CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE/LEVI'S - A new twist in Levi's quest to win back consumers. Will Levi's latest ad give the flagging brand a new lease of life, Camilla Palmer asks

A vintage car pulls up at a gas station, complete with tumbleweed and freaks sipping coffee in the nearby diner. The friends spill out on to the forecourt, eager to be free of their confined space, and begin to stretch tired muscles.

A vintage car pulls up at a gas station, complete with tumbleweed and freaks sipping coffee in the nearby diner. The friends spill out on to the forecourt, eager to be free of their confined space, and begin to stretch tired muscles.

As they do so, something strange happens. It starts with a swivelling wrist and escalates to all five passengers contorting and twisting to a thumping soundtrack. Heads and torsos rotate and limbs fly into strange positions before they all pile back in the car and zoom off into the sunset.

This is no horror movie - it's the latest ad for Levi's Engineered Jeans, shot by Frank Budgen through Gorgeous Films and created by Bartle Bogle Hegarty. The campaign, which runs across TV, cinema, print, outdoor and digital, represents the company's latest bid to wrestle back its share of the denim clothing market and, according to the marketing manager for Northern Europe, Rachel Johnson, 'make the brand cool again'. The pounds 5 million spend is the most Levi Strauss has poured into a UK campaign.

While BBH has consistently produced highly creative work for Levi's since it began handling the account in 1982, it has changed strategy three times since the long-running 501 campaign was dumped in 1998.

Johnson is quick to affirm her devotion to BBH's work, however. She says that the strategy to promote the entire Levi's brand by backing only the Engineered Jeans relies heavily on BBH's intimate knowledge of the brand.

There was less understanding from Levi's US marketing department, which sacked its long-term agency Foote Cone & Belding from the dollars 90 million account in favour of TBWA/Chiat/Day as Levi's sought an advertising overhaul.

At the time, the company stressed there was nothing wrong with the ads, several of which had won awards, but said the long-term health of the brand needed attention. Since then, viral marketing, aimed at infiltrating the youth market, has been a core strategy. It's this which Johnson is keen to emulate.

'Twisted' is a continuation of the campaign, that broke early last year, and marks the company's commitment to its Levi's Engineered Jeans sub-brand.

The 'Jeremy Clarkson' effect was blamed for a slump in denim sales in the late 90s, which led to the demise of the 501 campaign.

It was replaced with a generic branding campaign, which was rapidly dropped in favour of the Flat Eric work for the Sta-Prest label. Despite the popularity of the Flat Eric work, Sta-Prest was withdrawn and the company began to put its marketing muscle behind Engineered Jeans.

In fact, Levi's suffered from the popularity of its early 501 advertising in the long run. The tales of how jeans sales soared by 800 per cent after Nick Kamen took off his 501s in 1984's 'launderette' ad are now part of advertising folklore.

But while the 13 ads in the series raised the brand's profile, created several hit records for classic artists and cemented the company's relationship with its agencies, it also made the jeans so popular that they became commonplace.

Johnson admits Levi's is fighting some tough competition from younger, more youth-oriented brands - the company has seen a 15 per cent slump from its 90s heyday, when it had 30 per cent of the global demin market. But she claims the 'twisted to fit' campaign is the perfect way to combine the jeans' heritage with innovation.

'We have a responsibility to drive innovation within the demin market, and we did not move quickly enough when it really mattered,' Johnson says.

'The first two campaigns, launched last February with a second tranche in September 2000, focused on the 'twisted to fit' jeans and were about establishing awareness. With the new work, we want to get across the benefit of the product,' she adds.

She admits Levi's has lost out to quick-thinking and much smaller rivals such as Diesel and Evisu, which have positioned themselves as cult brands within its target youth market. 'Before, Levi's wasn't giving them anything new, and we needed to find a focus which would demonstrate style and comfort,' Johnson stresses.

Diesel, which has just appointed the Dutch agency Kessels Kramer to continue its ten-year history of iconic ads, is seen as a hotter choice, along with the Japanese brand Evisu. Other up-market brands eating away at Levi's territory include Earl Jean and Denime. The brand is also being pinched from below, with own-label demin sales from the likes of Gap booming.

The launch of the latest Levi's campaign coincides with the relaunch of Falmer by CDP.

The company went into receivership in 1998, and was bought by the discount retailer Matalan last year. The campaign echoes Levi's press work, relying on the physiques of the models in the ads to showcase the product.

Despite all the competition, Johnson shrugs off claims that focusing on the Engineered Jeans range represents a short-term fix to a long-term problem: ' It's early days in a revival of the whole sector, and this is not a quick fashion trend.'

Johnson rejects claims that the product is too radical. The bias-cut jeans are definitely different, but she says consumers are hungry for change. 'When 501s appeared, they too were considered pretty challenging for consumers - they were flat-fronted, had button-flies and looked better the more you wore them,' she argues.

However, traditional jeans remain a core offering of Levi's, unlike the Sta-Prest range. It's a harsh indictment of the brand when the character used in the ads becomes an icon rather than the product itself.

'Twisted' was written by BBH's Mark Hunter and art directed by Tony McTeer.

'It's a good mix of special effects combined with the solid but quirky twisted theme,' BBH's creative director, Russell Ramsey, says.



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