THE NEW KINGS OF DENIM: Over the years, BBH’s work for Levi’s has created and defined jeans advertising. Up-and-coming labels have their work cut out to compete, Mairi Clark reports

It’s hard to imagine what would have happened to the jeans market in the UK had Bartle Bogle Hegarty not been charged with relaunching Levi’s 501s in 1985 - and, with the relaunch, moved jeans from mere wardrobe standby to fashion must-have.

It’s hard to imagine what would have happened to the jeans market

in the UK had Bartle Bogle Hegarty not been charged with relaunching

Levi’s 501s in 1985 - and, with the relaunch, moved jeans from mere

wardrobe standby to fashion must-have.

’Launderette’ - actually, it was BBH’s third spot for Levi’s - featured

the model, Nick Kamen, stripping off his jeans to Marvin Gaye’s Through

the Grapevine, and was the turning point for the then unglamorous jeans

advertising market as a whole. Since then Levi’s has not merely led the

jeans market - where more than 80 per cent of sales are accounted for by

branded goods - it has pretty much defined it. Levi’s now commands 24.3

per cent of the market according to the latest report on the denim

sector from AC Nielsen MEAL.

But the jeans market has matured, and with growth comes competition.

There are more and better-merchandised brands available and Levi’s is

now facing competition from Wrangler, Easy, Lee, Pepe, Diesel and

own-label. In addition, many designers now include jeanswear in their

collections, including Paul Smith, Calvin Klein and Cerruti.

Levi’s main rivals, Wrangler and Lee, share second place with about 8

per cent of the market each, and both have declared an interest in

nudging each other into third place. But it is the designer and

own-label brands which, according to the latest figures from the

quarterly Taylor Nelson AGB Fashion Trak report, have caused Levi’s

market share to fall 8 per cent overall in the past year and a further

2.5 per cent in the past six months.

Xavier Godalo, marketing manager for Europe at Levi Strauss in Brussels,

is unruffled by these figures. He comments: ’I haven’t studied the

figures in detail, but I’m surprised. The jeans market is constantly

increasing, but I know that our volume sales in the UK are rising, if

anything. There’s something not quite right with the figures.’

Wrangler had a serious go at Levi’s in the early 90s when the brand was

in the hands of Simons Palmer Denton Clemmow and Johnson. Two ads, one

featuring a New York cab driver, the other an LA pirate radio station,

used the line ’Be a name, not a number’ in a direct reference to 501s’

supremacy. Then Wrangler switched agencies and produced a campaign based

on the Billy Crystal movie, City Slickers.

Wrangler’s current campaign was created by Nick Worthington and John

Gorse at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, the team that created BBH’s

award-winning ’drugstore’ spot for Levi’s. Based on Wrangler’s rodeo

heritage, the advertising features young, male rodeo riders enthusing

about the excitement of their jobs and how Wrangler jeans have saved

their most precious assets.

As the young men’s market is the strongest-growing part of the jeans

market at present, the strategy seems to make sense.

Worthington says: ’We went back to the root of the product. Wrangler

jeans have distinctive features on them designed for rodeo riders. They

weren’t designed as a fashion garment. They were originally a utility

garment, although they have become a fashion garment.’

Wrangler has played on its Western image for years - some argue at the

expense of the fashionable kudos that the brand needs - but Worthington

believes that the choice of previous Western imagery was misguided.

’Wrangler was always told that cowboys were uncool and irrelevant to the

brand, but that’s because the cowboy imagery they were identifying with

was the Johnny Cash/John Wayne-type which is uncool. We went to the

rodeos, and the guys that were doing the riding were 18- to

20-year-olds, full of passion and excitement about what they were doing.

They were deeply cool.’

Even Wrangler’s peers are faintly admiring about the company’s skilful

use of the Western theme in its advertising, an area several jeans

makers had examined and rejected in the past. Phil Spurr, marketing

manager for Pepe Jeans, says: ’Wrangler has recognised that people

associate its brand with cowboys. Why get rid of that? Using rodeo

images is perfect because they’re very strong, masculine images. The

City Slickers campaign probably gained female jeans buyers, but now it

needs to attract the men.’

Pepe - a brand described by Gerry Moira as ’the jeans for kids who like

a little angst in their pants, alienated anti-heroes with Kurt Cobain

posters on their bedroom walls and Henry Rollins albums on their

personal stereos’ - has had the good sense to stay off Levi’s turf. And

since moving its advertising from Leagas Delaney to the Amsterdam

agency, Kessells Kramer, Pepe’s advertising has been limited to

bus-sides and point-of-sale activity.

