Levi Strauss & Co.
Levi Strauss & Co.IT'S WIDE OPEN CAMPAIGN
LEVI'S TYPE 1 JEANS CAMPAIGN
THEY GO ON CAMPAIGN
1155 Battery St.
San Francisco, California 94111
Telephone: (415) 501-6000
Fax: (415) 501-7112
Web site: www.levistrauss.com
Clothing manufacturer Levi Strauss & Company entered the wide-leg jeans market in the summer of 1996. To celebrate the launch of its Wide Leg line, the company initiated a campaign aimed at a target market of boys age 9 to 14. The "Make Room" campaign featured television spots with male youths, looking rebellious and tough, tromping through urban settings.
In November 1996 Levi's followed up the "Make Room" campaign with the $40 million "It's Wide Open" campaign. The latter was designed to expand the target market from young boys to males up to 34 years of age. The "Elevator Fantasy" spot starred two strangers—a young man and woman wearing Levi's Wide Leg jeans—sharing an elevator ride. As the elevator descended, fantasies of romantic possibilities ensued, with visions of the couple getting married and having a child. The daydreams stopped, however, when the elevator reached its destination, and the pair emerged and parted without having spoken a word. Another spot in the "It's Wide Open" campaign was "Doctors," which spoofed television programs such as ER by showing surgeons and a patient singing and having fun in an emergency room.
Levi's goal in the "It's Wide Open" campaign was to engender popularity among trend-setting, jeans-wearing youth and to increase its market share in the highly competitive denim category. Both television spots were enthusiastically received by the public and the media, but they did little to boost Levi's denim sales.
One of the most widely known brand of jeans, Levi's was a major player in the market from its inception in 1850 to the early 1990s. Levi's became extremely popular in the 1950s among youth influenced by movie stars such as James Dean and Marlon Brando, who appeared in films wearing the company's jeans. The 1980s marked a decline in the jeans market, and Levi's profits fell as a result. Levi's then ventured into the casual clothing category and introduced its Dockers line in 1986, hoping to recapture sales especially with the baby boomer generation that had stoked Levi's popularity in the 1950s.
The denim market was revitalized in the 1990s as consumers opted for comfortable, casual clothing. The company enjoyed record sales of $7.1 billion in 1996 (with $4.3 billion attributed to U.S. sales), including $3 billion from Levi's products, but the company felt the need to increase its share of the jeans market by attracting new customers while also satisfying loyal Levi's consumers. Business Week reported that Levi's dominance in the jeans market had slipped from 30.9 percent in 1990 to 18.7 percent in 1997. The desire to reverse this decline and keep up with fashion trends was the impetus for the Wide Leg line and its accompanying marketing campaign.
The wide-leg style was popular with teenagers, particularly urban youths concerned with fashion and image. Other jeans manufacturers, however, had already introduced wide-leg and baggy jeans and established their presence in the market; Levi's had to scramble to catch up. As Alan Millstein, a New York retail consultant and editor of Fashion Network Report, stated in Business Week, "Levi Strauss was zagging when the world was zigging … The company totally missed the significance of the inner city and the huge impact it has on trends. It tells me they're sleepy in their marketing." Levi's had been preoccupied with the Dockers line and the launch of Slates, its men's dress clothing line, and may have neglected its denim division. Robert Haas, Levi's chairman and CEO, admitted in Business Week, "When you try to take on too many things, you are not as attentive to the warning signs."
Levi's first attempt to win back market share with its Wide Leg line of jeans was manifested in the "Make Room" campaign, aimed at younger boys. The campaign, launched in August 1996 in time to influence back-to-school purchases, included television ads of rebellious-looking boys traversing urban locales and making businessmen in suits nervous. The spots ran on prime-time network television shows popular with this age group such as The Simpsons and on cable channels such as MTV.
Levi's traditional target market included males between the ages of 15 and 25, but the "It's Wide Open" campaign was designed to attract men up to 34 years of age. Levi's initial Wide Leg jeans campaign, "Make Room," targeted the youth market in an attempt to gain popularity and loyalty. Because the wide-leg style evolved from the skateboarding craze generated by this age group, it seemed appropriate to gain its approval before progressing to older consumers. Fashions adopted by youths often influenced older customers as well, and Levi's hoped to benefit from this trend. In addition, the teen group was a lucrative market. Gus Floris, an associate publisher of the trade magazine Sportswear International, told the San Francisco Examiner, "… the biggest group buying jeans are teenagers. They own like eight pairs on average." Unfortunately for Levi's, its market share with the consumer group of 15- to 19-year-olds had dropped from 33 percent in 1993 to 26 percent in 1997. Gordon Harton, vice president for the Lee brand of jeans, a Levi's competitor, told Business Week, "It's very important that you attract this age group … By the time they're 24, they've adopted brands that they will use for the rest of their lives."
