An Ever-Tighter Market Forces jeans advertisers to venture out onto a new edge
Last month, San Francisco-based denim giant Levi Strauss & Co. launched what it deems the largest advertising effort in its history. More than 10 years after its agency, Foote, Cone & Belding, San Francisco, debuted what was to become an advertising classic, the famed “501 Blues” campaign directed by Leslie Dektor, Levi’s is attempting to refine its image this year with a bold, new television and print campaign.
Scenes from the campaign: A lanky European woman orders a hot dog, a plain hot dog, from a New York City street vendor for a friend’s dog because “he likes it plain.” A young man whose car is filled with carnival toys says goodbye to his friend, a small-town disc jockey dreaming of spinning in the big city. A taxi driver lives out a fantasy of a high-speed car chase. Lenny Kravitz changes his clothes in a gas station. What do any of these scenarios have to do with jeans? Nothing at all-and everything.
The six spots, whose tagline is “They go on,” constitute the first general branding effort undertaken by the 144-year-old company. Backed by an estimated $90 million in media spending, the commercials, directed by Tarsem, teeter between the real and surreal and eschew traditional storytelling structure. Instead, a shared scene connects the ads, and each spot includes circuitous glimpses of the lives of the perennially hip Levi’s wearer. The fabric that holds the characters together is the Levi’s label and the spirit the red tag represents.
“We felt we had been successful in building our individual product lines and saw there was an opportunity to marketing the brand overall,” says Mark Hogan, Levi’s consumer marketing director. “We’re focusing on the originality and the youthfulness inherent in the overall brand values.”
Levi’s consolidated branding approach, which replaces separate campaigns for individual lines, is as risky in its approach as it is ambitious in its goals. “The risk in speaking to the younger audience is in being typical,” Hogan says. “If you don’t take risks, you are not going to stand out and earn their attention and loyalty.”
Last year, jeans accounted for $10.6 billion in U.S. sales, and marketers spent more than $150 million advertising their five-pocket, wide-leg, baggy and flared jeans. But recent years have seen an explosion of brands, and competition has heated up considerably-reaching a frenzy the business hasn’t seen since the designer-jeans explosion of the 1970s. As a result, even powerful jeans marketers are finding that snaring-and retaining- consumer loyalty is an increasingly slippery endeavor.
From the product’s humble beginnings as durable work wear for miners and cowboys, jeans have been a staple of the casual American wardrobe. Soon after original bad boys James Dean and Marlon Brando donned denim in their ’50s flicks Rebel Without a Cause and The Wild One, America fell in love. And it’s been a long honeymoon.
In the last few years, not only have designers such as Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger joined Calvin Klein in the designer-jeans game, but retailers such as J.C. Penney and Sears have formed their own private label brands, Arizona and Canyon River Blues, respectively.
“What you are seeing is a continuing fascination, devotion, love affair with denim and jeans,” says Norman Karr, executive director of Jeanswear Communications, a trade group based in New York. “The reason for the increased advertising is that the dominant players want to make sure they don’t get swamped with this tremendous influx of people who have entered the market,” he adds.
The three category leaders-Levi’s, Lee Jeans and Wrangler Jeans-represent more than 50 percent of annual sales in the market, yet even they have stepped up their advertising and marketing activities. The largest jeans makers are struggling to hold on to their advantage, and the smallest are clawing their way for a share. Mainstream players are being pressed from above by the higher-end designer-jeans companies and from below by private-label brands. In this climate, aggressive advertising aims to defend market share as much as it tries to increase it.
“There are a lot of new players-nontraditional players-developing their own brands. The collections people, who are really going after the category, do a superb job in marketing a lifestyle image to the consumer,” says Shawne Mastronardi, director of consumer marketing at Kurt Salmon & Associates, a consulting firm in New York.
“It’s raised the stakes,” Mastronardi adds. “The emphasis on the brand managing and marketing has really needed to be ramped up.”
