Finding a fit for Levi's

Global CMO Jennifer Sey discusses how the company's jeans can blend populism and aspiration

Levi's "A Beautiful Morning" by FCB West.
Levi's "A Beautiful Morning" by FCB West.

Jennifer Sey, Levi’s global CMO since 2013, inherited a historic brand at a tough time. She likes to say that Levi’s are well known as the best jeans in the world, and maybe that’s true. But like the denim market overall, sales are slowing.

In 2014 Levi’s global revenue was essentially flat, and it slumped 6% in the second quarter of 2015. Net revenue in the US did only a little better, sinking 4% in the second quarter.

Check out Sey’s latest salvo in the fight to boost sales, a 60-second spot from FCB West, "A Beautiful Morning." The work is the latest installment in the global marketing campaign "Live in Levi’s."

"The goal is to democratize the Levi’s name, bringing it back to the center of the market and to the center of culture," said Karin Onsager-Birch, FCB West’s chief creative officer. But critics say the ads, while certainly beautiful and stylish, have yet to capture the populist power of the iconic, 140-year-old brand.

Sey says advertising is just part of the mix in her mission to make the brand feel both accessible and aspirational. A national gymnastic champion in her youth, Sey understands the hard work and nuance that goes into a well-balanced execution. She offers Campaign US her view of the challenges of working on a mainstream brand with a maverick soul.

The Levi’s brand has been around for so long that it has many facets  – its history, its innovations, its sex appeal and it’s inclusiveness, for starters. But people wonder: What facet is foremost? In simple terms, what does the Levi’s brand stand for in 2015?
It offers the emotional benefits of self-expression, whether you are younger or older. Other brands don’t own that. Consumers tell us one brand is their party jeans; another brand is their stay-at-home jeans.  But Levi’s are who you are. When you’re going on a road trip and you can only pack one pair of pants, you pack your Levi’s.

Critics say your recent ads are beautiful and sexy, but brand consultant Toby Southgate of Brand Union, for instance, asks if the people in the ads really are people who would credibly buy Levi’s denim. What is your answer?
Yes, they would buy Levi’s. Jeans are a sexy category; people want to look sexy in their jeans. The new ad is setting up an aspirational view of that. It’s part of our effort to find a delicate balance between being aspirational and accessible. Luxury brands only need to be aspirational, but it’s imperative for us to balance both those pillars.

If your ads show consumers something to aspire to — which may be a bit out of their reach — then how do you address the accessible pillar of your marketing balance, where you communicate that these are clothes made for everybody?
In our ad for the new women’s denim collection with singer/songwriter Alicia Keys, we use real women and real musicians. We conducted streetcasting to find people for the work. The spirit of the launch ad, which broke in July, is that it’s about real women.

Beyond that, we show a range of men and women in our in-store signs, including models, everyday people and employees.  And our social media marketing also engages real people. 

How does innovation, such as new kinds of stretchy denim and jeans made from recycled materials fit into your brand’s identity?
It’s always been there; we’ve always been innovators. Levi’s invented the category of blue jeans, and we’ve continued to innovate since then. For instance, we came up with the commuter line — clothing purposely designed for urban bicycle commuters. Also, our waterless initiative is now woven into the way we manufacture, using no water. These ideas all come from our Eureka Lab in San Francisco next to our headquarters offices.

You hosted an internal global marketing summit last week. What surprised you in the feedback you got from your teams around the world?
China. I was surprised by how well the marketing work with Alicia Keys is resonating there, despite Alicia being lesser known.

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