After responding to the youth market, Levi's quickly sought to broaden the market for Wide Leg jeans by targeting males up to age 34. "Wide leg is a huge trend for us," Steve Goldstein, vice president of marketing and research for Levi's USA, reported to Advertising Age. He added that males "are willing to and anxious to have more than one [cut of jeans] in their closet," indicating that Levi's felt there was a market for the trendy style with an older crowd.
Although Levi Strauss & Company was the largest brand-name clothing manufacturer in the world in the 1990s, it was second to VF Corporation in the manufacture of jeans. According to the 1998 Market Share Reporter, VF, the maker of Lee and Wrangler jeans, held 30.1 percent of the U.S. market, compared to Levi's 16 percent. Stores such as the Gap and designer labels, including Guess, Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein's CK, Nautica, Diesel, and Ralph Lauren's Polo, also posed competition for Levi's. As Millstein explained in the San Francisco Chronicle, "Tommy Hilfiger is king of the hill with inner-city youth … Levi's is terrified that their back-to-school business will be affected by the entry of Tommy into the jeans market."
NOT ALL WERE AMUSED
Although many people found the "It's Wide Open" campaign humorous and enjoyable, some viewers were not amused at the "Doctors" ad. Critics found the ad to be in poor taste, arguing that it made light of serious medical situations. Jill Lynch, a Levi's spokesperson, defended the ad in USA Today: "The doctor spot is clearly a spoof of TV emergency room shows … It is not intended in any way to represent real-life situations."
Private-label jeans also honed in on Levi's market share. According to the San Francisco Examiner, J.C. Penney grossed $1 billion in 1996 with its Arizona line, and Sears, Roebuck's Canyon River Blues line enjoyed sales of $200 million in 1996 and the first half of 1997. Wal-Mart and Kmart also entered the jeans market with Route 66 and Faded Glory, respectively. Levi's jeans also were sold at these stores and thus were forced to share shelf space with the lower-priced labels. Millstein told the San Francisco Examiner, "The party is over for Levi and Lee … They owned and dominated their collective brands in department stores and mass merchandisers through the '70s and '80s. Now nouveau competition is eroding their share of the market dramatically." As reported in the San Francisco Chronicle, Kurt Barnard, a New Jersey retail analyst, agreed, "The jeans business has become a cutthroat, highly competitive, overcrowded field that is extremely price oriented." Millstein summed things up in the San Francisco Examiner when he said, "There's only a finite amount of space in stores."
Levi's strategy for marketing its Wide Leg line of jeans was twofold: first, draw in the youth market, and then rely on the older male market to follow. After targeting teenagers with the "Make Room" campaign, Levi's introduced the "It's Wide Open" campaign to attract older customers without alienating the younger ones. According to Advertising Age, there was some concern that the "Make Room" ads with tough-looking young boys may have been interpreted as promoting intimidation. The "It's Wide Open" spots, on the other hand, were brazen yet humorous and played on the concept of wide-open possibilities. Geoffrey Thompson, creative director at Levi's advertising agency, Foote, Cone & Belding (FCB), indicated in the San Francisco Examiner that the spots were designed to appeal to the late teen and early 20s crowd "who are starting out on their own and appreciate irreverence." FCB account supervisor Ken Epstein told USA Today, "We were launching a new product, so we wanted to cut through the clutter and get consumers' attention." To accomplish this, FCB focused on originality and attitude rather than directly pushing the product.
The first television spot of the campaign, "Elevator Fantasy," aired in late 1996 on prime-time network television, and it was followed by "Doctors," which ran through early 1997. "Elevator Fantasy," which featured the young strangers, was set to a tune by the Partridge Family, a band easily recognized by those who grew up in the 1970s. The spot was thus progressive because it promoted a new line of Levi's jeans, yet nostalgic because the Partridge Family harkened back to the days when many members of the target market were children.
"Doctors" parodied popular television medical dramas. It presented a critically injured patient, clad in Wide Leg jeans, being rushed into an operating room. The staff hurriedly prepared to operate, with the beeping of medical machines heard in the background. The patient then pushed his oxygen mask aside and began to sing the techno-pop song "Tainted Love," a hit in the 1980s, in synchronization with the beeping. The surgical team appeared surprised, but then the head surgeon removed his surgical mask and joined in, followed by the rest of the team. They started dancing about the operating room, playing with the medical equipment and inflating surgical scrubs with oxygen tubes. The beeping suddenly stopped, replaced by a steady tone, and the patient became unconscious. A staff member yelled, "He's crashing!" and the surgical team worked to revive him. They succeeded, and the beeping resumed, allowing the patient and operating room personnel to finish the song. The spot ended with the Levi's Wide Leg logo and the tag line "Levi's Wide Leg Jeans. It's Wide Open."
