How does a company with over 160 years of heritage tap in to the 21st century market? As Levi’s launch their new $100m campaign, we talk to the company’s president to find out
Do you remember your very first pair of Levi’s? This writer does. It was the year 2000 and, inspired by Britney Spears’ just-so denim cut-offs in the Don’t Let Me Be the Last to Know video, I took a pair of scissors to my mum’s vintage 501s. My mum may not have been best pleased, but I loved my newly-sheared shorts. Whilst Britters only saw fit to pair her with an itsy-bitsy bikini top, I wore mine with everything: over tights in winter, with oversized tees and sandals in summer, with a simple vest on lazy Saturdays spent catching up on laundry and, well, watching more Britney Spears videos.
It’s likely that you too have a similar tale to tell (albeit with less Britney Spears references) – with over one billion pairs sold, pretty much everyone has a Levi’s story. And it’s precisely this sentiment that the brand are looking to tap into with their newly-launched Live In Levi’s campaign, which comes complete with a cool short film starring a host of real life Levi’s wearers from across the globe As with any good modern campaign, there’s a social aspect too – fans of the brand are being encouraged to share how they #LiveInLevis on social platforms.
The campaign marks a significant shift in direction for the heritage label, one they’ve put serious investment behind; the final cost is close to the $100m mark. So it comes as a surprise to learn that the initial idea for the campaign was conceived not in a Levi’s boardroom or the offices of an expensive creative agency, but in a Brussels train station, where the simple genius of the phrase ‘live in Levi’s’ – essentially a rejigging of the letters in the brand’s name – came to the company’s president, James Curleigh (or JC, as he’s known to his employees) and a colleague as they waited for a delayed train.
“For 140 years, no-one went there,” JC says of the phrase in a room at New York’s Standard Hotel. “We took it to a bunch of really good creatives. A week later they were like, ‘we can’t make this better. This is it.’ We nailed it: live in Levi’s. It’s not a tagline, it’s not just an ad; it’s a philosophy, a way of life for us – and for our fans.”
I don’t offer up my Britney shorts story to illustrate his point, but I don’t need to – JC has plenty of examples of his own, from the story of one fan who wrote the brand to tell them how they’d got married in their Levi’s right through to one of the label’s more famous fans, Richard Branson – a ‘great guy’, JC tells me – who was so taken with a tailor-made Levi’s tuxedo he wore to a black tie event that he took to his personal blog to share his joy. “That was a real live in Levi’s moment,” JC says, showing me the blog post on his iPad. “It wasn’t us asking him to do anything, it was him wanting to tell how he lives in Levi’s. It was very cool.”
‘Cool’ is a questionable term to apply to Richard Branson, or indeed to the crop of West Coast tech CEOs – Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, the late Steve Jobs – that JC is keen to point out are Levi’s wearers, especially as he confesses that the brand needs to “reconnect with this whole youth movement.” How can the label strike a balance between appealing to the cool kids whilst still retaining the mass appeal that has made it the unrivalled market leader in denim? The answer is authenticity. “It’s not fast fashion, it’s not fickle, it’s not novelty,” JC explains. “There are so many brands that I call conveyor belt brands – they ride a conveyor belt for a couple of years and then they fall off. In that moment they bring a little energy, but true brands stand the test of time.”
That’s certainly true of Levi’s. Founded in 1853, the brand’s original target market was not the trend-setters or style leaders of the day, but the gold miners of California who needed quality, durable work wear– and thus jeans were invented. “It’s one of the most important things [about Levi’s], and one that often goes undiscussed,” JC tells me, leaning in excitedly. “We invented the blue jean. Apple didn’t invent the phone or the computer, or music for that matter. Starbucks didn’t invent coffee. Richard Branson didn’t invent airlines or record stores. What they’ve done is turn a commodity or a transaction into an experience, making it that much better. But we innovated something that never existed, and that to me is the simple starting point: we’re original, we have authenticity, and we’ve earned our heritage over the years.” And, despite Levi Strauss’ eureka moment happening over 160 years ago, JC is keen to stress that innovation is once again at the core of the brand. “We’re starting to act much more like a start-up than the legacy brand we are,” he says, pointing to the company’s innovation lab in San Francisco where they test new fabrics, cuts and techniques. “That’s what a start-up would so,” JC insists. “A start-up has the garage, is has the kitchen, it has the place where they make things, where they create the future. So now we have that.”
As our interview nears its end, I ask JC what he’s like his Levi’s legacy to be, and he tells me it’s that “150 years from now people say, ‘something happened in 2014 that set it [Levi’s] up for a really great run.’” With such an iconic brand in his hands – not to mention that $100m spend on his head – I wonder whether the sheer responsibility of steering the Levi’s ship ever keeps him up at night? “I sleep pretty well,” he jokes, before adding: “What keeps me awake at night is [thinking] what if we didn’t take advantage of this opportunity? If we just took it for granted because we invented the blue jean so it’s all going to be okay? Hope is not a strategy.”
Only time will tell if JC’s actual strategy, his Live in Levi’s campaign, will secure his – and the brand’s – legacy in the years to come. But, given the fact that one of the first things I do when I arrive home after my trip to New York is dig out those long-forgotten, Britney-inspired 501 shorts from the depths of my wardrobe, the signs are good.