There's no limit to the number of ad people asking how, after a hugely successful 60-year-plus partnership, and some of the most outstanding recent examples of creative advertising, Levi Strauss & Co. could review the Levi's brand assignment at Foote, Cone & Belding.
Think back just a decade or so: the Levi's "501 blues" campaign and its evolution; the women's jeans effort, featuring come-to-life artwork and stick-figure drawings; the Wide-Leg jeans "Wide Open" TV work, epitomized by "Elevator" and "Doctors." How could FCB be in jeopardy?
Outsiders don't know the business numbers that caused this "review of all aspects of the Levi's brand," since Levi Strauss is privately held. It's clear, however, that designer and private-label jeans have cut into Levi's business. You don't have the ad weight of Sears' Canyon River Blues and VF Corp.'s advertised Lee and Wrangler brands on one end, and the cachet of Tommy Hilfiger on the other, and not feel squeezed.
Levi's and FCB reacted earlier this year by dropping ads for specific brands within the base brand in favor of a general Levi's branding effort. But it's too soon to tell, or too little too late, as far as Levi's managers are concerned. It's been a hard decade on classic marriages. United Airlines and Leo Burnett Co. Eastman Kodak and J. Walter Thompson Co. More recently, General Motors Corp.'s GMC exited McCann-Erickson Worldwide, representing GM's first agency shift in 40 years. And others; all splitsville. There just isn't much room for sentiment when a classic brand or business feels a chill wind blowing.
And what agency wouldn't like its turn at a brand like Levi's?
But smarts, not sentiment, suggests Levi's managers are better served now that FCB says it has decided to fight to keep the business. Idea machines don't automatically wear out with time-even 67 years. Let the wannabee Levi's agencies show they have a better idea than denim's old master.
The new CEOs
It's a coincidence, to be sure, but seldom have so many corporations in the big leagues of marketing-AT&T Corp., Coca-Cola Co., Kraft Foods and Quaker Oats Co.-installed new CEOs in the same period of a few days.
Each new top executive will have the final say over major advertising and marketing investments, and the responsibility for balancing the needs of their brands against demands for cost-cutting, more capital investment and more profit growth. And each will be
prodded to hold marketing managers more accountable for each dollar they spend. How they negotiate this gauntlet will be a key test, perhaps the key test, of their tenures.
Marketing budgets-even at a quintessential marketer such as Coca-Cola-are hardly sacrosanct today. Yet none of these CEOs can let the search for "efficiencies" overshadow the continuing need to establish and maintain clear brand images and distinctive product positionings.
The biggest challenges await AT&T outsider C. Michael Armstrong and former Kraft Foods CEO Robert Morrison at Quaker. AT&T, with multiple product lines and beset by competitors, has been trimming its giant marketing outlays while waiting for new leadership. Quaker, now free of the Snapple disaster, must search for new growth opportunities while fighting bigger rivals in its cereals and drinks businesses.
At Coca-Cola, a company built by decades of marketing investment, new CEO M. Douglas Ivester last week proclaimed a steady-as-you-go approach as he took the reins. If that means careful care and feeding of brand assets, that's a course