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Against the Grain: Levi's

Adam sat down with Rhodri Evans to talk through everything from the brands history, how Levi’s has tackled a turbulent year and the steps the brand has taken to create a more sustainable way forward.

Brand News

Adam Walker
GO!
Rhodri Evans
Levi's

Levi’s is a brand that needs no introduction. This brand has been leading the way in denim and fashion in general, for over a century! Adam sat down with Rhodri Evans to talk through everything from the brands history, how Levi’s has tackled a turbulent year and the steps the brand has taken to create a more sustainable way forward.

AW: To kick us off then, very top line, can you broadly talk us through what your role involves day to day, month to month?

RE: At the risk of kicking us off with the standard cliché, it’s really true that no one day is the same. My role is pretty broad and it involves the strategic development and creative execution for the things that align our brand to culture. So, things like music, sport and other cultural passion points that connect us to our audience.

Then when it comes to the details of the execution and delivery, it’s really how we continuously strive to create best in class storytelling and content that ultimately gets the best engagement with our audience.

One part of my day could be working on something like our community music project, for which we have studios all over Europe, and another part of my day could be having conversations about how we’re executing something at store level, or working on a partner event… and of course more recently this has been about digital/virtual events and activations.

AW: When you joined Levi’s, did you ever think you would be working across so many platforms and sectors?

RE:  I’ve been with Levi’s almost nine years now and I think even in that time, the brand has changed massively, but even back in 2011, when you join a brand like Levi’s, you’re not just going in to talk about products. You’re going into a brand that has an expectation from its audience to be commenting on culture or in some way shaping it. They want to know what you’ve got to say about certain key topics and about certain parts of culture, as the best brands have got plenty to say!

I went in with that frame of mind, like yes, there’s going to be all the product stuff but there’s probably going to be a whole world around it now.

I do enjoy the product side and I do enjoy the more seasonal campaign elements. I think there is a real science and an art to that side, but I naturally gravitated towards the other side which I mentioned before around aligning the brand through music, through culture and through sport.

AW: So how has that changed this year? You must have gone into 2020 with a thorough marketing strategy on how you were going to communicate and market to consumers. Did that plan go out of the window in March?

RE: Well, it’s been a year like no other hasn’t it? Like most brands we would always pride ourselves on being flexible and agile, but we could never imagine something like this. It certainly put that flexibility to the test.

I think the most important part brands must play, is being able to use their platform to step up and help people. Any brand that has done that has my full respect.  That sets the tone for my answer on this question as well, as that’s what we have tried to do.

We pivoted through very challenging circumstances and asked what can we do to support and to help people? Levi’s are usually present across dozens of music festivals every summer, so we had to rethink how we did that and how we get in front of our audience in other ways.


Pivoting more towards digital is probably the broad answer to the question, as I’m sure every other brand would say. We funnelled more investment into those channels to drive demand through digital. What we have also done is make sure that we’re giving people entertainment and information.

Right at the very start of the pandemic, we launched something called 501 Live. It’s about live music, performances, cultural talks, masterclasses, or panel discussions, that type of thing. It was launched with the view of giving our audience something engaging, interesting or even just something to do through such testing times, every evening for an hour at 5:01pm.

We did a virtual festival as well for our birthday in May to celebrate what we call 501® Day, which was the kind of ‘the best of 501 Live’. We had a full day’s programming across the world, on all of our different social channels.

We’ve also kept going with other physical stuff. We’ve opened our new retail and brand experience space in Soho, ‘Levi’s by Levi’s’ for example, so it’s not all digital. We still realise the importance of physical connections and how impactful and compelling they are for an audience even in times like these.

AW: I love the 501 Live concept. I think in years to come people will remember how well brands communicated with their audience at a time where people have never felt more isolated.

RE: Fully agree and we are certainly by no means on our own, there’s been a lot of great brands doing incredible work through this time. It just shows that it is very, very hard if not impossible to stifle creativity. Wherever we are, even sat at home at our kitchen tables all day, the way we work and the way the world is structured, you’re never going to stop it. I’ve been really inspired by what other brands have been doing as well.

AW: With so many fast fashion brands entering the denim market at a much lower price point, how hard is to keep market share and entice younger generations to choose Levi’s?

RE: I think, you can’t get away from the fact there’s more choice for everybody in every walk of life, for every product. You’ve got to celebrate the beauty of how democratic life is and how easy people can start something from their bedroom, their garage, or wherever it might be and actually have a chance to take on a brand the size of Levi’s. Long may that continue.

