How Levi's remains true blue after 165 years

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Credit: Illustration by Tam Nguyen/ Ad Age

Every second that goes by marks another sale for one of Levi's most popular items. But if you're thinking that's a pair of jeans, you're wrong.

Levi Strauss & Co. might have started as a jeans purveyor, but it has since moved beyond its single-product roots into a more diversified mix of apparel offerings, including a robust global T-shirt business nearing $1 billion in sales. At 165 years old, Levi's is a lifestyle brand for the masses.

"Our T-shirt business is on fire," says Jen Sey, senior VP and CMO at Levi Strauss, referring to the signature batwing logo shirts.

Few brands—and logos—have had such enduring appeal, especially at a time when the apparel and retail landscape is littered with the bones of denim rivals. Levi's was near the graveyard itself nearly two decades ago. A merchandising overhaul that moved away from trendy but forgettable offerings into a collection with a more long-lasting, classic appeal, combined with an invigorating marketing platform and focus on digital innovation, have helped the brand avoid such a fate.

Now, under CEO Chip Bergh's leadership, which began in 2011, the San Francisco-based brand is hoping to grab more apparel market share through modernized tech and customization offerings designed to court younger consumers. It's also creating a tourist destination with the opening this month of a new 17,000-square-foot flagship store in Times Square. And it's weighing in on social issues like gun control to resonate with youth increasingly looking to marketers to take on causes.

"The heritage of the brand, and yet being modern, is always the tension Levi's has to deal with," says Kevin Keller, E.B. Osborn professor of marketing at Dartmouth University's Tuck School of Business. "Here's a brand that has so much heritage, but you can't let that define who you are, you've got to be modern, moving forward and relevant to a much younger audience."

Stuck in the middle

Levi's recently reported its fourth consecutive quarter of double-digit revenue growth. For the third quarter, which ended Aug. 26, Levi's generated net revenue of $1.4 billion, a 10 percent rise over the same period a year earlier. Net income for the quarter was $130 million, or 45 percent more than last year. This growth follows a strong 2017, when Levi's logged revenue of $4.9 billion, its highest sales in a decade.

These tallies are still a far cry from the brand's '90s heyday, when Levi's enjoyed revenue topping $7 billion driven in part by its iconic "Levi's 501 Blues" campaign from a decade earlier. But that momentum could only protect the label for so long when a host of rivals were popping up and stealing share. By the end of the '90s, Levi's faced competition from below—Gap was ramping up its denim offerings, while department stores were creating their own private-label jeans brands, such as JC Penney's Arizona brand—and from above, with the advent of designer denim, such as 7 for All Mankind and Citizens of Humanity. By the early 2000s, Levi's occupied the unenviable position of the middle, where it was squeezed from all sides. It tried to react by chasing trends, to disastrous effect.

"When you work in a trendy business like fashion and apparel, you can get afraid of not being cool and chase it in an inauthentic way," says Sey. "We did some of that and it didn't resonate with consumers."

Credit: Illustration by Tam Nguyen, Composite image istock

It also dabbled in different agency relationships. FCB created "501 Blues," but since then, Levi's has worked with a host of creative agencies including TBWA\Chiat\Day and BBH as it tried to reposition itself in the apparel marketplace. The brand returned to FCB in 2014, and has spent the ensuing four years trying to snatch back market share.

"Levi's has momentum now," says Dartmouth's Keller. "They're in the right place, but they've got to keep working on it."

In the world of denim, Levi's is still battling others for consumer dollars. In the $95.5 billion worldwide denim market, Levi's commanded just 5.3 percent of market share in 2017, roughly flat with its share five years ago, according to market research firm Euromonitor International. In the U.S., the denim market is contracting—sales were down for the category by 13 percent during the five-year period between 2012 and 2017, Euromonitor found. As the opportunities in denim diminish, Levi's has turned to other offerings, like its T-shirt business, to boost sales as it labels itself a lifestyle brand, not just a jeans purveyor.

All-inclusivity

A large part of Levi's recent resurgence can be traced back to the "Live in Levi's" marketing platform, which positions the label as a brand for all activities, like road trips or cliff jumps or even weddings. Under the marketing helm of Sey, whose tenure with the company dates back nearly two decades, Levi's unveiled the tagline four years ago with advertising agency-of-record FCB West.

