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Today I rekindle my love affair with Levi’s, examining their marketing along the way.

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Hey everybody. I have a fun idea for the show this week… I get a little personal, I tell a few stories, I get a little into fashion trends, but as usual tie it all into some marketing. The topic is Levi’s Jeans. Let’s break it down into four acts.

Act 1 – The Corduroy Years (1980s)

Let me set the scene. Picture a young Jim Hopkinson in 1980, just 11 years old, in the middle-class suburbs 15 miles south of Boston. Probably in sixth grade, through junior high and then into high school. This is a very impressionable time as a young adult, when peer pressure is at its highest and every piece of clothing, haircut, and friendship is scrutinized.

Let me be clear. There was one – and only one – pair of acceptable pants to be worn. Levi’s cords. There really was no other option. Your dresser was filled with identical Levi’s cords: a black pair, a brown pair, a tan pair, a white pair, a navy pair, and a maroon pair.

The problem was, Levi’s were relatively expensive. I want to say they started around $14 and might have been as high as $22 in some stores. The problem is that parents knew they could buy a pair of Lee Jeans or – god forbid – Toughskins that were going for $9.99. Myself and a few other comedians have made the connection in adulthood, that looking back it cost our parents about $5 to make us go from the object of bully beatings for wearing Wranglers, to being completely accepted and wearing Levi’s.

So we had to do whatever we could to make sure we got those cords. That included an annual back to school trip to neighboring Quincy, where it was rumored that one store had a huge sale and you could get two pairs for $20. The other option was Marshalls… under some bizarre resell agreement, they were allowed to sell Levi’s at a discount, but only if they ripped the patch off. Somehow, this was acceptable to the fashion police, as you still had the trademark stitching on the pockets.

But they weren’t true Levi’s. I remember an amazing schoolyard verbal throwdown between Jimmy Gross and Paul Hickey. They were arguing about a baseball call or something or other and it turned in insult about clothing and Paul claiming he had more Levi’s than Jimmy, and Jimmy shot back ‘You want to compare? Total number of Levi’s. Cords only. WITH the patch.’

It was that last emphasis that was the knockout blow to Paul’s argument. He sulked away. And yes, that conversation really happened. I didn’t know about the power of marketing and branding at the time, but I was taught a life lesson right there. That patch meant everything.

Act 2 – Stonewashed Jeans (1990s)

Act 2 for me actually started in the late 80s of high school, throughout college in the early 90s, and beyond. We’re going to move quickly through this stage because of 2 words:

Stonewashed Jeans.

Levi’s were still popular and affordable, but all photos of this era should be banished. Luckily, I never descended to the next level down, which included acid-washed and ripped jeans. Look at the photo… this guy knew his buddy shouldn’t be wearing acid wash jeans.

Once again, I was never really aware of any marketing that the company was doing. I had always worn Levi’s, my friends all wore Levi’s, and now we were just choosing the style that was popular at the time.

But this is where their problems started. According to a 1999 Fortune article on Levi’s, beginning around 1993, customer’s choices changed. Levi’s typically made jeans with 16-inch-wide legs, but the trend was going baggy, expanding up to 23 inches, while some brands went as crazy as 40 inch wide legs. At the same time, department stores were going out of favor, as more and more kids shopped at The Gap. Through it all, Levi Strauss kept on pushing its basic jeans.

Act 3 – The lost customer (2000s)

Act three coincides with my move from casual Seattle to fashion-centric New York City. Please hold your judgment of my fashion choices to yourself – I’m not saying I’m GQs Fashion Editor, I’m just a guy thrust into a new city, becoming keenly aware of the trends surrounding me.

And one thing that trend did NOT include, was Levi’s Jeans. But it wasn’t just me. I looked around at work and at every event, and there wasn’t a pair of 505s to be found.

There were three things that were happening, and Levi’s missed them all:

1) The jeans were getting darker.
No longer being worn were the light blue, stonewashed, broken in jeans that you’d wear around the house on the weekend. Instead, darker colors allowed you to have the comfort of jeans at the office, even pairing it with a sports coat and shoes, without looking like you just came from a pickup football game.

2) The fabric was changing.
It was a subtle thing, but the new types of jeans I was seeing had almost a cross-stitch look, vs standard Levi’s having more of a grainy look.

3) Things were going upscale.
This is where Levi’s really missed the mark, especially for women. Seemingly out of nowhere, companies like Seven for All Mankind, True Religion, Diesel, and Citizens of Humanity were everywhere. At one point in time, every woman in New York City had a pair of the Seven jeans pictured here.

More damaging to Levi’s, is that the entire market moved dramatically upscale, with the price of jeans jumping into the hundreds of dollars.