In April, San Francisco-based retailer The Gap launched its first television campaign for the main Gap brand in more than five years. Supporting the company’s root strategy of providing basic clothes for the individual, the ads feature a celebrity cast of music and film personalities dressed in Easy Fit jeans. In each spot, the performer, shot against a stark white background, performs his music interpretation of The Gap’s free-flowing “easy” style. In one, LL Cool J raps about the retailer. In another, actors David Arquette and Lukas Haas play improvisational jazz. The campaign is one of three television ventures made by the retailer in the past 10 months. Last December, The Gap broke a seasonal campaign for its Baby Gap division, and most recently introduced ads for Gap Kids.
For a brand that has defined a strong visual style in its print advertising, television was the next logical step, says Michael McCadden, senior vice president of marketing at The Gap. “The Gap has never been a murky brand,” he says. “It has a long history about personal style. Every campaign is about that; every store is about that.”
Dedication to the brand’s core values has become all the more important. Increased competition and fewer product differences to tout have made jeans marketers even more image-driven. Whereas finding the perfect fit, literally, was once a key selling point for jeans companies, finding the perfect lifestyle fit has become a forefront consideration.
“Ten years ago, it was either sex or it was product. Now it really is about a personality, which can have multiple layers,” notes Tom Julian, a New York-based trend analyst for Fallon McElligott, Minneapolis, the advertising agency for Lee. “It’s a challenge today to be able to convey product, message and brand personality and have the consumer buy into it. It’s stacking the deck but doing it in your most creative way with a sense of realism.”
Conveying a message about a product as personal as jeans in a manner that is true to the consumer is one of the most challenging aspects of working on a jeans account, says Mike Hughes, president and creative director of The Martin Agency, Richmond, Va., which has handled advertising duties for Greensboro, N.C.-based Wrangler for the past eight years.
“We have to get very precise in finding the audience and speaking in a way that is authentic and true,” says Hughes. “We work hard on banking products, but most people don’t define themselves by where they do their banking. They define themselves by what names are on their cars, running shoes and jeans.”
Wrangler, which spent $23 million in advertising in 1996, increased its ad budget by 35 percent this year and launched its largest-ever fall campaign this season. The core Wrangler customer for its Western jeans, on which the bulk of the company’s jeans sales rest, has been cultivated not necessarily on the mystique of the cowboy, but on sales to the cowboy himself. Rodeo culture is Wrangler’s stronghold: Sales are strongest in Western markets and benefit greatly from the boom in the popularity of country music.
The $13 million fall campaign featuring the Western “every man” attempts to broaden Wrangler’s appeal. In one commercial, a man weaving his way through a crowded city street fantasizes about leading a huge herd of cattle through the urban landscape. And in another spot, an airplane passenger escapes the turbulent ride by envisioning himself riding a bull in a rodeo. “The cowboy mystique has always been prevalent on people’s minds,” says Brian Fandetti, associate creative director at The Martin Agency. “What we aspire to do is tell consumers that Wrangler is still part of that culture, while making it cool.” Wrangler’s Hero line, targeted to a mainstream American market, is advertised with a campaign focused on outdoor family life. Ads for its boys jeans use an action sports theme.
While some jeans marketers are soft-peddling product attributes to emphasize lifestyle points, Merriam, Kan.-based Lee focuses its fall push with new product offerings in its Riveted line. A television and print campaign for Riveted Lee Dungarees announces the return of the 1930s-style overalls and carpenter pants. A commercial, using vintage, Depression-era footage of miners wearing Lee overalls, culminates with a shot of a worker wearing brightly colored boxer shorts. The tagline: “We went back and got them.”
“The most important thing we tried to do this year is focus on the fact that Lee is not just a five-pocket jean company,” says Harvey Marco, group creative director at Lee agency Fallon McElligott.
