Levi's approach to marketing: Then and now
Did you know jeans are a direct byproduct of the California Gold Rush?
From 1848–1855, 300,000 people moved to California to make their fortune in gold. While most miners came up short in the end, the companies that supplied the exploding population with goods made a killing.
Enter Levi Strauss. A Jewish-German immigrant from Bavaria, Strauss moved to San Francisco in 1853 to set up the west coast headquarters for his brothers' New York dry goods business. The Strauss family had been watching from the east coast as people flocked to California to “Manifest Destiny”, and they wanted a piece of it.
The business, then called Levi Strauss and Co., saw success selling a variety of products, but it was ultimately through the sale of denim that it struck gold of its own.
The ultimate collab: Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis
Jacob Davis, a Latvian tailor, had been a loyal customer of Strauss’ for many years when he came up with an idea: denim pants reinforced with copper rivets.
In other words, jeans.
Davis was frustrated that denim pants for Gold Rush workers always seemed to wear in the same places, like the pocket corners and at the base of the button fly. He knew adding copper rivets would make denim pants much more durable, and he wanted to patent the idea.
But there was just one problem—he didn’t have the money to buy a patent.
Ever wonder what a 130-year-old pair of jeans looks like? Well, here it is. Credit: Fortune
That’s when he approached Levi Strauss, who had been supplying Davis with denim for many years. Davis asked Strauss if he wanted to go into business together, and on May 20, 1873, the patent for jeans came through. Levi’s, as we know it today, was born.
While Levi’s has seen its share of success over the years, the company has also known its fair share of struggles to stay relevant. Keep reading to find out more about the lessons Levi’s learned amidst missed fashion trends, ten years of falling revenue, debt, and a comeback no one expected.
Pre-patent for jeans
1847: Levi Strauss emigrates to the United States via New York at age 18.
1853: Levi Strauss moves to San Francisco to open the west coast headquarters of his family’s dry goods business.
1872: Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis go into business together to produce jeans.
Post-patent for jeans
1873: Levi Strauss & Co. receives a patent for riveted jeans.
1886: The Two Horse brand leather patch is first used on Levi’s “waist overalls”, later known as “jeans”.
1890: Levi’s patent for jeans goes into the public domain, and other manufacturers are now allowed to produce jeans. Levi’s names its jeans “501” as a way to differentiate its famous design.
1902: Levi Strauss dies, leaving the business to his four nephews, Jacob, Sigmund, Louis, and Abraham Stern.
Post-Levi Strauss’ death
1912: Levi’s releases Koveralls, a denim playsuit for children and its first product sold nationwide in the United States.
1913: Levi’s sees its first jeans rival in Lee, which sells Union-Alls, a one-piece denim coverall for factory workers.
1928: The company registers the word “Levi’s” as a trademark, and the Two Horse brand falls under the Levi’s name.
1934: Levi’s releases its first blue jeans for women.
1939: John Wayne’s western movies start to popularize jeans.
1940s: The U.S. government issues jeans to soldiers to wear off-duty, and the trend sticks when they return from the war.
1955: James Dean wears jeans in the movie Rebel without a Cause. Jeans become a symbol of rebellion among baby boomers.
1961: Marilyn Monroe popularizes jeans for women when she wears Levi’s in the movie Misfit.
Post-IPO number one
1971: Levi’s goes public for the first time. Throughout the 1970s, Levi’s would grow annually by an average of 37%.
1974: Levi’s reaches $1 billion in revenue.
1976: Levi’s doubles down on its all-American brand strategy with its famous Route 66 ad.
1981: Levi’s sells nearly 589 million jeans.
1984: Levi’s revenue plunges by 78% due to new competition and missed trends.
Return to private company
1984: The company goes private again as Levi Strauss’ descendants take on $1.6 billion in debt to buy back the company from public shareholders.
1986: VF Corporation buys Wrangler after buying Lee in 1969. Levi’s top two competitors on price are now under one brand.
1986: Levi’s launches Dockers as a new line of business casual clothing. The move saves the company from financial ruin.
1996: While Levi’s sees success with Dockers, they also take on multibillion-dollar debt to finance stock buyouts for family members.
1997: Levi’s sales peak at $7.1 billion.
