Perspective: Denim for Dudes

Ignoring the herd of pricey, designer labels, Lee jeans stays authentic

Blue jeans, that most American article of clothing, first appeared on the scene in 1873, when a dry-goods merchant named Levi Strauss began selling “waist overalls”—extra-tough work trousers fastened together with rivets—to miners in the California gold fields. Mr. Strauss, as we know now, started something pretty big. Some 450 million pairs of jeans will be sold in the U.S. this year, and the global denim market is on track to hit $65 billion by 2015. Indeed, jeans didn’t just catch on; they’ve gotten rather out of hand. Today, some 90 different brands of jeans have flooded the market, many of them using gym-toned celebrity hunks in their ads, many demanding well over $200 for a pair of blues. In New York, the 3×1 store will make you a pair of bespoke jeans for around $1,200 while, a little further uptown, APO gives you a choice of gold, platinum or diamond-studded hardware (top shelf price: $4,000).

And that brings us, if circuitously, to Lee—and to a bit of branding wisdom clearly illustrated in these two ads, half a century apart. Sure, there are plenty of fancy pants out there, but that doesn’t mean that a no-frills, value-driven, average-Joe message can’t work anymore. It is, in fact, the message that Lee jeans has successfully employed for its entire existence. “One key element in being a sustainable brand is building authenticity, and the ‘real guy’ quality is in both the 1963 ad and in the present-day one,” observed Peter Dixon, senior partner and creative director for global brand consultancy Prophet. “You can see that the contemporary guy is untucked, unshaven, and he’s got a great gal. The other guy has a great horse. But the connection is authenticity.”

Let’s start with that horse. After the California Gold Rush ended, it was cowboys who started wearing blue jeans—including the Lee brand, founded in 1889, and selling its Riders (or “Cowboy Pants”) by 1926. Lee quickly became a favorite of farmers, track gangs and working men everywhere. It stressed value over image, and utility over fashion. (It was Lee that introduced the zipper fly in the 1920s, an accessory for which men are grateful to this day.) In fact, even though celebrity branding had taken root by the 1960s—hell, even though James Dean himself wore Lee jeans in 1955’s East of Eden—Lee still stuck with tradition in this ad on the right. Cowboy on horse, Lee jeans on cowboy and not a whiff of pretension in those prairie breezes. As Dixon put it, “Lee was stressing credibility, durability and toughness by putting the jeans in their context of use.”

And as the 2012 ad demonstrates, credibility, durability and toughness remain Lee’s selling points now. By factoring out men who just wear jeans “to get noticed,” this ad speaks directly to the sort of all-American fella who’s casually cool about a pretty woman hanging on him like a backpack, who responds to sales hooks like “stronger” and “priced right,” who might just have been a cowboy himself if this were 1963.

“The positioning is that this is a brand for real men,” Dixon said. “Before, the fact that he was sitting on a horse was the very definition of manliness. Now, he’s a man because he looks like he doesn’t care.”

And with a basic pair of Lees going for $24.99, he won’t have to care about the price, either.

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