A second Riveted ad features characters returning from last year’s “Coffee Shop” spot in which a diner customer nervously asks a waitress out on a date. In the commercial, advertising the new flare cut offered in the Riveted line, a woman who has tossed her engagement ring into a fountain lifts her flared pants and wades in the water to fish it out after she changes her mind.
“[The new products provided] an opportunity to do something different, to stand out,” says Peter McHugh, group creative director at Fallon McElligott.
Facing a challenge familiar to other industries, jeans makers’ most critical consumer base is the fickle youth market, which accounts for about 70 percent of jeans sales. Designer fashion labels-Guess?, CK Jeans and, more recently, Ralph Lauren’s Polo Jeans and Tommy Hilfiger’s Tommy Jeans-have captured a younger consumer base, as have niche players such as Molveno, Italy-based Diesel Jeans.
Targeting 16-24-year-olds, Hilfiger’s Tommy Jeans latest TV campaign features celebrity children. Supporting the theme, “It’s in the jeans,” children of the famous-including Kentaro Seagal, Jesse Wood and Kate Hudson-talk about how their personalities reflect the traits they inherited from their parents. “Tommy has always been about belonging and groups, real group dynamics in which people have the opportunity to see themselves,” says Mike Toth, president and creative director for Toth Design & Advertising in Concord, Mass. “One of the ideas we wanted to play with is the genetics of famous people. We thought it would be fun to see how close the apple fell from the tree.”
While Hilfiger has built its jeans brand on an image of an integrated American youth, Diesel has grown from $12 million in U.S. sales in 1995 to $24 million in 1996 with a different vision of Americana, a mix of ’50s kitsch and ’90s techno styles. Its “Successful Living” campaign, created by Paradiset DDB, Stockholm, Sweden, has established the brand worldwide with an edgy, trendsetting consumer. The “Heritage” ads, which focused on the Western themes often found in jeans ads, won top film honors at the 1997 International Advertising Festival at Cannes.
“Our advertising has always been provocative, different and humorous. One of the things you don’t see very much in fashion advertising is humor,” says Diana Loguzzo, marketing manager for Diesel USA. “We use irony to the point where we make fun of ourselves.”
The company’s most recent campaign features the fictitious firm “Brand O” advertising its ice cream, diet, and newspaper products in impoverished North Korea. For example, pictured above a crowd of people waiting in what appears to be a food line is a billboard showing a frolicking couple wearing Diesel Jeans next to a headline that reads, “Brand O ice cream. For a better tomorrow.”
Diesel’s funky retail stores, which feature DJs spinning the latest trip-hop and techno music, only further reinforce the irreverent personality it has built through its image advertising. Despite the advertising’s success, the company is soon to switch agencies in the hope of redefining its marketing strategy.
The recent revival of other fashion brands from the 1970s-Candie’s and Hush Puppies, among others-has awakened some long-quiet jeans lines. Attempting a comeback are Gitano, Jordache and Sasson, which has linked up Ivanka Trump.
Jordache recently began advertising on television again, appropriately using a clip from the popular commercial from the ’70s featuring the “You’ve got the look” jingle. “Jordache wanted to get back into television and wanted to get that thing they had in the ’70s back, when they were the jeans company,” says Carmine Coppola, senior art director at Lotas Minard Patton McIver, New York. “That commercial did blockbuster for them.” To reintroduce the brand, the agency incorporated footage from that vintage spot into a new commercial featuring a model runway sequence.
Whether those brands will be able to gain a relevancy for themselves in the late ’90s remains to be seen. In the meantime, category leaders such as Levi’s continue to evolve. “It’s important for Levi’s to explore different sides of itself. Like a person, it is a multifaceted brand and has different personality traits,” says Brian Bacino, group creative director working on Levi’s at Foote, Cone & Belding, San Francisco.
Levi’s, Bacino adds, “is always going to be the real deal. We don’t want to be a flashy, hyped brand. We have a quiet strength in a way. We have to balance that authenticity and stay current.”
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