Post-IPO number two
1997–2002: Levi’s sales fall every year after their peak, due to competition from high-end brands like Calvin Klein, True Religion, and Diesel.
2004: Levi’s closes its last U.S. plant, giving into the pressure to outsource overseas for cheap labor.
2011: Levi’s hires Chip Bergh as CEO to lead the company to recovery.
2013: Levi’s signs a $220 million deal for the naming rights to the San Francisco 49ers football stadium.
2012–2015: Levi’s consistently captures 11% of the denim market in the U.S.
2015–2018: Levi’s sales of women’s jeans increase by more than $200 million.
2017: The Kardashians wear Levi’s in their famous Christmas card.
2017: Annual sales see recovery at $4.9 billion.
2018: Levi’s remakes Air Jordan shoes in denim as part of their first sneaker drop.
2019: Levi’s goes public for the second time to help pay off remaining debt—so the company can focus on growth.
2020: Levi’s direct ecommerce revenue grows by 52% in its third fiscal quarter compared to the same period last year.
Lesson #1: When patents expire, build strong brand trademarks.
From 1873 to 1890, Levi’s enjoyed exclusive rights to produce "a pair of pantaloons having the pocket‐openings secured at each edge by means of rivets."
At the time, jeans weren’t even called “jeans”—they were called “waist overalls”. They also wouldn’t be overtly attached to the Levi’s brand until 1928, when the company finally trademarked its name. Until then, Levi’s famous jeans fell under the “Two Horse brand”.
Levi’s knew its patent would enter public domain in 1890 and that competitors would begin to flood the market with their versions of jeans. As a preemptive measure, Levi’s developed its signature Two Horse brand leather patch to demonstrate the strength of their jeans and signal to their customers that they were the original makers of quality waist overalls.
The Levi’s Two Horse brand leather patch communicates a few things:
- A reminder that Levi’s held the original patent on jeans
- Levi’s is a San Francisco brand—which would set them up for their all-American brand strategy later
- Levi’s jeans are strong and durable for its main buyer, the “working man”
- Levi’s jeans were named “501”
To this day, the company doesn’t know why the number “501” was chosen as a product name. In 1906, the San Francisco earthquake and subsequent fires burned down the original Levi’s headquarters, destroying most of the company’s historical documentation along with it.
What Levi’s can surmise from that time, however, is that they understood their audience. At the time, not all of their customers—men working in factories or trades—spoke English as their first language, nor were they necessarily literate.
After several years of brand building, Levi’s customers would walk into a store and ask for “those pants with the two horses”—a sign that brand recognition had been successfully established post-patent.
Key takeaway: Develop visual brand recognition and strong messaging early, especially if you’re first to market. Competition will always exist, but a strong brand can help companies beat it.
Lesson #2: Women can wear jeans, too.
Lady Levi’s jeans dropped in 1934 for “western women wearing Levi’s jeans on farms and ranches.”
At the time, dude ranches were popular tourist destinations. Office life had sanitized the human experience enough that men and women alike craved getaways that replicated the cowboy days of yesteryear, when life was less “corporate formal” and more “wild west.”
For women, dude ranches were spaces where they were treated as equals. During her dude ranch vacation, a woman could pull on a pair of her husband’s Levi’s jeans and exorcise her urban frustrations by working cattle or riding a horse, just like the men.
Levi’s saw an opportunity to capitalize on the dude ranch trend, so they did something unorthodox for the time: They designed an entire line of jeans just for women. While it wasn’t the first time the company would target a female audience—in 1918, Levi’s made “Freedom-Alls,” a one-piece denim garment for World War I work—it was the brand’s first real progressive move toward everyday casual women’s wear.
The move into women’s apparel was slow. From 1934 to the 1950s, Levi’s tested Lady Levi’s in markets across the United States before nationwide expansion. They took the time to listen to their female customers and made tweaks to their product as a result. For example, women didn’t like the standard button fly so Levi’s switched it out for a zipper, a standard that persists in jeans today.
Key takeaway: Pay attention to persistent trends with strong social listening practices. New audiences force product innovations that can lead to massive business growth.
Lesson #3: Celebrity endorsements are everything.
Jeans received a significant boost during World War II when the U.S. government designated “dungarees” as “staple work clothing” for the war effort. For the first time, Levi’s jeans were distributed worldwide to U.S. military outposts as casual wear, which kicked off the era of jeans as leisurewear rather than work apparel.