From a price point, we know where we sit, and we are comfortable and confident there. Yes, there are products in the marketplace that are cheaper, but there are products that are more expensive too remember. We know the reasons that a consumer chooses our brands, and we must be confident in that.

What you have to do, as a guardian of a brand like Levi’s, is be confident in what it is that you give to the consumer, aside from the products. Of course, the aesthetics, quality and value of the products are incredibly important but there is so much more to the brand.

Our consumers also buy into the lifestyle that exists around that and I think with a brand like ours authenticity is engrained in what we do and our long standing values; and that is a huge weapon in our arsenal against a competitive and healthy marketplace.

Fast fashion brands face challenges of their own don’t forget. Certainly not picking anyone out but I think there is a definite shift towards conscious consumerism and the consumer holding brands more accountable on the impact they are having on the world.

We’re hoping to lead the way on that and encourage people to buy better and buy less!


AW: Speaking about conscious consumerism, talk me through ‘Levi’s by Levi’s.

RE: It’s one of a few upcoming projects in which we are, as a brand we are offering our consumer a more sustainable way of shopping, whilst not compromising on the style or quality.

At the heart of the concept is a store in Soho that’s completely circular in its manifestation. The store itself is made using upcycled & recycled materials and what it offers is a product that encourages us all to rethink how we shop by recycling and reimagining old products for a new beginning. We are really excited by the message it puts out into the world and shows that a full circle of a product and store development can be possible, while still being done in a conscious and sustainable way.

We’ve always known that if you go into most independent vintage stores, Levi’s will almost certainly be one of the most prevalent brands in there. So, it’s also saying, why can’t we also have a point of view on what happens at the end of our product lifecycle? Why can’t we give these products new life?


AW: Do you think all brands of a certain size and influence should be looking at how they can be more environmentally conscious?

RE: Absolutely but I don’t think it should have anything to do with the size or the influence of a brand or even the brands at all. Yes, collectively brands certainly have a duty to use their platform to do good, but I think it needs to be more on a personal level. Let’s not forget that brands are made up of people, and if everyone is doing their bit in everyday life but also then applying the right pressure and having the right focus in their day jobs around sustainability or diversity inclusion, then great things will come of that as a collective.

Here at Levi’s we talk a lot about profit through principles and giving back, and I feel lucky that I’m working for a brand that takes our position in the world, in terms of the influence we have and the impact the brand has on the environmentally, very seriously.

AW: Levi’s is famous for the incredible adverts its produced over the years. Does that add pressure when looking at new campaigns?

RE: Ha good question. Not really. Of course, it’s great to look back at where we’ve been. I love our heritage ads; I grew up on those adverts myself. I think ultimately, we’re all aware that we are just guardians of this brand.

Yes we have got an illustrious marketing past, but genuinely, at Levi’s we are all focussed on writing our own chapter in that book and leaving our own legacy so that people in the future can look back on our time and go “wasn’t that a great time for the brand!”

There are things that will never be repeated. Some of our most famous ads are from the days where, your information only came from traditional channels of Press, TV, or Radio. The choice of information was far less and of course it’s a different world now.

I know that’s a bit of a cliche again, but it is genuinely a different proposition to market and there are so many different ways to communicate with our consumer in today’s society.

We know our place and don’t really let it hang over us and just get on with writing our own chapter.

AW: I love that phrase, ‘guardians of the brand’. Is that echoed through Levi’s?

RE: Yeah, that’s something we use a fair bit to be honest. We do see ourselves as exactly that. We don’t own the brand, it’s got its own history, values and heritage but it’s also got its own future.

What we do is take the brand and those values and we guide until someone else takes over.


AW: How do you gauge success of your campaigns now?

RE: There are so many ways and there is so many things we look for and I’d imagine it’s the same for any brand you talk to now. They all vary quite a lot, depending on the role of the activation in the brand ecosystem. Of course, sales metrics are centrally important to what we are trying to do, performance driven campaigns etc. there is no getting around that.

As I mentioned earlier though, one of our guiding values is the idea of profit through principals. That is built around longer-term metrics like raising awareness on what we are doing to drive our values/our commitment to communities etc.

When we look at shorter term goals and tangible metrics, I am drawn towards engagement rate, and particularly view through rates. How many people have bothered watching the whole of a piece of film? If I’ve made a piece of film with Liverpool Football Club about a one-off jacket we’ve created, how many people have actually been so engaged that they’ve watched the whole five minutes?

In an age where you can just throw loads of money at something and get lovely KPIs/numbers to call an internal wrap up document, what does it actually mean if you’ve paid somebody to watch six seconds of a 5 minute film?