According to the Washington Post, the "Doctors" spot was "intended to radiate originality and possibilities." Like the "Elevator Fantasy" ad, "Doctors" was modern and forward thinking because of the product it promoted and because it spoofed contemporary hit television shows. At the same time it evoked memories for the target market through the song "Tainted Love." Still, the spot was risky because it did not specifically focus on the product. Chuck McBride, the group creative director of FCB, admitted to the Washington Post, "The client was a little worried about its relevancy at first,… but the kids got it right away."
Both spots in the "It's Wide Open" campaign were successful in generating enthusiasm. According to Ad Track, a USA Today poll designed to measure the popularity and effectiveness of ads, of more than 85 campaigns reviewed since May 1995 "It's Wide Open" was among the top 20 in popularity. The spots were especially popular with those between the ages of 18 and 29, with 44 percent responding positively. In contrast, only 24 percent of those polled between the ages of 30 and 49 stated that they enjoyed the ads.
Both television commercials received nominations for Emmy Awards as the best commercial in 1997. "Doctors" and "Elevator Fantasy" were selected out of a pool of 237 entries that was narrowed down to 5 finalists. In addition, both spots took gold medals at the San Francisco Ad Club's annual creative competition in 1997, and "Doctors" received a Silver Lion at the 44th annual Cannes International Advertising Festival. The campaign earned a place on many lists of the best of 1996, including those of the New York Times, Adweek, and Time. FCB, Levi's advertising agency since 1930, was named the U.S. Agency of the Year for 1996 by Advertising Age, due in large part to its work for Levi's. Levi's Goldstein told Advertising Age, "They're hitting home runs … The Wide Leg campaign is the most celebrated work that's been done for us in many years."
Although the Levi's Wide Leg campaign received critical acclaim as well as recognition by the general public, it did little to boost Levi's market share in jeans. Ad Track reported that, though the spots ranked high in popularity, in terms of effectiveness they scored below the average of 26 percent. Only 21 percent of respondents considered the Wide Leg spots effective. Levi's profits reflected the poll's results, with 1997 worldwide sales of $6.9 billion, 4 percent below the record sales year of 1996.
Angwin, Julia. "Levi's Hopes Wide-Leg Jeans Will Grab Urban Youth Market." San Francisco Chronicle, July 26, 1996, p. B1.
Cuneo, Alice Z. "Advertising Age's Agency of the Year." Advertising Age, April 21, 1997.
Cuneo, Alice Z., and Pat Sloan. "Levi's Dresses Up to Battle the Competition." Advertising Age, July 29, 1996.
Emert, Carol. "Levi's Battles to Stop Slide in Market Share." San Francisco Chronicle, June 25, 1997, p. B1.
Enrico, Dottie. "Levi's Ads Wear Well with Target Audience of Young Consumers." USA Today, March 17, 1997, p. 6B.
Feuerstein, Adam, and Clifford Carlsen. "Levi Tries to Get Young People into Its Pants." San Francisco Business Times, April 14, 1997.
Garfield, Bob. "Jeans' Allure Hangs on Elevator Fantasy." Advertising Age, November 25, 1996.
Himelstein, Linda. "Levi's Is Hiking Up Its Pants." Business Week, December 1, 1997, p. 70.
Irvine, Martha. "Levi's Searching for a New Image." Columbian, November 6, 1997, p. D2.
"Levi's Refashions Its Wide Leg Ads." Advertising Age, August 5, 1996.
Span, Paula. "It Ads Up to an Emmy." Washington Post, September 6, 1997, p. D5.
Tanaka, Wendy. "Denim Derby." San Francisco Examiner, May 20, 1997, p. C1.
Levi Strauss & Co., whose founder invented blue jeans, became the jeans brand of choice for America's youth around the mid-twentieth century, but during the 1990s this began to change. After peaking in 1996 the company's sales fell steadily each year through the early years of the new millennium. In response to the changing tides of fashion, Levi Strauss in 2003 began implementing a new, segmented strategy that focused on the launch of two prominent new lines of jeans. Levi Strauss Signature jeans were a mass-market line to be sold in discount stores such as Wal-Mart, and Levi's Type 1 jeans were meant to appeal to trendsetting youth via Levi Strauss's ordinary channels of distribution. While the Signature line was seen as essential to its long-term health, the company did not want the mass-market line to upstage the main brand. Virtually all of the company's U.S. marketing in 2003, therefore, was devoted to Type 1, in the interest of updating the Levi's image for younger men and women, many of whom were increasingly turning to designer labels. The "Levi's Type 1 Jeans" campaign started on January 2, 2003.