When veterans returned from the war, they continued to wear jeans when they weren’t at work. Veterans were seen as heroes, and jeans were thus associated with a sort of optimistic patriotism—another spark for the evolution of Levi’s as an all-American brand.
But the association between jeans and heroism wouldn’t last long as Levi’s began to target a younger audience, specifically baby boomers—which by their very name were taking over the country.
While post-war America is characterized by the restoration of social order after a chaotic time, a rebellion against that social order was just as prominent among the motorcycle gangs of the 1950s and the hippies of the 1960s. Jeans became a symbol of that rebellion when “bad boy” movie stars wore them—which of course made baby boomer teens want to wear them even more.
The association between jeans and rebellion was solidified when James Dean wore jeans in the movie Rebel Without a Cause. Unfortunately, Dean preferred classic straight leg Lee 101Z Rider jeans, which he publicly endorsed.
Marlon Brando, on the other hand, endorsed Levi’s classic 501 design when he played Johnny, the head of a motorcycle gang, in the 1953 film The Wild One. Marilyn Monroe followed when she became one of the first women to wear 501 jeans in a film, first River of No Return in 1954, then The Misfits in 1961.
What followed in the 1960s and 1970s was a jeans bonanza. After years of keeping up with trends and nailing bell bottom jeans fashion, Levi’s eventually captured most of the denim jean market and reached $1 billion in revenue by 1974.
Key takeaway: A few major celebrity endorsements can create ripple effects that translate to decades of success. When celebrity endorsements align with zeitgeist, brands are well positioned to become top of mind.
Lesson #4: “All American” is a great brand strategy.
As Levi’s embraced its role as provider of casual wear to the nation’s rebels, the brand leaned into its all-American appeal. Levi’s wouldn’t outsource production to developing countries until the 1990s, and until then all of its clothes were Made in the USA.
Levi’s brand evolution is so linear it’s almost mundane: Levi’s began as a west coast company serving seekers of the American Dream, then pivoted from workwear to casual apparel for a new generation of American rebels. Levi’s all-American brand of the 1970s seemed almost inevitable, and all Levi’s needed to do was amplify facets of their identity that had developed organically over decades.
In 1976, Levi’s famous Route 66 ad—shot by Hollywood director Adrian Lyne—is one of the most famous examples of all-American story advertising, which was new at the time in a video format.
The ad tells the story of two young women whose car breaks down on Route 66. When they’re rescued by a hot truck driver, shenanigans ensue as the girls embark on a classic American road trip complete with diner food, a rock concert, and police evasion. It’s sexy. It’s wild. It’s Americana at its finest.
Levi’s did a great job extending its 1950s bad boy imagery to other tales of American rebellion. Brad Pitt’s 1990 Levi’s ad tells the story of a man who gets out of jail and is picked up by the quintessential 90s’ “hot girl”, who helps him get revenge on the warden by … posing for a photoshoot?
As nonsensical and sexist as it was, Brad Pitt’s role in the ad and subsequently in Thelma and Louise the next year would serve as a callback to the James Dean and Marlon Brando associations that worked so well for Levi’s in the 1950s.
But Levi’s all-American strategy would only get them so far, especially as they closed their American factories in the 1990s and would begin to feel the effects of falling behind on fashion trends.
Key takeaway: Know your brand and lean into organic cultural relevance—but be prepared to shift your strategy as trends change.
Lesson #5: Pay attention to fashion trends … and competitors.
The 1980s marked the beginning of a long dark period for Levi’s as they closed nearly 60 manufacturing plants to weather financial difficulties.
In 1986, VF Corporation—owner of Levi’s competitor Lee—bought Wrangler. The deal would unite two of Levi’s top competitors on price under one brand. That same year Levi’s launched Dockers, a new line of business casual clothing that popularized khakis for the office. The move saved Levi’s from financial ruin as they became less dependent on denim and gained a larger share of the business casual market.
Dockers was the Band-Aid Levi’s needed to grow their business as designer jeans competitors such as Calvin Klein and True Religion nipped at their heels in the 1990s and early aughts. In 1996, Levi’s reached peak revenue at $7.1 billion, largely due to the success of Dockers in Europe—but that success was short-lived as Levi’s core jeans business took a beating.
