How would you revive a flagging fashion brand?

Puma is one brand that has successfully turned its image around in recent years. After losing US$32 million on sales of just US$190 million in 1993, the German sportswear maker picked up its image to achieve US$36 million earnings on revenue that reached US$540 million in 2001. By combining serious sportswear with high fashion, the brand has risen from the doldrums to be among the fashion greats. And if analysts' predictions are accurate, Puma's sales will almost double by 2005.

Puma is one brand that has successfully turned its image around in recent years. After losing US$32 million on sales of just US$190 million in 1993, the German sportswear maker picked up its image to achieve US$36 million earnings on revenue that reached US$540 million in 2001. By combining serious sportswear with high fashion, the brand has risen from the doldrums to be among the fashion greats. And if analysts’ predictions are accurate, Puma’s sales will almost double by 2005.

So how did this dramatic turnaround come about? A concert appearance in 1994 by the rap band, Beastie Boys, wearing blue suede Puma Clyde sneakers, did wonders for the image of the brand. Chairman Jochen Zeitz hired Antonio Bertone (now global director of brand management) to pitch the shoes to urban boutiques frequented by trendsetters. And a constant stream of new styles was given away to young influencers in clubs and concerts. Today, tennis star Serena Williams endorses the brand’s tennis gear.

Meanwhile, the once-hip denim brand, Levi’s, is fading faster than a new pair of jeans, as competing brands become less expensive and more in-touch with the latest fashion.

After suffering declining sales for the past five years, the San Francisco-based firm announced in April that it will close six U.S. plants and lay off 3,300 workers as it halts almost all U.S. manufacturing operations. Globally, the company saw its net revenues drop from US$6.86 billion in 1997 to US$4.23 billion for the fiscal year ended Nov. 25.

While numerous ad campaigns have done little to lure teens from the store racks of rival designers, the ailing brand is undoubtedly pulling out the stops around the globe to revive its image. A new store design was introduced to Levi’s Toronto Eaton Centre location in March, featuring a minimalist layout intended to resemble a display of fresh food. The design, taken from a concept that originated in the U.K., involves jeans draped from poles like spaghetti, while curved shelves allow clothes to take on a lasagna-like form and rolls of jeans and tops represent freshly baked bread. Five other Levi’s stores in Canada will take on the new format this year, together with numerous others around the globe.

‘Innovation is one of the hallmarks of the product,’ says Julie Klee, director of marketing at Levi Strauss & Co. (Canada). ‘This concept is designed to appeal to our loyal older consumers while providing an interesting attraction to the younger consumers who are hard to please.’ Klee says the new design forms part of a long-running strategy to revitalize the struggling brand and capture the lucrative 15- to 24-year-old market, Levi’s target demo.

The program also saw the launch of a North American TV campaign, which first aired in Canada on March 18. Levi’s created a buzz around the campaign by introducing it initially on its Web site and asking browsers to vote for their favourite spot. The winning ‘Crazy Legs’ ad promotes the new Flyweight jean line. Created by TBWA/Chiat/Day in San Francisco, and adapted for the Canadian market by FCB Toronto, it features a guy who demonstrates his flexible dance moves. The campaign also includes a spot for Levi’s Superlow Stretch Jeans for women. ‘There is a tendency for people to regard Levi’s as a male brand so we are trying to increase our focus on women,’ Klee says. She adds that the retailer plans to open a new street-level store in Toronto in June.

To some extent, the efforts to attract more young consumers appear to be paying off. A 2001 study by Toronto-based retail analyst Kubas Consultants, found that 60% of people who had shopped for women’s casual wear at the store Levi’s 1850 in the past 12 months, fell into the 18-to-29 age bracket. This figure rose from just 46% in the 1997 study.

But will these strategies be sufficient to overhaul the brand’s drowning reputation? What more could the once-hip Levi’s brand do to re-build its flagging image and win back the hearts – and the dollars – of today’s fickle young trendsetters? Strategy asked four industry experts.

Ron Telpner, CEO

Brainstorm Group, Toronto

(Brainstorm Group promoted Canadian denim brand Silver Jeans in Canada and the U.S., boosting sales from $3 million in 1993 to $90 million in 2001.)

Telpner advises forming partnerships with ‘opinion leader’ stores and launching a grassroots marketing campaign. He also recommends creating a more modern looking jean style to compete with younger brands.