The campaign kicked off with a "Gold Rush" consumer promotion, an interactive online treasure hunt for a pair of jewel-encrusted jeans. The promotion culminated in the airing of the campaign's initial television spot, "Stampede," during the 2003 Super Bowl broadcast. That commercial, in combination with a series of similar spots, had been meant to run through August 2003 but was deemed unworthy of Levi's by critics, including company CEO Philip Marineau, and the campaign was retooled.
Two further spots began airing in the summer of 2003 before the campaign was discontinued in the United States. The domestic launch of the Type 1 line proved disappointing. Levi Strauss continued to struggle with the perception that it was an out-of-date brand.
Bavarian immigrant Levi Strauss made canvas pants for prospectors during the California gold rush in the mid-nineteenth century before deciding on the more durable fabric that became known as denim, which Strauss further enhanced with indigo dye and copper rivets. For the company's first hundred years, Levi's jeans were the standard work pant for a wide variety of American laborers, but in the 1950s they became fashionable casual wear among young people. The successful addition of pants line Dockers, together with expansion into Europe and Asia, aided Levi Strauss's growth in the late twentieth century, and the company's global sales peaked at $7.1 billion in 1996. Between 1996 and 2001, however, sales of Levi's among young Americans plummeted. According to the Zandl Group, a youth-marketing consulting firm, only 8 percent of young people in 2001 named Levi's as their favorite brand of jeans, compared with 31 percent in 1996. In 1999 and 2000 the company closed 35 U.S. manufacturing facilities and transferred most such operations overseas.
Long known for classic styles such as the 501 jean, Levi's began introducing new lines to appeal to changing tastes. Its agency at the time, TBWA/Chiat/Day, experimented with a variety of tactics and taglines during these years, including "Opt for the Original" and "Make Them Your Own," as well as a digitized visual gag called "Crazy Legs," which attracted attention but did little to drive sales. CEO Marineau, hired away from PepsiCo in 1999, began shopping for a new agency for the Levi's account in 2001. The New York office of Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH), the London-based agency that handled Levi Strauss's more successful European and Asian advertising, won the account.
BBH's first U.S. campaign, a 2002 effort on behalf of Levi's Low-Rise jeans, used the tagline "Dangerously Low" and was intended, according to a company press release, to build on the company's "iconic brand heritage and convey that signature modern, sexy, old school rock 'n roll look of Levi's." Panned by some critics as failing to connect to the brand's longstanding virtues, the campaign did little to arrest the slide in Levi's sales and image.
In 2003 the company hoped to slow its sales decline by appealing to different market segments with the creation of two distinct brand lines. Levi Strauss Signature jeans, designed for a mass market in stores such as Wal-Mart, had a lower price than premium Levi's and were not branded with the trademark Levi's two-horse back patch or red tags. Though Signature, by giving Levi's an entrance into the growth market of discount stores, was seen as an essential part of the company's long-term U.S. sales outlook, the line was not supported by any out-of-store advertising nor mentioned in the Type 1 advertising.
The Type 1 line, conceived as a new flag bearer for the Levi's name, was designed to appeal to a fashion-conscious youth market of both genders. Type 1 jeans featured enhanced versions of the two-horse back patch, trademark rivets, and other characteristic Levi's detailing (in addition to the newly fashionable low waistband introduced in the preceding years). The jeans' new look and high-profile Super Bowl premiere were Levi Strauss's attempt, as the Wall Street Journal put it, "to convince people its brand is still cool."
Levi's and BBH envisioned this coolness as deriving from the company's authenticity and roots as well as from a modern sensibility. CEO Marineau told analysts, according to Advertising Age, that the purpose of the Type 1 ads "was to let consumers know Levi's was an 'innovation' icon, and 'no longer your mom and dad's jeans.' " The company website further described the new line as "perfect for people who make noise and speak—or sing—their minds to change the culture we live in." As the product launch progressed, Levi's research suggested that the jeans, though generally not selling as well among the youth market as the company had hoped, had found popularity among young male Hispanics and African-Americans.
Levi Strauss's largest U.S. competitor during this time was Greensboro, North Carolina-based VF Corporation, owners of a range of apparel brands that included Lee and Wrangler jeans. During this time Lee, sold in mid-market department and specialty stores, launched its One True Fit jeans, targeted at 18- to 34-year-old women and supported by a TV, print, point-of-purchase, and online advertising campaign. Lee also continued to develop its Series 66206 oversized pants and shorts line, which featured wide legs and multiple pockets, and it revived Pipes, a boys' line emulating fashions popular among skateboarders. Wrangler, meanwhile, focused on men with a 2003 advertising campaign behind its Five Star Premium Denim line. TV commercials ran during sports programming, and print ads ran in a variety of sports and outdoors magazines as well as women's publications (because women often bought clothes for men). The Five Star Collection, like the Wrangler brand generally, was sold through discount chains including Wal-Mart, Kmart, and Target.
