“People have a sense for what’s true and authentic.”
No matter where Jennifer Sey found herself — whether she was at a party, in a cab, at the airport — whenever someone discovered she worked at Levi’s, they would never fail to share a story about their beloved jeans. She’s heard countless tales about the road trips, concerts, romances, and friendships that Levi’s has played a role in.
It gave Sey, the CMO of Levi’s, a hunch: people want to share their Levi’s stories. The jeans have existed since the 19th century, and the brand’s resultant iconicity means that people think of their 501s (or 505s, or 511s) as characters in their personal stories. “People wear other clothes, but they do exciting things and live their lives in Levi’s,” Sey said.
That insight gave rise to Live in Levi’s — a multichannel campaign that has unlocked personal stories from shoppers in stores to celebrities like Alicia Keys and Snoop Dogg. Inclusive as the campaign is, it’s also engaging and inspirational — and Sey believes the platform will lend itself to decades’ worth of ideas and stories for the brand.
Before Live in Levi’s, the brand had been running the Go Forth campaign, blending Americana like Walt Whitman’s “Pioneers! O Pioneers!” with depictions of today’s young, modern pioneer.
Though that campaign also showed people living their life while wearing Levi’s, Sey wanted to connect that idea more directly to the actual product. At the same time, the brand wanted to become more inclusive. Young people aren’t Levi’s only demographic; the brand can connect teens, octogenarians, and everyone in between through their personal relationships to the iconic denim. Similarly, people from every geography and background — the city dweller, the army brat, the cattle wrangler — all share personal connections through the jeans.
Sey and her team also wanted to bring the brand’s messaging closer to the optimism and warmth that people feel when recalling their stories. Showing off your new pair of Levi’s at school or sewing a patch onto your jeans evokes feelings of pride and care — Levi’s knew its messaging should evoke that.
And possibly most importantly, the team wanted a simple, big idea to get those things done. Simple concepts — think “Just do it,” or “Some things in life are priceless” — are the ones that can stick around for decades.
Sey knew that if a platform could incorporate all of the above, they’d be able to give the messaging time to sink in. “Until Go Forth, we were reinventing a new campaign every year and you never really got any huge traction,” Sey told us. “We wanted to set this brand up for another 140 years of success. And we needed a big, broad, inclusive idea to do it.”
After validating their insight — that people “had other items in their wardrobe that they wore for specific occasions, but Levi’s was their best friend that they spent their life experiences in” — through consumer research all over the world, Sey and the executive team at Levi’s relayed their requirements in a brief to agency FCB. They came back with the Live in Levi’s platform, which would elicit stories from customers of all walks of life.
“We went into this briefing wanting a 30-year idea,” Sey said. “We have one now — and we just have to be tenacious in sticking to it.”
FCB may have been the agency quarterbacking “Live in Levi’s,” but execution meant coordinating a host of internal and external marketers. That included agency partner AKQA, which was assigned to figure out how to get customers to share their stories in a digital space; media partner OMD, responsible for bringing strong content partnerships to Live In Levi’s, Levi’s internal PR team, which kicked off the platform at an event under the Brooklyn Bridge; and the brand’s creative services team, who brought it to life in brick-and-mortar stores.
With a big idea like “Live In Levi’s,” and especially with such a large ensemble of storytellers, there were no shortage of ideas for going to market. But the simplicity of the message also meant it was easy to refine and identify the ones that should be executed. “We wanted Live in Levi’s to ground everything — not just the line, but the spirit of the campaign. Warm, optimistic, real authentic moments of people experiencing their lives in Levi’s,” Sey said. “That was the filter for ideas — did it embody the spirit of Live in Levi’s?”
That “Live In Levi’s” ethos governed messaging no matter the channel or tactic. For instance, in 2015, when the brand approached Alicia Keys, they wanted to know she was a true follower of Levi’s. “When I first met Alicia Keys, one of the very first things I asked her, ‘do you have memories of Levi’s you can share with us?’ We wanted people who actually wore Levi’s and actually loved the brand. We didn’t want a mercenary, pay-for-hire situation.”
Stories from celebrities and from the common customer would become fuel for the Live in Levi’s project — in order to get people sharing stories, the team realized, they had to share some first. Different mediums meant different types of storytelling; on digital, this could take the form of simple photos of Levi’s wearers at the Superbowl or at a music festival, or it could be more heartfelt letters and responses to each other’s stories.
And in brick-and-mortar stores, the Jeans themselves became a storytelling medium. “In stores we would pin up real people’s jeans and let them write on a board explaining the story behind each marking on the jean,” Sey explained. The team would find employees at these locations to highlight; “they would literally be telling the story of their life through these jeans.” Employee and fan stories would also be hosted on the campaign’s digital gallery.
Eventually, the team found that the brand as a whole was changing how it was represented. “Even for things that are more product focused and aren’t so influenced by the campaign, the attitude of the campaign and its optimism and inclusiveness has affected our media strategies and our product assortment. It’s had a transformational effect on how we present ourselves as a brand, not just our marketing.”
The campaign taught Sey and her team at least three core lessons that lie at the center of a decades-long campaign.
First: be product-focused. Customers are more than a purchase — they’re people who live their lives 24 hours at a time, often times not thinking of your brand. But a marketer’s job is to tie a platform directly to the product. “If you’re not connecting to what you’re selling — what people know you for — what’s the point?”
Second: be true. “People have a sense for what is true and what is authentic. The thing about this campaign that works so well is no one doubts its authenticity and its truth.” By giving the power of storytelling to customers, Levi’s has found a well of real stories that will fuel their marketing for years to come.
Which brings us to Levi’s final learning: Give it time. The best marketing platforms don’t change year after year; they stick around because the brand has given it time to thrive. “We’re in our third year of the campaign, and we think we have at least 20 years more,” she told us. “I work with a bunch of creative people who want to do new things all the time, but that doesn’t mean the consumer is ready for it.”
When you have a big idea, don’t move on. Learn to live in it. M.