The brand is also steadily increasing its marketing investment. Last year, Levi's spent $47.4 million on measured media in the U.S., up from $34 million in 2016, according to Kantar Media.

"They got back to what the brand stood for," says Simon White, chief strategic officer at FCB West. "It was back to being an inclusive democratic brand for everyone—from rock stars to hippies to businessmen. That all-inclusivity is what propels it forward."

Such a "welcome to everyone" attitude was particularly evident in Levi's "Circles" spot last year, one of the most-watched ads on YouTube. In the 90-second piece, various individuals, ranging in ethnicity, age and religion, demonstrate their kind of dancing. "Men, women, young, old, rich, poor, gay, straight. Let's live how we dance. Live in Levi's," flashes onscreen at the end of the video.

"Historically, they've been very progressive and conscientious—a civically minded organization," says Joe Oh, chief executive officer at FCB West, noting that Levi's has recently taken public stances on a variety of subjects. "They're speaking up now given the time we're living in."

Indeed, Levi's has become more vocal on social issues, joining other companies such as Dick's Sporting Goods and Nike, which have taken a stand on many disputes dividing the nation. In a letter in Fortune in September, Bergh wrote about supporting gun safety—referencing an incident in which a shopper's gun discharged two years ago—with fundraising and nonprofit partnerships. The company is now working with Michael Bloomberg's Everytown for Gun Safety movement on gun control measures. "You may wonder why a company that doesn't manufacture or sell guns is wading into this issue, but for us, it's simple," Bergh wrote. "Americans shouldn't have to live in fear of gun violence. It's an issue that affects all of us—all generations and all walks of life."

Taking a stand

While some applauded the move—actress Jamie Lee Curtis tweeted, "Time to break out my old Levi's 501s"—others were less enthusiastic.

"Because your anti-gun status, I just bought my first pair of jeans that were not Levi's. Why did you have to go political. Sad FYI new jeans are working out well. PS: Guns protect many more people than they hurt," tweeted one consumer.

Levi's is collaborating with Justin Timberlake
Levi's is collaborating with Justin Timberlake Credit: Levi's

Among conservative shoppers, Levi's brand buzz and purchase consideration dropped following Bergh's remarks, according to YouGov, a market research and data analytics firm.

Also in September, Levi's was back in the spotlight with a campaign encouraging consumers to register to vote; the brand ran a follow-up push the week ahead of Election Day. Meanwhile, the brand is also continuing its sustainability efforts, and plans to make 80 percent of its products with less water by 2020.

"We have been active in these areas for a long time … but we weren't talking about it to the consumer," says Sey, noting that the brand was an early supporter of LGBTQ and worker rights. "Now we are, because we know the consumer cares and it's differentiating. We feel we have a leg to stand on, we're not just jumping on the bandwagon."

In addition to FCB, Levi's also works with AKQA on digital initiatives and OMD on media, though it has been diversifying by project to other agencies, Sey says, noting that the days of one agency handling everything are over. Like many companies, Levi's has its own growing internal marketing team, which comprises more than 40 staffers. A large portion of the growth comes from expanding Levi's e-commerce and digital content capabilities as the brand's product mix and offerings evolve.

Some of those new offerings include a customization studio, which will be at the new Times Square location, where shoppers can individualize their products with chain stitching or artwork—like at a tattoo parlor. Levi's has also been infusing new products with technology when it can. Late last year, it unveiled a trucker "commuter jacket" with Google, allowing customers to digitally connect their devices. A more recent iteration included the ability to get car ridesharing alerts, from Uber or Lyft, while wearing the coat.

Levi's is also mixing up its fashion products, with new collaborations with celebrities including Justin Timberlake and Lily Aldridge, a strategy executives say is contributing to its increasing popularity with every type of shopper—particularly younger generations. Timberlake's collection goes beyond jeans to include Western shirts and graphic T-shirts, while Aldridge incorporates track trousers and denim trench coats.

On a recent analyst call, Bergh said: "We have high expectations that these investments in marketing will make a big impact and keep the brand at the center of culture."

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