‘It starts with the product itself. They have made mistakes in the past with ideas like cut-price Levi’s that made the brand less desirable, and then they came up with Engineered Jeans and the customer didn’t react to that.’ (Engineered Jeans with twisted seams were launched in Canada in 2000 in the hope of rejuvenating Levi’s ‘coolness.’)

‘They need to concentrate on being modern to compete with the modern brands. If we look at who’s buying jeans, it is the 14- to 18-year-old young woman and she is wearing low-rise jeans with an interesting wash. It’s more about the fit and look and wash and feel of the fabric than the label. Levi’s just doesn’t have the cachet for the younger generation any more.

‘You need to get great-looking opinion leaders in every school wearing the product. Go out to the schools and distribute locker posters. These kids have their parents’ credit cards and they can spend serious money. If teens aren’t wearing them, they won’t grow a huge market with people who are 35+.

‘They need to get the brand into opinion leader stores in every market, like Off the Wall or Below the Belt in Vancouver, and Jean Machine in Toronto. If you’re not in those stores, you’re not happening.’

In 1993 Brainstorm launched a grassroots guerilla marketing campaign to promote Silver Jeans into Canada and the U.S., a route that Telpner believes could also breathe some freshness into the Levi’s brand.

‘For Silver we drew a chalk mark around jeans on the ground and nailed Silver jeans to the spot, in front of high-profile locations like TV stations and clubs in different markets. When the jeans were stolen, we were left with a chalk outline bearing the Silver Jeans logo. We took the jeans to fashion shows and also did a lot of work with retailers and sent them sledge hammers attached to a note that said: ‘We will hammer the competition.”

Irving Tajfel, president

Neon, Montreal

(This Quebec and Ontario-based retailer stocks fashion jeans, including Levi’s, at discount prices)

Tajfel advises a multi-media ad campaign targeting two separate markets. He also suggests forming associations with role models such as actors and singers.

‘First and foremost, you have to advertise and you have to have a very clear idea of who your customer is. You need to plaster it all over the place to really make a noise: radio, print and outdoor are all good media for a brand like Levi’s.

‘Levis targets the 15-to-25 group but they also have a secondary market of 25- to 50-year-olds and they need to work hard not to lose that group by building two separate ad campaigns. So while they need to be advertising to that existing older customer they also need to be advertising to make the brand cool.

‘To do that, they need to get into the right stores and on to the right people. Actors, singers and sports personalities are useful fashion icons, but you have to pick the right ones. That is the way to make it a sought after brand so everyone will want a piece of it.’

Adrienne Simmons, retail analyst

Kubas Consultants, Toronto

Simmons recommends expanding the brand’s association with music to attract the younger consumer, and sponsoring events such as school dance parties. She also suggests more consumer research.

‘Levi’s is a long-established brand that has always been popular with older folks. The brand faced the tough decision of growing with those old supporters – the baby boomer population that always wore Levi’s in their youth – or they could continue to target the younger generation.

‘The problem that they faced when they chose to focus on that 15-to-24 age group is that a lot of those young people regard Levi’s as the kind of jeans that their parents wear. They don’t regard them as hip and cool. [Levi's] are known for their quality and durability but that’s not necessarily something that’s regarded as important to younger shoppers.

‘The brand seems to have bounced around trying different things, when what they really should do is focus on one solid quality. One of their best marketing choices was to associate themselves with MuchMusic, as that is a brand that is hip and relevant to that target market. They could definitely be doing more to build on their association with music. For example they could sponsor events like school dance parties. That sort of association also lends itself very well to contests and promos, which could really boost the brand.

‘They need to do more research and get customer feedback to find new ways to appeal to that target market and to keep up the interest by constantly changing and innovating.’

Bruce Philp, partner

Garneau Wurstlin Philp Brand Engineering, Toronto

In Bruce Philp’s opinion, Levi’s should steer away from diverse promotional activities and focus instead on strong advertising aimed at the mass market.

‘The last thing in the world that Levi’s is is new. The harder it tries to be a part of that hip young club, the less credible it becomes as a brand. What Levi’s has in its favour is that it is an authentic, quality brand, and there is still a place in fashion for authenticity.

‘The smartest way to reclaim its place now is to withdraw back into the product itself and come up with some solid advertising aimed at the mass market.

‘My temptation would be to create advertising that doesn’t identify a consumer at all. When you look at the competitors, they are all determined to be badges, so it makes sense for Levi’s to try not to be a badge. The way to achieve that is not to offer any clues as to whom you’re targeting. These are in fact just great blue jeans. They are everybody’s blue jeans and that should be the point of the advertising.’