Leaving Its Past Behind, Levi’s Touts Personal Ties

Levi Strauss moves away from its Western heritage in favor of the brand’s connection with consumers in its “largest ever” print campaign, created by Bartle Bogle Hegarty and shot by Richard Avedon.

The modern-looking, minimalist ads, which break in magazines this week, show how different styles fit different American archetypes. The strategic shift was triggered by research that found “people have a very special bond with their jeans,” down to the “way you wear them and use them,” said Thomas Hayo, group creative director on the estimated $50 million account.

Black-and-white portraits depict real people wearing Levi’s, from a teenage surfer to a twentysomething bartender to a 50s-ish rancher. The work introduces the theme, “A style for every story.” Rather than focus on a single line, as in previous campaigns, the executions showcase a range, from “loose” 569s to “regular fit” 505s.

“It is basically a brand campaign that talks about specific products,” said Hayo of the 12 executions, slated to run through December. The ads show “who we are, what we are for and who are the people who wear us.”

Previous efforts for the brand touted its distinctiveness and sought to connect with its pioneer past. BBH’s most recent print campaign featured jeans-clad models in color photos doctored to look like 19th-century daguerreotypes.

Levi’s did not disclose spending but described the print campaign as its “largest ever.” The highest print spend for the Levi’s brand in the past decade was about $25 million in 2000, according to TNS Media Intelligence/CMR. The San Francisco-based client spent about $15 million on print ads last year.

Working off a list of archetypes, BBH in New York conducted Web searches and enlisted casting agents to find “up and comers,” Hayo said. The subjects, who came from New York, the Midwest and the West Coast, are largely in their 20s and represent an array of occupations, many of which have a creative bent (there’s a novelist, a painter, a jewelry designer and an illustrator).

The ads will appear in magazines including Allure, Entertainment Weekly, FHM, Glamour, Lucky, US and Rolling Stone. Along with the portrait, each ad also features the subject’s “bum print,” as Hayo put it—the impression made by the person’s jeans-clad rear. The various fits that the featured styles come in are listed, along with the subject’s name, his or her profession, the type of jeans worn and their color.

The new theme and strategy will extend to TV spots, expected to break in midsummer. BBH is in preproduction on two to three “narrative” ads that tell personal stories, each featuring a different line of jeans, Hayo said.

As with print work, previous TV spots emphasized Levi’s’ Western heritage. In one BBH commercial that broke last year, for example, a modern-day cowboy lassoes a runaway car driving roughshod through a desolate town.

Hayo said BBH approached Avedon, co-creator of Calvin Klein’s Obsession campaign in the early ’90s, because of his iconic style and knack for capturing his subjects’ personalities. “It’s not an easy sell to get Avedon, because he doesn’t need to do anything,” he said. “We sent him the layouts. He really, really liked them. He was enthusiastic and wanted to make it work.”

For Levi’s, the stakes are high. The company recorded a worldwide net loss of $349 million through Nov. 30 last year, down from net income of $7 million in 2002, attributable in part to declining U.S. sales. Global net sales declined 1 percent to $4.09 billion, Levi’s reported.