NEW MEDIA: SPOTLIGHT ON LEVI'S - Levi's seeks balance between the old and the new

A new-look website recalls Levi's past and looks to the future, Alasdair Reid writes.

"The Levi's brand is all about innovation," Helene Venge, Levi's digital marketing manager, says, explaining the thinking behind the relaunch of the Levi's European website. It comes complete with a split-screen divided by a bar across the middle and an innovative approach to navigation.

Innovation? It's true that Levi's has always been at the forefront of digital marketing techniques (the invention of I-Candy, the first commercial use of Shockwave, the first effective use of viral) but it's also true that there sometimes seemed to be a gap between the company's aspirations on the web and its image in the store.

Those with longer memories can remember a time not so very long ago when innovation wasn't exactly top of the Levi's brand value agenda - though ceaseless reinvention is clearly at the heart of the company's success over the past couple of decades.

Having established its global positioning as an anti-fashion statement at the heart of counter culture, Levi's left Woodstock behind during the 80s and repositioned itself (especially in Europe) as a classic US brand, signing up Nick Kamen and soul classics to reinvigorate its 50s Eisenhower-era heritage. It seemed to lie somewhere between Coke and Cadillac.

In recent years, it's been heading into weirder scenes - still on the wrong side of the tracks, of course, but desperately trying to leave cuddly old Bruce Springsteen visions of darkness at the edge of town and instead attempting to inhabit the edgier fashion/music scene owned by the likes of Jockey Slut magazine.

The problem is that it's been terribly hard to convey this sort of aspiration on the web. The previous site evoked a William Burroughs-type landscape - but got it hilariously wrong. "The halogen glow from sputtering streetlights sucks shadows in and spits them out on dark anonymous sidewalks," read the prose of one attempt to evoke desolate 3am streets. Sucks is the word.

Many also found the site over-elaborate. For instance, you had to "interact" your way down a mean street of story boards and into a phone booth to find out where your nearest store was.

That's perhaps why Venge is emphasising not only innovation but a break from the past, though the philosophical commitment to a "visually rich" approach will clearly remain - the fashion for cool Scandinavian minimalism on the web is one that Levi's was never really sold on.

In the new site (courtesy of Lateral, which won the account from Good Technology back in January), Levi's has extracted itself from the twilight zone and now the approach is far more (to put it crudely) the fashion shoot. The most strikingly innovative aspect of the site is the split-screen idea. But isn't it rather gimmicky? Not really, Jon Baines, the chairman of Lateral, says. "If it is, it's gimmicky for a purpose. It's there to cross sell different aspects of the brand."

In other words, when people are navigating their way into the site using the top section of the screen, they can choose to see different aspect of the "brand experience" in the bottom section.

"We have to make sure that the Levi's brand is making a clear statement online and do it with attitude and maybe break a few rules too. It's important that our approach to the internet is different. It's also a very emotional brand - we have to capture that in an interactive and innovative way," Venge says.

And this strategy is more appropriate than ever now that the company can point to a genuine track record in the launch of innovative new products with Type 1 following the Engineered product in attracting widespread acclaim.

Now the goal is to maintain a site that is a consistent destination for potential customers all the year round, not just one that people visit twice a year when stimulated by TV campaigns. Levi's is also seeking to make it a more seamless experience by abandoning the use of bolt-on microsites; and it's also designed to be hugely flexible - for instance, it must be relevant to every young person right across Europe, so local information must be accommodated easily.

In fact, flexibility is one of the cornerstones of the new approach.

And actually, this brings us right back to the broader Levi's heritage, because there will be an archive zone in the site that will feature old Levi's commercials.

Paradoxical? Not really, Venge says. After all, the company is currently making a big fuss about the 130th anniversary of the Levi's brand. "There is a juxtaposition between heritage and modernity. It's amazing how interested people have always been in our advertising - and not just the current ads," Venge says.