Lessons From Levi’s on Fade-Resistant Relevance

Close up of Levi's tag on jeans

Relevance is an unspoken priority for most brands and essential to build a business that will last. It isn’t just about fresh, hip marketing campaigns — it’s about your customers, the context of their lives, and the options available to them. Understand those pieces and making a compelling case for why your product or service works for them will easily follow.

What that means exactly will vary from brand to brand. You need to find your own relevance and what that means may change over time. We recently encountered a prime example of well-maintained relevance from Levi Strauss & Co.

Find the Right Fit

More than 160 years after it was founded, Levi’s is a paragon of brand durability. After the recent completion of its second successful IPO (following a 34-year hiatus from the stock market), the iconic maker of blue jeans now has strong sales growth, despite the ultra-competitive denim market and the decline of retail.

When current CEO Chip Berg took over in 2011, however, all was not so rosy. The company was struggling with too much debt, and the industry shift to athleisure had marginalized just about every denim brand. Rather than chase the trends, Berg went in a different direction that proved to bring the Levi swagger back in a big way.

Instead of jumping on the yoga pants bandwagon, the company “stuck to its stitching” and focused on how to make its jeans for women better — more comfortable and stylish on women of all shapes and sizes. Levi’s also expanded its apparel in key areas where the competition fell short.

Before the iconic brand did any of this, the new CEO had to make some fundamental changes from the inside out, which he addresses directly in this account of the turnaround in the Harvard Business Review. And the lessons to be learned from this incredible Levi’s turnaround story are as versatile as their signature jeans:

Stay on Trend

When he first arrived at Levi Strauss, Berg discovered most employees felt the brand was just fine, even though sales had dropped sharply since the late ‘90s. There was a lack of urgency around understanding and meeting changing market needs and expectations. Among the first steps toward regaining relevance was turning the internal team culture around and get everyone 100% focused on growth.

Walk a Mile in Your Customer’s Jeans

Another thing Berg did early on as CEO was an in-home listening tour with Levi’s customers. He listened to what they had to say about when and why they wore each different pair of jeans they owned. He came away with a solid grasp on what Levi’s jeans meant to the actual people who wear them, and from that a new rallying cry and tagline for the brand emerged.

Stitch Your Origins into Your DNA

The history of Levi’s (born out of the Gold Rush) is a cool factor few brands can claim (sorry, couldn’t resist), so the company figured out a way to embrace that history while giving it a modern feel. For example, it negotiated the naming rights for Levi’s Stadium, the home of the 49ers (how fitting!), and celebrated the 50th anniversary of the trucker jean jacket by partnering with Google to develop a wearable tech version.

Remember: Quality Never Goes Out of Style

One of the strongest advantages Berg and everyone at Levi’s has going for them is that Levi’s jeans are based on a level of quality that never disappoints. Berg took his cue from other high-quality brands that were able to make themselves relevant again for a new generation, such as Ray-Ban. Although it’s clear from these brands’ recent histories, a brand can’t live on product quality alone. It’s equally clear that without that commitment to excellence, no brand can survive for long.

In the end, to be relevant, a brand has to be relatable. It all comes down to how a certain product or service relates personally to the individuals who use it. Can you think of anything more personally satisfying than slipping on a favorite pair of jeans and facing your day feeling comfortable in your own skin? That’s relevance sewn up.

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