Die In Levi's
From "Live in Levi's" to "Die in Levi's", a morbid ad campaign marks the 150th birthday of the 501 blue jean
The patent for the Levi’s 501 blue jean was signed in 1873, making this year the 150th anniversary of the most worn and loved jean in history.
It’s definitely my personal favorite. It truly stands the test of time:
Before I left Levi Strauss & Co. in February 2022, we had already started planning the festivities to mark this moment. And now, I find myself dumbfounded as I watch from the sidelines, that the company has put out an ad set at a funeral, as a way to “celebrate” the birthday of the blue jean (as we called it) and entice people to try out some Levi’s.
The company has chosen to go from a campaign featuring people who “Live in Levi’s” to those who “Die in Levi’s,” as a way to say Happy Birthday 501. Seriously? Do they not see the death knell irony here?
Why do I care? Why do I keep talking about Levi’s and how the business is being managed? Well, I spent close to 23 years there. I know that brand inside and out; I know what works to engage new fans and validate the attachment of lifelong wearers; and I care because I spent nearly half my life building it — or rebuilding it, might be more accurate. Despite the conflict I had at the company in my last two years, I hate to see the brand diminished with such embarrassing fare.
And I can tell you, this latest ad is awful. The overall campaign that this particular ad is a part of is called “The Greatest Story Every Worn.” Cool. I can get behind that. In my consumer research days at Levi’s, we were often told by fans: “I wear other things but I live my life in Levi’s.” And then they’d proceed to tell us stories about all the cool stuff they’d done in their favorite pair — music festivals, first dates that became marriages, cross country road trips. You get the picture. It’s how we came up with the campaign that has been running since 2014 called “Live in Levi’s.” Only now it seems to have taken a strange twist.
I simply can’t get behind the “Legends Never Die” ad within the campaign. It’s morbid. It’s not fun. And it’s overly self-important, the brand seemingly obsessed with it’s own legacy.
When I took over as CMO in 2013, our goal — as agreed upon with my boss, the CEO Chip Bergh — was to make Levi’s cool and fun again. Not to take ourselves too seriously. This was on the heels of having taken ourselves way too seriously with the “Go Forth” campaign. An ad in 2011 actually called “Legacy” depicted, in a dark and grainy style, rebellious youth clashing with police in riot gear.
The ad was described by Forbes as follows:
"Legacy" marries protest imagery, emotive music, and the words of a literary underdog [Charles Bukowski] in an attempt to realize Wieden + Kennedy's [the ad agency for Levi’s at the time] vision of high commercial art.”
But ads aren’t art. They are meant to sell product, and attempting to re-contextualize commercial artifacts as high art, all while trying to sell skinny jeans, just feels like a swindle. And placing an ad of rebellious youth setting the streets aflame, amidst the 2011 protests in the UK in which 5 people died, makes it all the more swindly and gross. Especially, when set against these words from a Bukowski poem called “The Laughing Heart”:
your life is your life
don’t let it be clubbed into dank submission.
be on the watch.
there are ways out.
there is light somewhere.
it may not be much light but
it beats the darkness.
It’s all just so overly weighty and its attempt at meaning and poignancy just lands as ridiculously self-important, chest-pound-y and legacy-obsessed. And, it didn’t work to sell jeans.
But Levi’s didn’t learn its lesson after “Legacy.” In 2012, the brand ran “O Pioneers!” This TV ad was set to a scratchy recording of a Walt Whitman poem called (you guessed it) — “O Pioneers!” — originally published in Leaves of Grass in 1855. It began:
Pioneers! O Pioneers!
Come my tan-faced children
Follow well in order.
Get your weapons ready.
For we cannot tarry here.
We must march my darlings, we must bear the brunt of danger,
We the youthful sinewy races, all the rest on us depend.
Pioneers! O Pioneers!
It almost mocks itself. The ad is dripping in haughty cultural self-obsession. The ads in the “Go Forth” campaign were not pieces of art. They were ads. And they failed to sell jeans.
And so, when I took over as the CMO in 2013, the explicit agreement I had made with the CEO Chip Bergh: make Levi’s fun, and culturally relevant again. And get us back to growth mode. And so I did.
The first ad we launched in 2014, which more than tripled our return on investment of ad dollars, was Just Don’t Bore Them. It depicted all the ways that people have fun in Levi’s. It was an exhortation to have fun in yours, and for goodness, sake, do whatever you want in them, but just don’t bore them.
Even when we touched on more elevated “serious” themes, like in 2017 with this “Circles” ad, we did so in a way that was joyful. And it worked.
And so I find myself flummoxed to observe this return to legacy-obsession and seriousness. It seems those in charge have become infatuated with their own self-importance in finding themselves at the helm of this storied brand for its 150th year of existence. But that’s no excuse. The 150th anniversary is cause for celebration — how many American brands can say they’ve survived that long? — not funeral parties.
I’m sure they think it seemed light-hearted. Everyone at this funeral is having fun! Because they are wearing Levi’s!
But it’s a funeral, a time for mourning. And I think a good rule of thumb, generally speaking, is no ads set at funerals. Unless, I guess, if it’s an ad for a funeral home. Maybe.
I’m not entirely surprised that this is what the brand is choosing to put out at this moment in time. Bergh often talked of his own legacy as CEO. And I suppose that infatuation has clouded his otherwise solid business and marketing judgement at the brand’s century and a half mark. And nearing the end of his own tenure.
But businesses perform best when leaders and employees are focused on the pertinent task at hand: product excellence, marketed aspirationally though honestly, fair treatment of employees.
Once business leaders start trying to save the world or over-estimate their own role in the broader universe, once they become obsessed with their own legacy and mark their brands with life-changing properties, it’s a red flag. And usually a harbinger for waning relevance and diminished sales.
I’ll acknowledge, this “Legends Never Die Ad” may win awards at advertising shows, and be hailed by status obsessed creative directors as their most favorite ever. But that is not the marker of a successful ad campaign.
Even now, the failed “O Pioneers!” ad is often cited as a favorite by ad creative types who hail from hipster havens like Brooklyn and Portland, and who are completely out of touch with everyday Americans and teenagers nervous about the first day of school, also known as jeans buyers.
The frustrated creative directors wish they made art films but are stuck making thirty-second ads. So, they pour their unfulfilled artist souls into irrelevant and overwrought short films for brands, hoping to win a Cannes Lion one day. (Cannes Lions is a second-rate festival — not the famous one — that awards advertising creative directors with prizes for making these overwrought short films that don’t actually sell products.)
And now it seems these creative directors’ aspirations have infiltrated those of current Levi’s leaders as well. I’d suggest re-orienting towards a more fun and aspirational message again.
One bad ad won’t tear Levi’s asunder, but if they continue down this path the self-indulgent leaders will destroy this storied, iconic brand.