An "A" for Effort

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Levi’s makes pants; jeans, specifically, but its brand aspires to art and beyond. I used to think this was utter nonsense, but now I’m wondering whether the company’s marketers shouldn’t get some credit for being so wantonly experimental. It might put them out of business, but it sure won’t do so boringly.

Levi’s once owned jeans in the way that Kleenex was synonymous with facial tissue and Aspirin was a brand name as well as a product category. It was authentic and credible because it had earned those attributes through many years of operation: Levi’s were “real” in a way that no amount of fooling around with product design or creative marketing could accomplish.

Nevertheless, it let fashion marketers eat its denim in the 80s by not asserting and further strengthening its authentic positioning; it gave away market share and much of its pricing premium in the 1990s to specialty retailers and store brands, while squandering its brand even more by innovating gee wiz things like putting its logo on shirts, belts, and other items that distanced its products from its heritage; then it shipped its production overseas, thereby distancing itself from its manufacturing. It still was selling billions worth of jeans in the late 2000s (but a fraction of a category it once owned), but was far busier repeatedly proving itself incapable of answering a simple question: Why would anybody need to buy Levi’s?

It has given up trying, as far as I can tell from the last few years of its advertising. Instead, its marketers have embraced an entirely separate strategy that has nothing whatsoever to do with selling jeans (or anything else). They’ve turned Levi’s in a test case of the “content creation” mantra that haunts new media conferences and ad agency creative pitches these days. It’s really quite stunning.

Last year’s “Go Forth” campaign tells it all: one spot featured beautiful black & white slice of life images backed by a scratchy recording of Walt Whitman reading his poem America. Another one felt the same but had an actor reading from another Whitman poem.

What does this have to do with selling jeans? Absolutely nothing, and that’s the point, according to some of the gurus who celebrated it at the time as a provocative invitation, providing “meanings circulating in our culture.” It was aspirational in a way that elevated the messaging beyond advertising to appeal to more fundamental and important themes. I didn’t get it, and publicly wondered if any brand couldn’t do the same thing (and why any brand would do so).

But now I understand the madness to Levi’s method.

Most recently it has latched onto Braddock, PA, a struggling town with real woes and hopes (like any town or city). It will make some symbolic contribution to rehabbing a library but is otherwise spending a $55 marketing million budget to use the town’s people and stories in its marketing. Levi’s website features a vlog headlined “We Are All Workers” and a separate blog for its charitable campaign. Another link takes you to a page entitled “workshops” that features a few clips of artists, and a separate link goes to yet another site for its “Norte a Sur” program in which it hired 5 Latinos to travel across two continents with cameras and a mobile Internet connection.

In other words, Levi’s response to its marketing challenge is to produce massive amount of stuff, which must have the advocates of content creation just thrilled (and presenting it to other clients to get them to do the same sort of things). The logic is that by publishing entertaining or interesting content gets people to interact with its brand; doing so is supposed to be the future of advertising, since you can put the stuff on lots of different devices, and its more likely that consumers won’t outright ignore it (like they do traditional commercial messages).

The trade-off, of course, is that the content can’t even hint at any commercial relevance or utility. It’s a bet that the fond feelings the content creation and distribution prompts will somewhere, somehow, someday benefit Levi’ if and when it figures out how to get people to buy its products.

The company deserves a lot of credit for not just giving lip service to this trendy idea. It has embraced it completely.

I still think it’s completely wrong, of course. I want Levi’s to succeed and vow to be the first person to stand up and give the marketers and their agency credit when their huge gamble pays off, but I don’t think I’ll have to do it anytime soon. They’ll be long gone wreaking the same havoc with other brands before the campaign gets replaced with a theme that promises reduced prices.

Marketing is not about content creation…never has been, never will be; rather, it’s about providing information that is meaningful, relevant, and has a utility to consumers that also benefits the company paying for the privilege of their brief attention. Content is the substance of that information and not a stand-alone, absolute good. The goal of marketing isn’t to have conversations with consumers but to have conversations that have purposes beyond entertainment.

In the case of commercial speech, those purposes need to somehow circle back to selling, whether broadly or specifically, bluntly or obliquely. Poetry about America or Braddockians describing their hardscrabble lives just doesn’t contribute to that content requirement, and I’d argue that consumers know it. They know that brands are trying to sell stuff to them. Pretending otherwise is disingenuous, at best, and stupid, more likely.

Levi’s could be doing and communicating real, authentic things that might help it regain and affirm its real, authentic heritage. It could do a lot more to tell people why they need to buy Levi’s, without apology or caveat.

Choosing to produce broadly thematic marketing that does none of the above, and opting to make symbolic, empty gestures to a suffering town so it can serve as fodder for its schmarty-pants creative ads actually moves the brand farther away from the authenticity and credibility of its heritage.

Levi’s deserves an “A” for at least going all out in a particular direction, even if it’s wrong. Maybe the letter stands for “adventurous” and “asinine” at the same time?

(Image credit: An image from Levi’s website,

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