Creative Focus: Reborn To Be Wild

After a tumultuous year of declining sales, Levi Strauss brought in TBWA Chiat/Day–and a whole new attitude.
First, Levi’s coyly reminded consumers “Tommy wore them,” and so did “Calvin” and “Ralph.” Then, with images of denim-clad Marlon Brando and James Dean, Levi’s wryly boasted: “Our models can beat up their models.” Now, the company is daring customers to try Hard Jeans, with ads that flaunt the pants’ rough construction. One ad taunts: “You think you’re so tough, try wearing these without underpants.”
The tone is gritty, playfully aggressive and self-assured. For Levi’s, the message is new, and so is the agency. TBWA Chiat/Day, the Venice, Calif.-based shop that gave television a good name for ABC, won the estimated $90 million Levi’s account this January, when the San Francisco-based Levi Strauss & Co. moved the business from its agency of 68 years, Foote, Cone & Belding, San Francisco.
“We told [Levi’s] everything they do should be fresh, unexpected and should always re-establish the jeans as ‘the real thing.’ But we wanted to say it with a wink of an eye,” says Peter Angelos, creative director of TBWA Chiat/Day’s San Francisco office, which was set up to pitch and service the jeans business. “We wanted to give them jeans with real attitude and verve.”
Bold and brash is more like it.
How many commercials accuse viewers of not knowing where their asses are? In one spot featuring the dark denim line, the camera follows a bare light bulb as it travels up the inside of a pants leg en route to the crotch.
“You think you know where your ass is, but you don’t have a clue where your ass is until you put on a pair of Levi’s Hard Jeans without underpants,” taunts freelance copywriter Mark Fenske, who recorded the voiceovers and helped the agency pitch the account. “You’ll know you are wearing them.”
If the ads sound combative, they are. Levi’s is losing its cool. In recent years, the company has been losing market share to designer jeans, private labels and niche players. For the first time in decades, Levi’s sales have slipped, down 4 percent in 1997. Factories have been closed and employees fired. And to the ever-important trendsetting youth demographic, Levi’s image has become as soft and flabby as their baby-boomer parents, who wore Levi’s at Woodstock.
“We are the original jean,” says Mark Hogan, Levi’s director of consumer marketing, of the new advertising positioning. “We need to reclaim that.”
Despite Levi’s glorious place in advertising’s pantheon, the brand has lost its power of distinction, hipness and edge in recent years. Newcomers, such as Tommy Hilfiger, have been selling the image of Americana, a territory Levi’s once owned. Struggling with an ailment all too familiar to mega-brands such as Nike, Levi’s is facing a complex marketing problem: The clothing maker is suffering from its own success. “[Re-energizing Levi’s] is a huge challenge,” admits Lee Clow, TBWA Chiat/Day’s chairman and chief creative officer, the brand steward on Levi’s. “When brands that start out very special, very pure and very focused become a huge brand, it is the hugeness that homogenizes it and makes it less potent and powerful.”
Clow compares Levi’s predicament not only to Apple, another TBWA Chiat/Day mega-brand client that is trying to regain its luster, but to challenges the agency itself has encountered. “We’ve gone through it. There was a time when we thought, ‘We’re big, so now we’re going to become boring. We’re going to become one of the large, mediocre agencies,'” says Clow. “We reasserted ourselves. We needed to connect back into our center and core values.”
While advertising cannot do the job alone, reconnecting the company to the center of its brand is key, says Clow. “Levi’s is denim. They defined it. The challenge is: How do we reclaim it again?”
Reassessing all aspects of the company, including its advertising, Levi’s turned to a number of agencies for ideas. Following a three-month review that included the incumbent, Foote, Cone & Belding; Levi’s international agency, Bartle Bogle Hegarty in London; BBDO Worldwide, Los Angeles and New York; and Hal Riney & Partners, San Francisco, the company awarded the account to TBWA Chiat/Day. “We were looking for a total business partner to help us in all facets of managing our brand,” says Levi’s Hogan. “Foote, Cone had primarily become an advertising agency. Our needs changed, and we needed more.”
At the beginning of the review, Levi’s briefed the agencies about the state of its business and asked the contenders to ponder three basic questions, says Carisa Bianchi, managing director of TBWA Chiat/Day, San Francisco: “Where are we now? Where should we be? What do you think the Levi’s brand could stand for?”
While researching Levi’s history, TBWA Chiat/Day discovered a quote that helped answer some of these questions: “No flag, no costume, no pageant has ever more embodied a nation and its ambitions and social idealism.”
More than anything else the agency unearthed in its exhaustive research about the company that invented denim, this one quote, from Richard Martin, the curator of The Costume Institute of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, represented the unequivocal power Levi’s possessed. “[The quotation] became the epicenter of what we felt about this brand, and what we needed to reassert about this American institution,” says Clow.
Claiming Levi’s as an icon of American pop culture, the agency produced an “idea video” that helped cinch the deal. “It celebrates Levi’s history and how the [jeans maker] has impacted American society,” Clow says. Set mostly to Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.,” the video included black-and-white and color footage, marking time with music, movies and early photographs of Western pioneers, footage of post-war factory workers, Hollywood legends Marilyn Monroe and James Dean, Woodstock and musicians such as Elvis, Elton John and U2. With a pair of Levi’s strung on a flagpole flapping in the wind, it ended with the title “What next?”