I want to see how many people really have bothered reading the whole article, or dwell time on certain pages, indicators that have more substance to them and demonstrate where someone has really understood what we’re trying to do and is bought into it.

AW: Success metrics aside, which campaign are you most proud of and why?

RE: I suppose it’s not really a campaign at all. I think what I’m most proud of is what we do in the music space, specifically community music activations. The Levi’s Music Project is a long-term commitment to providing free music education to communities around the world. We have 11 Studios across five European markets currently, and that’s growing every year.

We partner with music artists, to establish these studios. We then pair them with amazing community music charities and organizations who work with local young people, musicians or people who just have an appetite to learn and want to get creative. We then set them off on these projects.

Those projects build towards key events and amazing moments that really show what an amazing amount of talent, resourcefulness, and beauty we have bubbling in our communities.

It’s also a bit of a middle finger up to, policymakers and governments, and I’m not going to specify any particular country because my role is regional but mainly to the people that say that the provision of creative arts and music shouldn’t be anywhere near the top of the list of priorities.

At Levi’s we all believe that it absolutely should be, and our role is to enable that, tell the stories, and show what happens in our spaces.

AW: Incredible! It’s amazing how removed that feels to the outsider from producing and selling Jeans.

RE: I mean, they wear jeans!!

Of course, we make sure they’ve got our clothing to wear, but you will never see one of those, strategically placed slow pans across the logo of the jeans, in our stuff.

It’s purely there for the story and to actually be there for communities and I’m proud of that.

AW: Given the size of Levi’s, most people would expect you to work with an agency of a certain size, what would you what would you say to that?

RE: Our partners vary in size. Firstly, I’m a big believer that partners are always a real extension of the brand and our teams. We do obviously work with larger pan region and pan global agencies in that space, but we’re also fully connected to a localised communities of independent partner talent, to help us bring every different facet of our brand to life.

The size of the agency doesn’t matter, we would always look at what do we need to deliver and then work towards finding out who the best partners are in that particular market. Whether walking into a meeting room in a big posh agency house, with 30 people in there ready to work on our brand or if I’m having a coffee in a coffee shop with one or two individual creatives, it doesn’t really matter.

AW: Talk me through the internal process of when you have a seed of an idea and how you take that to the point of briefing externally or internally.

RE: There isn’t really a set way that this happens to be totally honest. We have a seasonal ‘go to market’ process for our larger campaigns and product stories but I think everyone at Levi’s is a firm believer that outside of this, good ideas can come from anywhere, and from any one.

For example, the team that delivered the ‘Levi’s by Levi’s’ concept were responding to an external issue as well as the obvious external one of sustainability. What they did was apply some thought about what we can do to respond to that topic and the idea snowballed from there.

I think it’s important when having these internal meetings and discussions that we always make sure we have a clear internal point of view that is really well defined.

We also make sure to leave plenty of room for the change, development and input from our partners and agencies. I think it’s important that you go into a process like that not knowing all of the answers because otherwise why would you go to these agencies? You want their input, their creativity, their external viewpoint, and ideas.

AW: Not to open your inbox up to a bombardment of agency new business emails but what do look for in agencies, when considering working with new ones.

RE: Jumping off from the previous answer, it changes depending on the objective or what we feel we need for each concept. There are of course key requirements, we have got to be confident that the agency have got clear understanding of our brand and the audience that we’re looking to speak to. Above that I would want anyone working on our brands to have quite an entrepreneurial spirit and to have the right values mindset that is aligned to our brand.

Somebody who wants to get to the bottom of a story and tell it, instead of just a surface overlay of the brand objectives, in a kind of cookie cutter approach. I’d want it to really matter for our brand’s personality to come out. After that, flexibility, and open-mindedness to think if they don’t have the answer, let’s grab a coffee (or a pint!) and talk it through.

AW: So much more of a collaborative approach instead of a transactional relationship?

RE: Yeah, exactly. I hear that quite a lot from our external partners, especially when we work with bigger agency partners and creatives. They’re always surprised by how hands on we are at Levi’s.

Some brands I guess do everything through an agency. People are always quite surprised that they get so much one to one contact with us and I think it’s that way because the output matters so much to us.

It’s so close to what we’re thinking and feeling that we want to make sure that every piece is as good as it can be or at least as good a reflection of the intention as it can be.

AW: And finally, if there was one thing you could change about your market, what would it be?

RE: Tough one, I do think it’s clear that the fashion industry has a part to play in where the world goes next, in terms of its health, sustainability and longevity. It’s needs to be taken seriously; I’m not asking for immediate change but certainly more support for those people who are pushing for change.

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