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Old Pants, New Tricks: How Levi’s Meets The Challenges Of A Modern Heritage Brand

Chief Marketing Officer Jennifer Sey talks about Levi’s brand values, its latest global ad campaign, and more.

Old Pants, New Tricks: How Levi’s Meets The Challenges Of A Modern Heritage Brand

For the central commercial of Levi’s newest global ad campaign, which launched in August, people of all stripes, sizes, and cultures get down in the international language of a dance circle.

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It’s an obvious nod to the need to find common ground amid the divisive culture in which we find ourselves, and even though a pair of pants can’t actually have values, the brand is clearly trying to say something here.

At first glance it may smell a whole lot like Levi’s own “Hardcut: Cheetos” moment , but chief marketing officer Jennifer Sey says the brand has been advocating for its values since Levi Strauss himself donated his very first profits to an orphanage back in 1853, up to a long history of supporting causes, such as HIV/AIDS. In a blog post launching the campaign, the brand also noted the Levi’s Foundation recent commitment to donate $1 million in grants to organizations that protect the civil liberties of vulnerable communities across the United States and abroad.

“We didn’t want it to feel opportunistic, but the fact is the truth is on our side here,” says Sey. “We’ve been very vocal supporters for many decades on issues around equality, and non-discrimination. We were one of the very first companies to support same-sex partner benefits. So whether or not people know this about us, it’s true.”

Planning for this campaign actually began last fall, but Sey admits the cultural climate has added significance to its marketing message.

“We weren’t racing to get something done just to jump into the conversation, this was something we wanted to say and get it right,” she says.

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This newest campaign is just the latest example of how Levi’s has managed to leverage its status as a heritage brand with a global reach, while still maintaining a cool, modern image. It may seem easy, but Sey, who’s been at the company for 18 years, says being a heritage brand isn’t always cool. Levi’s annual sales peaked in 1997 at $7.1 billion, but thanks to challenges to its denim dominance from the high end from premium jeans brands, and competition from Walmart, Old Navy and The Gap in the mid to low-end of the price scale, by the mid-2000s it had dropped to about $3 billion.

“The fact we’re a heritage brand is a double-edged sword,” she says. “People do know us and respect us, but that doesn’t mean they’re buying our products. You really run the risk of being perceived as dusty and old. You can’t try too hard to be current. You have to find that sweet spot that honors the heritage but absolutely expresses a relevant point of view today.”

Thanks to a solid combination of product innovation and creative marketing, 2017 is expected to be the company’s fifth consecutive year of profits growth. But Sey knows the dangers of going from cool to complacency.

“What keeps me up at night right now is, we’ve had a strong degree of success in the last four years, and continue to build on that with not just marketing but new products that engage consumers, so how do we continue that? How do we not rest on our laurels?” she says. “We can’t just cut and paste from the year before. We need to keep it fresh and new, and charm the consumer. and when you have such a broad consumer base like we do, that’s even more of a challenge.”

For its part, the brand continues to push that balance between heritage cool and innovation, whether it’s through sustainability or developing cutting-edge products like the new connected jean jacket created with Google tech. Or a new ad that attracts more than 21 million views on YouTube alone.

“When things were toughest, in my early days here, we weren’t really innovating new products at the rate we needed to, relying too much on those heritage products, but it’s got to be both,” says Sey. “There are people who seek out the 501s, but we can innovate within the 501 and today there is a range of 501s to choose from. It’s got to be a perfect marriage of brand and product that respects the heritage but strives for new things.”

About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.

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