Lee Jeans' Cahill Keeps the Conversation Going

She's Leading the Traditional Denim Brand's Foray Into Nontraditional Media

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Liz Cahill assumed the post of VP-marketing of Lee Jeans, a division of VF Corp., in December 2006. From day one, she made it her goal to "bring back Lee," the iconic brand that had lost a bit of its "power," she said, amid a sea of sub-brands. And at a time when private-label brands breathe the same air in retail environments and premium-denim brands grace as many tabloid pages as Hollywood celebrities, Lee's challenges could leave any CMO understandably daunted.

But instead Ms. Cahill is enthusiastic about the opportunities she sees ahead for Lee, particularly those created by new-media platforms. The cornerstone of Lee's overall branding effort has been Lee National Denim Day, a 12-year-old breast-cancer-awareness initiative that asks people one day a year to donate $5 and wear jeans -- any jeans. Recently Lee began leveraging Facebook, MySpace and YouTube as platforms for the cause-marketing program. Ms. Cahill said she sees tremendous value for the brand in new media for overall brand advertising, too.

She sat down with us recently to discuss that effort as well as Lee's other challenges and initiatives.

Advertising Age: Has Lee National Denim Day been the strategy that has most benefited the brand?

Liz Cahill: It's one of the strategies, absolutely. We take great pride in Lee National Denim Day. Over the years we realized that the female consumer was a linchpin in the success of the brand. While we make products for all parts of the family, she is really the key buyer for the family. So as we went through the years, we knew we had to stay connected to her and things that were important to her, breast cancer being one.

Ad Age: What other specific marketing strategies and advertising platforms are most beneficial to the Lee brand?

Ms. Cahill: It started out with word-of-mouth and buzz campaigns, any kind of buzz generating. We really wanted to make it a concerted effort to start developing a loyal base. We have brand loyalists that we will seed product with. We will ask them for their opinions. They work directly with our product teams. We are listening to our consumers, and they will then share the news of the great things that we are doing at Lee. Now we can start taking that into these new emerging media, the social networks. With the web, it has made it so much easier.

Ad Age: How has that strategy dovetailed with the overall brand strategy and how is it furthering the goals of National Denim Day?

Ms. Cahill: We actually started [leveraging] social media with our Lee National Denim Day program. We didn't just kind of put our toe in. We put it in everywhere. We have our own YouTube channel. We are always checking blogs. This was where we tested to see where it was relevant for us to be. We are now taking it to our master brand and seeing ways that we can make it relevant, not only to women but to men as well. Denim Day definitely helped us to speak to women. But now we are trying really to understand how to speak with men as well. One thing we learned is that we have to do it right the first time. You have to be authentic, and you have to be real or consumers are going to see right through you. We are being cautious on the male side until we really understand how to have those conversations.

Ad Age: This is a time when a lot of fashion brands, fashion marketers, are experimenting with new technologies -- online video, for example. Is that something you are doing to showcase the product?

Ms. Cahill: Absolutely. We are definitely moving that way. I can't give it all away right now, but we are actually moving to a new platform for our e-commerce and website. That will be launching in late fall. One of the key components that we looked for was to be able to have video. It definitely helps showcase the product. You can see how things are on body, what it looks like, movement, but you can also start to tell a richer story about the brand. We really understand that there are different occasions that men and women have for a pair of jeans. We can start telling those stories about how you can wear or give them suggestions, almost mini fashion shows.

Ad Age: As you have moved into nontraditional media, what is the biggest surprise you have encountered?

Ms. Cahill: The biggest surprise is how responsive and how vocal consumers can be. They will love you or they will hate you. If they love you, they will tell you the reasons why. If they are not happy, they will tell you the reason why, and you better react. You had better keep those conversations going, because the worst thing you can do is try and ignore a problem. When they are talking about a product, they are very vocal about denim and the jeans that they wear. It's a very personal statement about who you are and what you wear. When they love you, they are great brand loyalists and will champion you to everyone. But if you disappoint, you had better try to make sure to fix it fast.

Ad Age: So that is how a market must respond. The onus is suddenly on the marketer to speak directly to that?

Ms. Cahill: Absolutely. If you are opening it up for a conversation, you have to be willing to converse, whether it is good or bad. It is definitely back to the marketers. The playing field has gotten a lot more even. We are asking them to be a part of our community or we are asking if we can be a part of their community. We want to have this relationship with them. Again, the Lee brand is all about authenticity. It goes from not only our products to our communications but the conversations that we have on a day-to-day basis with consumers.

Ad Age: Does that shape your product development?
DenimDay.com: Interactive ground zero for all things related to Lee National Denim Day.
DenimDay.com: Interactive ground zero for all things related to Lee National Denim Day.
Ms. Cahill: Absolutely, absolutely. You have to be true to what is the Lee brand, what people expect from the Lee brand, where we came from, our history. We spoke earlier about very high-end brands. They can do a lot of different finishing. We can do that too. We know how to do that, but is it something that is really true and authentic from the Lee brand? Maybe not, because our consumers aren't necessarily looking for that from us. So we choose to stay very true to who we are and what people expect but then give them surprises, surprise and delight along the way. Show them where the trends and the fashions can take them but do them in a sensible manner.

Ad Age: You're a very old company and very traditional. Has adjusting to this whole new world of conversational marketing been smooth or has it been difficult? I'm sure your executives were not used to that situation, and suddenly in the era of blogging you must be.

Ms. Cahill: It was a little bumpy at first because we weren't really sure how to start these communications. I think a lot of brands made the mistake of trying to pitch people, pitch stories or market to them vs. having a conversation with them. Everything we do, we do with thoughtfulness, so we wanted to understand how to do it right the first time, not jump in because everybody was blogging.

Ad Age: How do you do that, though? What kind of work has to go on?

Ms. Cahill: We work very closely with our agency, and they conduct what we call a social audit. So you understand the conversations that are happening out in the blogosphere or the message boards. Then you can start getting into that conversation and getting your point across on the good things and, like I said, there is always going to be bad. I think as marketers we would love to think that everybody believes every message that we say, and sometimes they don't, and you have to explain. Sometimes all it is is that personal interaction with somebody. They get it, they're happy, and then they spread the word. Yes, I would say some of our senior executives are probably a little unsure. They understand traditional media, what a GRP is and TRP. It is easy. To understand what a blogger just said about you, they don't necessarily understand. But they are quickly understanding the magnitude of what a blogger can mean to your business.

Ad Age: I haven't heard you say much about traditional media, TV, print.

Ms. Cahill: Absolutely still there. That would be the cornerstone of everything we are doing.

Ad Age: What is your marketing budget right now?

Ms. Cahill: We really can't disclose as part of VF, but I can say that it has remained stable, and in these marketing conditions I am thrilled to be able to say that. We are just looking to be able to use the money as smart as possible. Traditional media will not go away. We know that. But how do you surround it with all of this new and emerging media?

Ad Age: In what other ways are you just trying to differentiate the brand? This is such a competitive category, as you said a bit earlier. There are just so many existing denim brands but also new entrants and the superpremium denim. VF even acquired Seven for All Mankind. That's a premium-denim brand right there. Where do you fit in, and how do you create that special attraction?

Ms. Cahill: How we do it is we really go back to what our positioning is all about, and Lee has always been the brand that fits. We are solidly on fit and comfort. So we start there. We make sure that we have a fit for every different type of shape and size that is out there. We have 120 years of heritage behind us. We were the first brand that actually designed jeans for women. So we have credibility, and we also have quality and heritage. Those are three things that new entrants can't have.

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