ACROSS THE POND
Though Levi's was a struggling brand worldwide, it experienced measured success with Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH) advertising campaigns in England and Asia. In contrast to the American Type 1 campaign, the European launch of Type 1 jeans on February 13, 2003, had little to do with the brand's heritage and was well received by critics. The spot, created by BBH's London shop and using the tagline "A Bold New Breed," featured a gang of mouse-human hybrids who, while wearing Type 1 jeans, kidnapped a cat and successfully held it for ransom.
Gap Inc.'s Gap retail chain was, like Levi's, adjusting to strategic difficulties during this time. After alienating its core customers (adult buyers of basic casual khakis, jeans, T-shirts, and polo shirts) with collections aimed at young women, Gap brought in a new CEO, Paul Pressler, who presided over the retail chain's return to an emphasis on its staple products. A 2002 holiday print campaign featuring portraits of actors such as Will Ferrell and Ray Liotta was followed by a similar 2003 holiday campaign behind its Fair Isle line for women, which showcased celebrities including Claudia Schiffer, Jamie Lee Curtis and her daughter Annie Guest, and Katie Holmes. A TV campaign supporting a new line of corduroy jeans broke in the summer of 2003, featuring singers Madonna and Missy Elliott.
To launch its Type 1 jeans, Levi's announced its "Gold Rush" promotion, an online treasure hunt whose centerpiece was, in the words of a company press release, "the boldest and most valuable pair of jeans in the world." The Type 1 design features, intended to play up the brand's iconic rivets, stitching, back patch, and other detailing, were themselves accentuated, in the prize pair of jeans, with diamonds, rubies, and gold. Valued at $85,000, the jeans were part of a $150,000 package (the remainder of which came in the form of gold and cash packed into the jeans) meant to commemorate the company's 150-year anniversary. To compete for the prize package, consumers logged on to the Levi's website during the four-week period leading up to the 2003 Super Bowl. Each week one question was posted, and a correct answer gave participants access to clues about the location of the bejeweled jeans; additionally participants could play games on the site to gain access to further clues. The promotion culminated in a final clue revealed during the introductory Super Bowl spot.
The Super Bowl spot, "Stampede," combined Old West imagery with an urban backdrop in an attempt, as a company press release phrased it, "to symbolize the fusion of Levi's rich heritage with the brand's modern design sensibility." In the 60-second spot a herd of buffalo was seen stampeding through an unnamed cityscape. When the stampeding herd approached a young, stylish couple wearing Type 1 jeans, all the animals magically came to a stop before galloping around them. The ad closed with the text "Levi's Type 1 Jeans. Bold since 1853," and then the date shuffled forward before stopping at 2003.
Despite the anticipatory buzz Levi's and BBH built up around the Super Bowl spot's premiere, sales of Type 1 jeans were disappointing, and CEO Marineau publicly blamed the spot in a meeting with analysts, saying, "It wasn't a Levi's ad. It didn't have a sense of humor about itself. It was certainly a poor Super Bowl ad." BBH was ordered to rethink the campaign's two remaining television spots, and "Stampede" finished its run in March, six months earlier than had been planned.
The other TV spots appeared in the summer of 2003, in time for the back-to-school season. "Car," again relying on Western motifs, involved a contemporary cowboy outfitted in Type 1 jeans and jacket, but the sense of humor Marineau found lacking in "Stampede" now found its way into the campaign. The cowboy chased down and lassoed a wild, bucking car. As Adweek columnist Barbara Lippert stated, " 'Car' makes serious American references but also manages to be funny and wry." A second spot, "Horse," fit this same profile, showing a woman on horseback facing down a sleek, modern train.
"Car" won a Bronze Lion at the International Advertising Festival in Cannes, France, and a Silver Clio in 2004, but sales of Type 1 jeans did not live up to company projections, nor did the Type 1 campaign significantly affect Levi Strauss's flagging overall brand. The company continued to cut costs via reorganization and facility closures, shuttering all of its North American manufacturing plants in addition to many factories overseas, which were replaced by independent contractors.
In 2004 Levi's and BBH launched a U.S. print campaign, its largest ever, that signaled a departure from the strategic underpinnings of the Type 1 work. Photographed by Richard Avedon and placed in such magazines as Rolling Stone, Us Weekly, Glamour, Entertainment Weekly, and Allure, the campaign introduced portraits of real Levi's wearers organized around the theme "A Style for Every Story." The ads supported various Levi's product lines rather than focusing on any single style, and no allusion was made to the jeans maker's Western heritage.
Beatty, Sally. "Levi's Strives to Keep a Hip Image—Some Retailer Discontent Gives It Reason to Promote 'Type One' Jeans at Game." Wall Street Journal, January 23, 2003.
"CEO Can't Duck When Ads Flop." Advertising Age, April 7, 2003.