“We recognized that Levi’s was an original, but we needed to spin it in [a non-historical way],” says Bianchi, who notes that, in the research phase, the agency studied the longevity of iconic brands such as Coca-Cola, Disney and Nike. “It also had to be new and surprising. Smashing those two ideas together led us to the brief ‘Always original.'”
With video in hand, the pitch team members drove a step-van into Levi’s courtyard at 5 a.m.–three hours before their presentation. No ordinary truck, it was a demonstration of nontraditional, grassroots methods of reaching consumers. The agency equipped the vehicle with a DJ blaring electronica and hip-hop, free T-shirts for giveaways and stacks of jeans to sell at raves and concerts. “We watched the sunrise,” says Angelos. “It was the greatest harbinger.”
During the agency’s presentation, the TBWA Chiat/Day team recommended a radical departure for Levi’s, reducing the brand’s reliance on TV advertising and abandoning the use of a tagline in its advertising, something Levi’s hadn’t done in decades. The only thing the brand needed to rely on was itself. “Lee said, ‘The red tab is your swoosh, it’s your north star, around which all things revolve’ and they agreed,” says Angelos. “Lee said, ‘The red tab should be on asses and ads.'”
Three months into its inaugural work for Levi’s, TBWA Chiat/Day is still in the early stages of an image overhaul. In an effort to be “continuously surprising,” the ads are constantly changing. Instead of relying on one all-encompassing image campaign, with an overarching tag-line, the agency keeps the work in flux, replacing the ads on a regular basis. “The overall message is about the brand’s originality,” says Hogan. “You can be the first and say it, but you have to continue to prove it by doing things that are new and original.”
TBWA Chiat/Day’s first work broke in May, an outdoor effort that covered more than 20,000 billboards in 17 cities, and took playful jabs at the “newcomer” designer competition. Adorned only with Levi’s red tab, the white ads stated simply, “Calvin [Tommy/Ralph] wore them.”
Soon after, the agency intensified the attack on designer rivals, replacing the “Wore them” ads with work boasting: “Our models can beat up their models.” More recent executions feature current Levi’s wearers, such as action diva Pam Grier and boxer Oscar de la Hoya.
“They had to be absolutely, no-question-about-it Levi’s wearers, and they had to be iconographic,” says Angelos about the campaign’s celebrity choices. “They had to stand for originality and self-determination.”
In June, the agency introduced Americans to Hard Jeans, the original, dark-indigo pants that, as one ad describes it, are “stiff with a vengeance.” Capitalizing on a trend that began a couple of years ago in Japan but has its roots in 1950s America–wearing the jeans with a large cuff on the leg–Clow recommended that Levi’s brand their dark denim jeans as “hard.”
The models ads show who wore and who wears the jeans, explains Levi’s Hogan, while the Hard Jeans talk about the product and invite consumers to try them out. “That’s the bridge between the two,” he says.
On television, the ads became even more aggressive, challenging viewers to wear Hard Jeans–if they could stand it. In one commercial, a pair of rigid, bodiless jeans pivot around against a stark, white background. “Deep. Dark. Stiff as cheap plywood. Hard as old pipes,” says the voiceover. “Just to wear them once, you gotta learn to walk all over again.” The jeans tip over and crash down with a metallic clang. “Levi’s Hard Jeans. You break these in, you’ve got something.”
Other Hard Jeans spots show the pants deflecting a cannon ball and talk about the extreme cotton used to construct them. “These jeans have been made out of cotton that was purposely mistreated to make it hard,” says Fenske, as the spot shows a pair of jeans slowly being pulled out of a bucket filled with a dark, ominous-looking liquid. “We’ve rolled it between slabs of pig iron to make it rough and unyielding to the touch All with utter disregard for your dainty, petal-soft skin. Levi’s Hard Jeans. You’re welcome.”
“The commercials are all about the words; they are not about the images,” says Mark Coppos of Coppos Films, who directed the spots.
The ads, however, are all about the clothes. Although the storyboards for the commercials called for the jeans to move on their own, the agency did not want to use any flashy computer effects. “The concept was anti-production, make them simple, using only in-camera effects,” says Coppos. “It is certainly more honest, funnier and more interesting than most of what’s on TV.”
“It was a simple idea,” explains Clow. “We wanted to talk about the product instead of the lifestyle. Like classic beer or car ads, we threw a pair of jeans on the table and said, ‘Let’s talk about it.’ It’s denim, right in your face.”
Whether the aggressive stance will reinvigorate Levi’s remains an open debate. Levi’s and TBWA Chiat/Day are not solely relying on advertising to deliver the new message. Along with music sponsorships and promotions, the agency is introducing less traditional grassroots efforts to create a buzz about Levi’s from the ground up. “It’s stealth enough that you probably haven’t seen it yet,” says Clow.
A new series of ads, which discuss the more comfortable side of wearing Levi’s, the well-worn and familiar Soft Jeans, will break soon. “We need to present smart, interesting ways of talking about Levi’s that add up to a whole rethink of the brand,” says Clow. “They are all pieces of the puzzle.”
The next piece of the denim jigsaw? “You will see other expressions of that red tab on your butt,” Clow says. “That’s what Levi’s is.”