Between 1997 to 2002, Levi’s sales fell every year as they struggled to compete with designer brands Tommy Hilfiger, True Religion, and Diesel, in addition to value brands like Lee and Wrangler. Levi’s missed the low-rise trend of the early aughts and fell out of favor with a new generation of Britney Spears/Justin Timberlake fans.
Levi’s had stopped paying attention to trends and paid for it in the worst way possible—they were now labeled “uncool”.
Key takeaway: Invest in the resources to stay ahead of trends and be nimble enough to act on them quickly.
Lesson #6: Be part of the cultural conversation.
Fast forward to 2011—Chip Bergh is the new CEO of Levi’s, and he’s on a mission to make the brand cool again. After a listening tour during which he talked to the company’s top 60 executives, Bergh began to make some aggressive moves to revive the Levi’s brand.
One of those moves was a return to the company’s roots as a San Francisco brand. To start, Bergh moved the Levi’s Eureka Innovation Lab—a hub “dedicated to design, research and creative development”—from Turkey back to San Francisco, four blocks away from Levi’s HQ.
Then, in 2013, Levi’s closed a $220 million deal for the naming rights to the San Francisco 49ers football stadium. Until 2033, anyone who sets foot in that stadium will know the Levi’s name and see that the brand hasn’t died an untimely death.
“The people who attend concerts and NFL games are Levi’s core customers,” Bergh wrote in an article for the Harvard Business Review, “so this would put our brand back at the center of the cultural conversation. Today the 49ers mascot wears Levi’s jeans, our brand is all over the stadium, and we can entertain important stakeholders in great seats.”
Key takeaway: Invest in brand awareness that can’t necessarily be measured with precision. Top of mind brand awareness requires an omnichannel approach, and when you understand how members of your core audience spend their time, you can make smart investments to capture their attention and be part of their cultural conversation.
Lesson #7: Strive to be cool.
In 2017, Levi’s landed the white whale of brand endorsements: the Kardashians Christmas card. With the whole family sporting Levi’s jeans in all manners of style, the moment was a turning point for the brand that had dropped from all-American cool to bargain bin Mom jeans.
That same year, Levi’s saw annual sales to $4.9 billion. Still a far cry from their 1996 peak at $7.1 billion, but a sign of recovery nonetheless. Between 2015 to 2018, Levi’s sales of women’s jeans increased by more than $200 million.
In 2018, Levi’s dipped their toes into the cool pool once more with a remake of the Air Jordan in denim as part of their first sneaker drop with Nike.
Complete with a classic Levi’s “Two Horses” patch, the sneaker drop was such a success that police had to disperse crowds in New York over safety concerns—the event in Soho was ultimately postponed. In San Francisco, people were offering others up to $100 for a place in line to buy the shoe.
Yes, Levi’s had clawed its way back to cool. In 2019 the company went public for the second time in history and is now setting its sights on paying down the remainder of their billion-dollar debt.
For the first time since its heyday in the 1970s, Levi’s may just be able to focus on the thing that’s been eluding them: growth.
Levi’s future in ecomm: Finally, growth opportunities ahead
In 2020, Levi’s direct ecommerce revenue grew by 52% in its third fiscal quarter—all despite a global pandemic wherein most of the world rejected jeans in favor of sweatpants.
According to Chip Bergh, one-third of Levi’s business now comes from selling direct-to-consumer via the Levi’s website and company-owned retail locations. Despite 700 job cuts, a 2020 overall revenue loss of $127 million, and closure of wholesale stores during the pandemic, Levi’s is now an omnichannel brand—a future they’re betting on with everything they’ve got.
Marc Rosen, president of Levi Strauss Americas, said on the Retail Gets Real podcast, “Consumers really want to shop a brand and they want to shop that brand regardless of channel. A consumer doesn’t say, ‘Am I going to shop digitally? Am I going to shop online today? Am I going to shop in store?’ They say, ‘I want to buy Levi’s,’ and they want an experience buying Levi’s across stores and online that is a seamless consumer experience.”
As the pandemic winds down and people bust out their jeans again, Levi’s is well positioned as a cool brand again for people of all ages.
It also doesn’t hurt that Mom jeans are cool again.