Cuneo, Alice. "Levi's CEO Blames Slow Launch on Spots." Advertising Age, March 31, 2003.
Cuneo, Alice, and Richard Linnett. "Bartle Bogle Tapped to Cure Levi's Blues." Advertising Age, January 14, 2002.
Dill, Mallorre. "A Walk on the Wild Side." Adweek, July 1, 2002.
Dolbow, Sandra. "Starring Role for Wrangler's Five Star Jeans." Brandweek, July 29, 2002.
Garfield, Bob. "Lowered Expectations: Levi's Continues Tradition of Bad Ads." Advertising Age, July 29, 2002.
Grimm, Matthew. "False Consciousness." Brandweek, January 20, 2003.
"Levi's." Advertising Age, January 27, 2003.
Lippert, Barbara. "American Beauty." Adweek, July 14, 2003.
McMain, Andrew. "Levi's Has Stories to Tell of People and Their Jeans." Brandweek, March 29, 2004.
O'Laughlin, Sandra. "Celebs Fill Holiday Campaign from Gap." Brandweek, November 10, 2003.
――――――. "Lee Jeans Launching One True Fit in Move to Extend Market Share." Brandweek, January 13, 2003.
"Type 1 Gets Makeover." Advertising Age, June 30, 2003.
Even though Levi Strauss & Company had been the cornerstone of the denim industry for over a century, declining sales plagued the company during the latter half of the 1990s. Jeans designed by competing brands such as Guess, Tommy Hilfiger, and Calvin Klein had encroached upon Levi's market share. Foote Cone & Belding, which had been Levi's ad agency since 1930, was set back after its executive creative director, Mike Koelker, resigned in 1994. Koelker had served as an adviser to Levi's chief executive, Bob Haas, and had also conceived the brand's most successful campaigns throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. Hoping to stop declining sales and revitalize its image, Levi's released its largest-ever advertising campaign, titled "They Go On."
The $90 million campaign began in 1997 and focused solely on the brand's image rather than specific products. Foote Cone & Belding created six television commercials, most 60 seconds in duration, interwoven in a dreamlike fashion. According to Levi's, the spots "are unusual in that they have no discernible beginning or end, and in many cases even rely on viewers to fill in the blanks." On September 22 the existing spots were merged with new ones to create a loosely connected drama that was released on the website NBC.com. The online segment also let viewers interact with the actors by posting messages on the website. The campaign ended in 1998.
Although increased competition in the jeans market had affected Levi's market share, the company contended that the "They Go On" campaign was intended as a celebration of the Levi's brand rather than a reaction to declining sales. The strategy proved ineffective. Even though some advertising critics initially praised the campaign, Levi's executives and ad critics later considered the campaign to be a total disaster. In 1998 Levi's reported its worst sales decline since World War II. It soon ended its 68-year relationship with Foote Cone & Belding and reassigned its account to TBWA\Chiat\Day.
Levi's, founded in 1850, had dominated the jeans industry for more than a century, surviving the ups and downs of the U.S. economy. When the denim market enjoyed revitalization in the 1990s, however, Levi's was slow to follow. Although Levi's was touted as the world's biggest apparel manufacturer and reported record sales of $7.1 billion in 1996, its market share in the jeans area had slipped. The Los Angeles Times reported figures from Tactical Retail Solutions, a firm specializing in tracking retail sales, that indicated a drop in Levi's share of the men's jeans market from 48.2 percent in 1990 to 26.2 percent in 1997. Previous efforts to restore its position had included the "It's Wide Open" campaign for Levi's Wide Leg jeans in 1996 and the ongoing "501 Reasons" campaign. Both campaigns garnered critical acclaim but failed to restore Levi's status as the jeans-market leader. Profits, in fact, rose only 1 percent during the first quarter of 1997, and in February Levi's announced that it would cut 1,000 jobs by year's end.
Spurred by declining jeans sales, the company turned to Foote Cone & Belding, its advertising agency since 1930, to help enhance Levi's image, and the decision was made to concentrate on the strength of the brand and to scrap individual product campaigns. Brad Williams, a marketing manager at Levi's USA, downplayed the significance of the new campaign strategy and explained to the San Francisco Business Times, "This is more of a campaign-driven shift than an overall strategy of the brand … Moving away from product advertising is a better way to characterize it than supplanting it." According to Advertising Age, Levi's ran a brand advertising campaign in March 1995, the first time it had done so in more than a dozen years. The campaign included two spots with the tagline "They're not Levi's jeans until we say they are," and it featured "Works Progress Administration era-style animation." The campaign was not well received, however, and the spots were short-lived.