A few observers believe that the move was a result of Leagas Delaney’s

controversial ’tumbling’ ad, which was pulled by the Broadcasting

Advertising Clearance Centre.

Spurr comments: ’The BACC pulled it, so we said ’OK we can handle


The ad was very cutting edge and very fashion. Pepe is, essentially, a

fashion brand. We’re a British company so we don’t subscribe to the

Americana concept that Levi’s, Lee and Wrangler do. But we are a fashion

brand and you can’t tell people what’s trendy. They have to look at your

jeans, look at your brand image and say ’that’s cool’. We will take Pepe

on to TV but we have to wait until the time is right. At the moment

we’re ensuring that Pepe is seen in the right places and on the right


In its recent commercials, Levi’s has sustained its flawless production

values while moving away from its trademark ’boy-meets-girl pop promo

with some Levi’s product in there’. A number of new types of execution

have appeared from BBH, each ad startlingly different from the last -

witness the animated ’clayman’, the fast-paced ’rivetted’ and this

year’s dreamy ’mermaids’ spot.

Levi’s has also explored other media. In July 1996, it unveiled a

technique called ’magpie eyes’ - an on-screen graphic which winks at

Internet users to reveal a 20-second ad for the brand when clicked on.

Later in 1996 came the the announcement that it was to invest in short

film-making and in February the jeans maker unveiled plans to sponsor an

MTV show.

Jim Carroll, the account planner on Levi’s at BBH, argues that the

brand’s power lies more in its advanced thinking than in just creating

eminently watchable TV ads. ’TV remains a keystone in our communications

strategy,’ he says. ’But we believe that in the future the main USP in

business will be ’We did it first’.

’Other brands can copy the Levi’s formula, but they can never take away

the fact that Levi’s did it first.

We are positioned as the ’original and definitive’ jeans, a fact that we

constantly reiterate in our advertising. The challenge is to keep

consumers interested in a specific brand.’

That challenge is becoming more and more difficult as all the players in

the market seek Levi’s coveted market share. In the past couple of years

a few newcomers have joined the fray too.

When Guess Jeans won the top award for best crafted commercial at the

British Television Advertising Awards last year, few mainstream

consumers were aware of the brand, but fashion aficionados were. The US

fashion house trumpeted the rise of designer brands in the jeans

marketplace, and, with a much smaller budget, has given Levi’s the nod

for a contest. Guess isn’t alone. Calvin Klein, Cerruti, Giorgio Armani

and, most recently, Tommy Hilfiger are there too.

But Spurr underplays the threat to Levi’s: ’The only reason people buy

labels like Armani is so their mates go ’hmmm, Armani’. But labels come

and go. Most brand owners would rather see a gradual rise over a longer


The Italian clothing company, Diesel, started out 11 years ago, and its

trendy jeans were originally sold through minor retail outlets and

advertised by word of mouth. Diesel is now looking for a pan-European

agency to handle its dollars 22-million global campaign. Previous

campaigns have been handled by DDB Paradiset in Sweden, and the clothing

company has started to gain industry plaudits for its creative work. But

it is the search for a brand position, rather than just a kitsch ’look’,

that prompted Diesel to look for a more high-profile agency.

David Smith, marketing director for Wrangler, believes that Diesel’s

campaign is lacking something. ’There is a strength in what Diesel is

doing, but I think that the direction of the campaign is struggling,’ he

says. ’It hasn’t moved away from the cult following yet, which it needs

to do. The products are over-priced but they certainly have the ’trendy’

tag desired by so many brands.’

It’s that trendy tag, and the hefty price, that inspired the Easy Jeans

sales pitch. It appointed BMP DDB at the beginning of the year and has

kicked off its first press campaign. The ads show pairs of Easy jeans

hanging on radiators, lying on floors and draping over the side of

laundry baskets. The tagline changes but basically tells the consumer

that what they are buying is just a pair of jeans.

Simon Edwards, Easy Jeans’ marketing manager, suggests that Levi’s

supremacy is waning. ’We haven’t done any above-the-line advertising in

three or four years, so we’re now trying to brand ourselves as a

credible alternative to Levi’s,’ he says. And he warns: ’Levi’s will get

toppled because Americana has been played to death.’

But few really believe that Levi’s is ready to give up its denim throne,

nor is the ad industry going to stop lionising one of the few clients

that effectively validates what the business is about.

Godalo sums it up: ’While we have used American-influenced images, they

are hardly what you’d call traditional American commercials. You have to

put into context that we are trying to establish original advertising.’