SBHD: US jeans makers have sold their clothing on the back of images of the American dream. But London-based Pepe is trying to steal a march on its rivals by focusing on its Britishness with an angst-ridden advertising campaign to win the hearts and minds of teenagers.
Jeans advertisements that don’t show the product but feature teenage suicide are a long way from the traditional “folksy” American iconography used in most jeans advertising.
But in a market dominated by Levi Strauss and its award-winning advertising campaigns, other brands have to do something dramatic to stand out.
Pepe’s latest campaign rolls out in the style press and cinema in the next two weeks. Created by Leagas Delaney, the £10m pan-European campaign aims to move the battle lines away from American heritage to gritty reality. It may not be a reality many people over 30 would recognise, or even understand, but the ads specifically target the youth market by attempting to tap into the maelstrom of teenage angst.
The press ads are the more disturbing with their nihilistic tales of teenage suicide, dead-end jobs and the gloomy prospect of marriage.
But the cinema ad is not much lighter – it features a disillusioned youth taking his father’s car and hanging it from a crane in the shadow of Canary Wharf. No pop classic to take to number one, no beautiful scenery, no happy, shiny American girls and boys.
Pepe chief executive Fred Gehring says: “We are up against Levi in all markets and yes it is the number one brand, but retro Americana is not the reality for European youth.”
Leagas Delaney chief executive Bruce Haines insists: “There is an element of disquiet about the campaign. If parents knew what their kids really thought – and we do know because we have done the research – they would be quite distressed by it. Not everyone is going to get these advertisements – they need some decoding – but the people they are aimed at will because the advertisements speak directly to them.”
All jeans manufacturers claim that they are targeting youth, although their definition of youth may be fairly elastic. Before the age of 12 most children wear own-label jeans, such as Marks & Spencer and C&A and the same is true of many consumers over the age of 35. But between these two age groups, branded products are considered essential by most consumers. The only notable exception is own-label jeans from Gap.
Pepe says it is targeting an audience based more on attitude than age, but concedes that its core market is aged between 12 and 25. Levi Strauss aims at an older market – aged between 20 and 35 – although commercial director Jim Lape says: “Our core market is 15 to 25-year-olds, but a lot of people in their thirties and even older buy into the lifestyle of Levis.”
Wrangler identifies its core market as 20 to 30-year-olds. Its “City Slickers” campaign, featuring characters from the film of the same name, is aimed at an older and less fashion-conscious audience which sees jeans as useful and comfortable rather than high fashion items.
The ads, created by TBWA, are also intended to appeal to women. They feature three male “townies” encountering life in the wild west, but its star is a sassy cowgirl. Wrangler UK’s marketing controller, Sue Chidler, says: “Giving her the lead role has resulted in real appeal to jeans-buying women. We have in-creased sales to women by more than 140 per cent since we began the campaign.” Ironically, Wrangler fails to inform women buyers that the impossibly glam- orous cowgirl has to have her jeans specially made, because her legs are too long for the standard Wrangler product.
Levi Strauss, Wrangler and Lee – the self-styled “jeans that built America” – all attempt to exploit the lifestyle aspect of their own particular brands by focusing on their originality and heritage. This is how they emphasise their “classic” status. Levi’s roots go back to the Californian gold rush, while Lee began as work-wear for construction and railroad workers and Wrangler’s original customers were real cowboys. All focus on an ersatz and retrospective vision of the US. The problem is to differentiate what essentially is just a pair of blue denim trousers from any others.
Levi Strauss has undoubtedly been the most successful. “There is constant dispute over brand shares in the jeans market,” says a spokesman for market re-searchers Mintel. This is because some jeans makers include other items of denim clothing, such as jackets and shirts, in their figures, while others do not. But there is complete agreement that Levi Strauss has taken an in-creasing share of the market since it relaunched its Levi 501 brand in 1986. Mintel says Levi Strauss has a 22.6 per cent share of the market in 1992 (the most recent figures available), followed by Wrangler with 6.4 per cent and Pepe with six per cent.
How much of Levi Strauss’ success is down to its advertising is debatable. Leagas Delaney’s Haines says: “Advertising is an intrinsic part of establishing brand values in this market. Levi’s advertising has become the benchmark for this sector. When `laundrette’ first ran it was a breath of fresh air.”
John Hegarty, chairman and creative director of Bartle Bogle Hegarty, which has picked up more than 50 advertising awards for its Levi’s work, says: “In a large part it is down to the advertising. But it’s a chicken and egg situation – you can’t say which came first, the branding or the advertising.”
Lape concedes that Levi Strauss was a fairly duff brand in the early Eighties. But the decision to relaunch 501s was a shrewd move and cashed in on the Eighties’ obsession with classic brands. The winning formula of boy meets girl – or in one of the most recent executions, “taxi”, boy meets boy – backed by some great music, has given the brand credibility.
Hegarty refutes suggestions that the formula is a tired one. “We constantly mix the ingredients to capture people’s imagination. They buy the product because they are the original jeans,” he says. Lape asserts that the brand’s success is also down to Levi’s concentration on the quality of the product and its selective distribution “with retailers who are serious about the jeans business”. The company also opened its own flagship Levi store on London’s Regent Street last year. Previously it has only run retail outlets through franchisees. Levi is expected to open more company-owned stores in the US and Europe.
With the market for American jeans pretty much sewn up, Pepe and other companies have to emphasise their British roots as a point of difference. Pepe uses its London heritage – the brand started life on a market stall in Portobello – with the sign-off “Pepe Jeans London”. The association with London is more important to the brand in the US and continental Europe, according to Haines. He says: “London is `in’ with the youth of Europe. Not the touristy vision of the city, but its club scene and markets like Camden and Brixton – so there is a slight difference of emphasis in those markets.”
Lee Cooper ( a completely separate company from Lee) positions itself as the original British jean company. It started in 1908 selling denim work-wear. This month, it will run its first advertising campaign in ten years. The ad, created by the Colorado Advertising Agency, features “real” kids skateboarding and rollerblading backed by a Jungle soundtrack. Marketing manager Andrew Robinson says: “The new advertising campaign emphasises the energy of the brand. Most of the others sell themselves on a vision of the US and even the retailing has reflected that in the past. Do you remember in the Seventies when your mum took you to Jean Jeanie, the changing rooms had western-style saloon doors?”
The saloon doors may have gone, but Robinson faces a huge battle for market share against his American rivals. He remains stoical: “The market is dominated by Levi Strauss which has an enormous slice of the pie, but you don’t have to have that large a slice to be successful in this market. It’s estimated that the total UK denim market is worth £900m. We are concentrating on 12 to 25-year-olds. We want to get them young and get brand loyalty.”
It is also brand loyalty that Pepe wants to build among the style-conscious cognoscenti. And the company is convinced that the campaign will appeal to those at the leading edge of street culture. Teenage suicide may not be the most obvious image for a jeans brand but as Gehring says: “It will be deemed to be controversial by the people it is not directly addressing.”