Levi's traditional market included males between the ages of 15 and 25, and "They Go On" was designed to include this consumer group as well as older demographics. Trying to please the 15-25 age group while not alienating older customers proved a difficult task. Tom Fanoe, president of Levi's USA, told the San Francisco Chronicle, "Our target consumer is 15 to 25 years old, so every few years we're dealing with a whole new set of consumers who may or may not [have the same taste] as their older brothers or sisters." Fanoe elaborated on this problem to the Los Angeles Times, admitting, "For many years, the Levi brand was the uniform of younger people … and we were also able to nurture a relationship with people 25 years of age and older. In the last few years, that's been more problematic for us." CSC Consulting analyst Marie Drum Beninati agreed: "Boomers got older and started looking for more comfort than they can get from Levis. And while kids still wear jeans, it's a different kind of jeans—wide jeans, jeans hanging down over their derriere, jeans made from other materials."
Concurrent with Levi's loss of market share was a growing decline in popularity with the youth market that accounted for a large percentage of jeans purchases. In order to ensure future buyers, it was crucial to gain the allegiance of customers from a young age. Unfortunately for Levi's, its market share with the consumer group of 15- to 19-year-olds dropped from 33 percent in 1993 to 26 percent in 1997. Levi's learned that this statistic was not a fluke when a yearlong research project indicated that the "echo boomers," children of baby boomers, considered Levi's passé. Steve Goldstein, vice president of marketing and research for Levi's USA, told BusinessWeek, "Kids say they love the Levi's brand. But if you ask them whether it's 'with it,' they'll say no." Sixteen-year-old Irma Cruz stated in the Columbian, "Levi's are too straight, too plain … None of my friends wear them." Levi's needed to present a fashionable and modern campaign that would win over these consumers.
As more players entered the lucrative denim market in the 1990s, Levi's faced growing competition. According to the 1998 Market Share Reporter, VF Corporation, the maker of Lee and Wrangler jeans, held 30.1 percent of the U.S. market, compared to Levi's at 16 percent. Designer labels also infiltrated the market, with Guess, Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein's CK, Nautica, Diesel, and Ralph Lauren's Polo among the high-end labels fighting for market share. Gap, along with its Old Navy clothing line, also posed a threat. Private-label jeans, such as J.C. Penney's Arizona line and Sears, Roebuck's Canyon River Blues series, also entered the market and gobbled up valuable jeans dollars. According to the Tactical Retail Monitor, as reported in the Los Angeles Times, private-label jeans experienced a rise in market share from 3.2 percent in 1990 to 19.1 percent in 1997.
Alan Millstein, a New York retail consultant and editor of Fashion Network Report, told Advertising Age, "Levi's is in a pincers from the private-label and specialty brands in department stores and the designer brands." According to the Los Angeles Times, Tony Cherbak, a Deloitte & Touche retail-industry analyst, agreed with Millstein and stated, "For a long time, they were the only game in town … They were able to demand prices and dictate display. But as other brands ate into their market, retailers could turn elsewhere or make their own private label brands."
To boost its popularity with the younger market and to lure customers, Levi's chose to launch the $90 million image-building campaign based on the strength of its brand. Levi's Fanoe was quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle as saying, "The ads will be built around what the Levi's brand stands for: originality, independence and Levi's as an American icon." The biggest and most expensive campaign instigated by Levi's, "They Go On" included six television spots, five of which lasted 60 seconds and one 90 seconds. It debuted in August 1997 on prime-time network television and during telecasts of National Football League games on Fox as well as on MTV. The spots were also shown in movie theaters across the nation. The print and outdoor portions of the campaign began in October with print ads in magazines such as Rolling Stone and Sports Illustrated. Levi's home page on the World Wide Web provided additional ad information, and the campaign included bilingual spots in Spanish and English for viewers in the Los Angeles and Houston areas. Levi's expected 94 percent of its target consumers to see the campaign an average of 15 times each.
Several of the spots in the Levi's "They Go On" campaign featured appearances by celebrities. Author Quentin Crisp appeared as a patron in a nightclub, and musician Lenny Kravitz was the rock star stuck at a gas station's pay phone. The bag boy in "Bag Boy Fantasy" was played by Brian Vaughan, the actor who had portrayed the young Brad Pitt character in the film Seven Years in Tibet, and the riled agent of the rock star was played by Bodhi Elfman, son of Danny Elfman, musician and member of the rock band Oingo Boingo.
The six television spots shared a loosely interwoven narrative. Common elements linked the spots, but the elements were often random, and viewers had to pay close attention to notice the connections. As Amy Rosenthal, the senior marketing specialist at Levi's USA, explained to the Dallas Morning News, "We call it dream logic … There's no beginning, middle or end, just a series of little vignettes. Nothing much happens, but they are connected in interesting ways by interesting things." The strategy was similar to those adopted by competitors Lee and Guess, both of which produced television spots that were like minifilms that told stories, albeit nebulous ones, designed to push an image rather than a product. It was believed that this soft-sell approach would appeal to teenagers who had become jaded about pushy advertising. In the Dallas Morning News James Twitchell, author of Adcult USA, commented on the Levi's campaign by remarking, "It's the ultimate super-soft sell, so soft there's no sell at all … Advertising has become so omnipresent, the only way to cut through it is with something that doesn't look like an advertisement."
