in Mr. Lindeberg's strategy to take on the world. One of the biggest challenges will be the U.S., the home turf of Levi's, The Gap and other formidable competitors. Diesel tried to crack the American market in the 1980s with little success, and as a result, U.S. sales account for only about 15% of Diesel's $350 million.
Germany and Italy are the largest of Diesel's 70 markets, holding 35% and 15% respectively of the company's total sales. Scandinavia, Holland and Argentina follow.
But Mr. Lindeberg, whose office in a cavernous red-brick factory sports a sign outside reading "Harley parking only," predicts that in four or five years Diesel's hip attitude will boost U.S. sales closer to $120 million.