For more than 20 years, the Levi's marketing strategy was defined by big blockbuster TV ads, usually accompanied by a chart-topping soundtrack. In more recent times, however, the jeans and casualwear brand's voice has been rather more muffled.
That could be about to change, as Levi's has tentatively unveiled a brand strategy that, in a shift of thinking, puts a modern spin on its heritage. It has been introduced to coincide with the refit of the Levi's flagship store on London's Regent Street.
The strategy harks back to the history of Levi's jeans, which were traditionally worn by manual workers in the US, such as cowboys and lumberjacks. Drawing on this heritage, its campaign has reinvented the idea of a 'craftworker'; the brand has recruited 18 craftsmen and craftswomen across the art, music, performance and catering sectors to represent the brand in press and outdoor ads.
Andrea Moore, Levi's marketing director, UK & Ireland, acknowledges the significant change in approach.
'Over the past few years, we have made the transition from a broad-reaching model to a very targeted approach to specifically reach and engage progressive youth consumers,' she says. 'Craftsmanship has always been an inherent part of what the Levi's brand stands for. It evolved into craftwork because we recognise that our target consumers are working on innovative, creative projects, either to satisfy a passion, professionally, or both. We want to find ways to tell their stories and commission them to tell ours too.'
Levi's sales rose for the third successive year in the UK in 2009, despite suffering a decline across Europe. However, this performance must be viewed in the context of strengthening competition from areas such as retailer own-label. The brand therefore needs to ensure that its communications clearly demonstrate to consumers why they should pay a premium for its products.
'While the jeans market in the UK is increasingly diverse, there are many consumers who want to buy premium-quality products from brands they trust and we intend to inspire them into choosing Levi's,' adds Moore.
The 'craftworker' strategy, devised by Exposure, will continue to be used as part of Levi's marketing efforts. The brand has devised an 18-month plan, with activity including audiovisual content on its website, but with no plans to return to TV.
The approach has failed to convince everyone, however. Hugh Bishop, chairman at Meteorite, and a marketing director of Levi's in the 80s, is among the doubters.
'The core idea of craft is great, and something we tried to get back into during my time at the company,' he says. 'However, the use of these ambassadors feels a bit disconnected and schizophrenic for Levi's - it's trying to buy coolness, but I can't see what a drummer has to do with craft. Also, the craftworkers will effectively become models for the brand, which could lead to the activity becoming laboured.'
Bishop argues that Levi's could have been more literal in the use of its heritage. 'It should have used the new strategy to show the craft of making jeans, which is something that has been done successfully by Timberland in the past. Levi's could have given it a modern take,' he adds.
However, Nick Gray, managing director at retail agency Live & Breathe, and a former marketing director at fashion brand Ben Sherman, disagrees. 'Levi's had been in a bit of a trough, but I think it has been patient and tried to stick by the brand's values,' he says. 'This strategy will make fashionistas rediscover Levi's, which bodes well for the longevity of the brand.'
He adds: 'The strategy pays homage to its heritage. There are only so many times you can feature a cowboy or a lumberjack, but this puts it in a position where it can start flexing its creative muscles again.'
While the craftworkers theme will initially be used for the reopening of its London store, Levi's will undoubtedly be aiming to give the brand some traction and reawaken the interest of fashion-conscious consumers in its plans.