Levi's hoped that the target consumer would be engaged by the spots and encouraged to view all of them. Unlike other episodic campaigns that televised one spot at a time, Levi's chose to show the commercials in groups of two or three in an attempt to draw in the viewer and to signify that the spots were indeed related. Andy Berkenfield, Foote Cone & Belding account manager and vice president, told the Dallas Morning News, "You do worry with this sort of episodic storytelling that it will be confusing, so you try to make it pretty obvious, especially early on."
The first spot, the 90-second "Impala Man," featured a man wearing a cowboy hat who drove a Chevrolet Impala filled with stuffed animals to a diner. In the diner he talked to D.J. Marcus, a New York-bound disc jockey, and gave away a stuffed dinosaur. The following spot, "Car Chase," starred a Kojak-obsessed cab driver employed by a plainclothes policeman to chase a thief making a getaway on a moped. The cab driver engaged in a high-speed chase, with the nervous officer in the backseat. In the third spot, "Ice Cream Man," the disc jockey from the first spot returned as a disc jockey in a trendy nightclub, an ice cream man would not hand over ice cream to young children unless they correctly answered difficult trivia questions, and a rock musician spoke on a pay phone at a gas station. "Bag Boy Fantasy" showed the agent of the rock star on a cellular phone in a grocery store while the bag boy daydreamed of being a rock star. "Test Drive," the fifth installment, included a girl who took a car on a test drive, with the dealer in the backseat making sales claims. She stopped to pick up her boyfriend and then drove to a coffee shop. The final spot, "Car Wash," featured a goggles-clad man who drove an AMC Gremlin through a car wash with the windows rolled down, thus washing the inside and outside of the car. As he exited the car wash, the Impala from the first spot drove by.
A team of 40 engineers from NBC Digital Productions merged the six original spots with new commercials to create a drama series that debuted on September 22, 1997. The drama appeared exclusively on NBC.com, which used "They Go On" to promote the network's new Snap! website browser created by the technology publisher CNET. Returning characters such as D.J. Marcus and the Impala man were featured along with the new characters Chloe and Zack. At certain arranged times the actors interacted with website visitors via a message board.
It was revealed in the April 26, 1999, issue of Adweek (eastern edition) that both the online "They Go On" drama series and earlier spots were the result of a new advertising agenda set in place by Gordon Shanks, the president of operations in the Americas for Levi's. In early 1997 Shanks had requested that Foote Cone & Belding make the campaign "reinforce Levi's brand values across all consumers in all categories." In response, the agency's creative director Chuck McBride created a 30-second spot that spoofed the current baggy-pants trend while simultaneously touting Levi's own baggy Wide Leg jeans. The zany commercial featured a young man being operated on by dancing surgeons. Although representatives from Foote Cone & Belding believed the commercial would resonate well with younger consumers, Shanks rejected it. As a result, much of the agency's talent left, and the remaining creatives released the more elusive "The Go On" spots in August.
When the campaign first aired, Levi's reported positive feedback regarding the "They Go On" campaign from young consumers, and it won critical praise for its originality. The Los Angeles Times rated the campaign a three out of four for effectiveness, and the Orange County Register scored it an A-for its concept. Bob Garfield, columnist and reviewer for Advertising Age, gave "They Go On" three out of four stars.
Unfortunately for Levi's the praise was short-lived. The company posted a 4 percent sales decline in 1997. That same year Levi's announced that it would close 11 U.S. factories and lay off nearly one-third of its workforce. Clothing-industry consultant Harry Bernard of Colton Bernard, Inc., told the Columbian, "I think ['They Go On' is] probably the most unfocused ad campaign that they've ever had … I think they've lost track of who and what they are." Other advertising analysts accused Levi's of specifically losing touch with its teenage customers. John Flanagan of the youth-marketing consultancy Thermostat explained to Adweek (eastern edition) that Levi's "wasn't monitoring the streets, they fell asleep."
In 1998 Levi's posted its worst sales loss since World War II. Furthermore, according to a study conducted by the retail-industry analysts Tactical Retail Monitor, Levi's market share of U.S. jeans plummeted from 31 percent in 1990 to 16.9 percent in 1998. Levi's executives partially blamed Foote Cone & Belding for their company's downturn. Agency representatives blamed Levi's Gordon Shanks for trying to target such a wide demographic. In early 1998 Levi's ended its 68-year relationship with Foote Cone & Belding, but it continued using the "They Go On" tagline until mid-1998.
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