Tune in to channel 501

A stale brand and a medium under siege don’t sound like a dream-ticket. Will the ‘Midsummer’ ads help Levi’s beat the blues? asks David Benady

Jeans brand Levi’s has rediscovered the attractions of epic television advertising. While others say TV airtime is too expensive and ineffective, the jeans manufacturer has opted to pump more resources on to the box as it attempts to turn around the declining sales of the past decade.

Over the years, Levi’s has demonstrated the power of TV advertising and showed how “cool” TV commercials could turn indifferent rags into must-have fashion items. Starting with its 1985 “Launderette” ad by Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH), and continuing through epic Americana such as “Swimmer”, “Creek” and “Clayman”, Levi’s built its 501 line into a power brand, with a ten per cent share of the European jeans market in 1996/1997. But times change and Levi’s became a victim of its own success. It suffered from “Jeremy Clarkson syndrome”, its clothes adorning the sagging backsides of the over-40s, which damaged its youth appeal. A raft of trendy imitators competed from one side, and it also suffered at the hands of retailers’ own labels.

Perhaps Levi’s is an example of what happens when a brand loses its nerve and axes TV. The 501 line came off the screens in 1996. By 2003, its ten per cent European market share had slumped to just three per cent.

Unaided, Levi’s has a relatively low profile, with only a small number of high street stores. Under European marketing director Sue Chidler, who took up the role a year ago, Levi’s has concluded that epic TV advertising is the way to grow. It returned to TV last year with an execution featuring rapping Hispanic youth and earlier this year launched its epic “Midsummer” campaign, again by BBH, mixing Los Angeleno street cool with Shakespearean dialogue.

Chidler believes there is too much gloom about the effectiveness of TV advertising – something she made clear at Marketing Week‘s recent TV Conference. While marketers from BT, Procter & Gamble and Unilever poured scorn on the medium, Chidler sang its praises – for Levi’s at least.

“It is a myth that 15- to 19-year-olds don’t watch terrestrial TV. The secret is to find out which programmes they do watch. The best way to target this group is through post-peak advertising, probably past 9pm or later, when people come back from bars,” she says. “It is about buying smartly against programmes that index well against your target audience.”

Levi’s previous epic TV commercial was “Odyssey”, in 2000, to promote engineered jeans. The ad featured people smashing through brick walls.

“Then we were a bit erratic – on and off with TV advertising. We were not particularly consistent for the next three years. That was the tough period for the brand,” says Chidler.

Since last year, Levi’s has pursued a “premiumisation” strategy, launching the upmarket Levi’s Blue and going into the ââ¬85- (£58-) plus market.

“The idea of exclusivity has become mainstream: the identification of an individual through a niche brand has become a big trend in itself. You can do that with the Levi’s range.

“You can buy 501s in standard black for ââ¬70 (£48), or in distressed hand-finished stitching for ââ¬140 (£95). We offer 22 different finishes in 501s,” says Chidler.

Not everyone is convinced that Levi’s is managing to claw its way back. An industry observer says: “Sales show that Levi’s is not doing that well at the moment. The market has taken off for its closest rivals such as Diesel, but Levi’s is not standing out from own-label.”

Corporate Edge director Peter Shaw says Levi’s is perceived as appealing to older people, while 20-somethings opt for Diesel, G-Star, Seven and Miss Sixty. But he says Levi’s has little choice but to pursue mainstream TV: “If you think about other international fashion brands such as Nike and Adidas, they are doing the same thing.”

In truth, the Levi’s “ads as entertainment” approach was at least 20 years ahead of its time and is particularly well-suited to catching viewers’ eyes as they skip through ads on their personal video recorders. Unfortunately for Levi’s, it may be a brand past its prime: a mass-market product in an individualistic world.

Profile – Sue Childer

Sue Chidler joined Brussels-based Levi’s Europe in 2003, initially as retail marketing director. She was promoted to European marketing director for the Levi’s brand a year ago. Levi’s is the largest division of Levi-Strauss, which also comprises Dockers and the Signature value line.

Chidler has worked in fashion clothing for 18 years, beginning her career at Puma UK before joining Wrangler, part of the VF Corporation, where she was responsible for the brand’s marketing in France, Scandinavia and the UK. She then moved to Barcelona to launch Champion USA and Hanes, part of Sara Lee.

She became international marketing manager for Gossard, where she was responsible for Wonderbra and for turning Sophie Anderton into a celebrity – for which she says “Sorry”. She then joined Timberland Europe, where she was European marketing director for almost five years.

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