Looking back at this 2005 Forbes article about the luxury jeans market, stats show jeans that cost more than $100 made up only 1% of the $14 billion industry. However, from 2003-2004, women’s jeans sales jumped nearly a billion dollars, from $6.6 billion to $7.4 billion.

I remember searching for Levi’s that matched what the trend was: I wanted to pay the $30 or $40 that I usually paid for jeans, but I wanted dark colors for work and that fabric that the high end had. Sadly, they had missed the boat.

How badly did they miss the boat? see this Money/CNN article, How Levi’s Trashed a Great American Brand. From 1996 through 1998, Levi Strauss’ market value shrunk from $14 billion to about $8 billion. By comparison, the Gap grew from $7 billion to over $40 billion.

Let me repeat that. Levi’s lost 6 BILLION DOLLARS in less than three years.

Before I knew it, marketing from stores like The Gap, Banana Republic, and Kenneth Cole had grabbed my attention. Although I refused to cross over to the high end and pay more than $100, I soon found myself shelling over $78 without hesitation.

In this NY Times article about what the current look of jeans is, Michael Williams concurs with the current style:

Stick to dark blues and let real wear do the job of distressing your trousers. Buy jeans rinsed if you cannot stand to break in trousers that initially feel as if they had been cut from a refrigerator box with a utility knife. Whatever you do, steer well away from those pale blue relaxed-fit denims that caused President Obama so much grief when he was accused of wearing mom jeans.

The result was that I went 10 full years without buying a single pair of Levi’s.

Act 4 – I’m back (2010-)

Over those 10 years, I actually felt bad for abandoning the brand that I had known since elementary school. I wanted to come back, but it was never the right time.

Don’t worry, I haven’t become a slave to fashion so much that I’ve crossed over to skinny jeans, or as this British article from 2008 describes, started wearing women’s jeans.

And then over Thanksgiving 2010 I found myself in a Massachusetts beach town on Cape Cod on a cold, rainy day. I wandered into a clothing store and came across something interesting.

Here was a pair of Levi’s jeans, but not like any I’d seen before.
– The color was perfect — the dark blue I was used to wearing, but stressed out with subtle tones to make it interesting.
– The style was modeled slightly after high end jeans with some unique details, but definitely wasn’t gaudy in any way.
– The fabric was something new to me, and absolutely like nothing I’d ever seen on a previous pair of Levi’s. It had the cross-stitch kind of look, but it was lighter than their traditional denim.
– Intrigued, I decided to try them on, where I was amazed at the way they fit. Again, unlike any other pair I’d owned from them.
– So when I asked the salesperson how much they cost, and they said they were $68 but on sale for $48, there was never a doubt. I was back.

But that brought forth an interesting question. I didn’t really care – I loved my new purchase.

But as a single guy in Manhattan, I was curious and it made me wonder…
Did women care at all about the types of jeans guys wear?

I could assume that I would attract a certain response if I was wearing stonewashed jeans from Act 2 or pants that were falling off my butt – I still think this will go down as the most ridiculous fashion trend in the last 25 years — but I didn’t think it really mattered. This is when I looked at the marketing angle as well.

But did women care more about the BRAND of jeans I wore?
Would they have an opinion that I was wearing an old-school brand like Levi’s vs some kind of designer?
Or were the most likely to notice the style?
Or not even care at all?

So I asked found the article, Men And Jeans: Do You Give A Damn?, but it’s a little scattered.

So I asked the women around the fashionable Conde Nast office, and without fail, they immediately said the STYLE was more important.

So where does that leave Levi’s? It means if they are to evolve, they must swallow their pride and rely less on their brand, and make sure first and foremost they are keeping up with styles that people want.

Are they getting the message and finally listening to their customers? It appears so:

For example, they’ve just come out with their Curve ID line, jeans that are based on a woman’s shape, and not on her size. By collaborating with 60,000 women around the world, Levi’s has engineered three Curve ID custom types for every womanly curve possible ‘using the ratio of a woman’s high hip and seat measurements.” A spokesperson said, “Since we launched Levi’s Curve ID, our women’s business doubled”

As for me, what happened next? After wearing my new Levi’s for a few weeks, they instantly became my favorite pair of jeans. Now I was on a mission.

I searched New York City for a second pair. I wanted something with that very unique, lighter denim, but not identical to the first pair I owned. I had to hit 2-3 stores, but then I hit the mother lode. A perfect second pair — not for the list price of $68… not for the sales price of $44… but for 50% off THAT price, bringing my total to 1980s level of $22.

I had truly come full circle.

Guys, what are your favorite jeans?
Women, do you agree that style trumps brand?
And all you marketers out there, what companies do you see missing the boat?
Hit me up on Twitter @HopkinsonReport, or e-mail me

— Special thanks to Christina Brown (@ichristina2010) for helping gather some of the research used in this show

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