501! Contemporary Lessons from a Vintage Case Study

Levis Ad - BBH

Levis Ad - BBH

During my twenty-five years in advertising, I worked on all manner of client businesses. From banks and beers, to fried chicken and phone networks. Without doubt the experiences that left the deepest impression, and had the biggest impact on my career, were those that I gained on the Levi’s jeans account in the 1990s.

Between 1985 and 1998 Levi’s campaign for its 501 jeans, developed by its agency BBH, was one of the most awarded and admired in the advertising world. It created a mythical America of enigmatic, unspeaking heroes; of youthful adventure on the open road; of effortless style and heart-rending tunes. And it sold a great many pairs of jeans.

Let’s take a step back in time to see if this vintage case study suggests any lessons that might still be relevant today.

‘Be Yourself. Everyone else is already taken.’
Oscar Wilde

At the heart of the Levi’s 501 story was the determination that it should be true to itself.

Levi’s 501 was the original denim jean. It was designed in 1873 for miners in the California Gold Rush. Its riveted construction, button fly and XX stitching sustained it through tough manual tasks. Its rudimentary ‘anti-fit’ cut was appropriate to its modest origins. It was the jean that was adopted in the ‘50s by the likes of Marlon Brando, James Dean and Eddie Cochrane, and thereby became a badge of youth rebellion. It had a unique heritage to be proud of.

However, when in 1985 Levi’s struggling UK organisation submitted the 501 to consumer testing with a view to a possible re-launch, the results were not encouraging. Modern British consumers were more accustomed to zip flies and figure-hugging fits. The Levi’s brand was perceived as middle-aged and middle-of-the-road. What’s more, Levi’s was quintessentially American at a time when UK youth culture was not looking across the pond for inspiration.

The sensible decision might have been to back away. Or at least to launch a style more in keeping with contemporary tastes.

But Levi’s and BBH were determined. This was the original and definitive jean, the blueprint for everything that followed. It was a design classic. It deserved a hearing.

Fanning the Flames of Discovery

There was a glimmer of encouragement. A small group of cognoscenti in the fashion, music and film industries had already fallen for the 501’s authenticity and unique design. There was a growing interest in retro ‘50s culture, and a thriving second-hand market in 501s from the States. Perhaps, by reflecting what these enthusiasts loved so much about the product, there was an opportunity to fan the flames of discovery.

A Simple Story Stylishly Told

A young man walks into a laundrette to the sound of ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine.’ He removes his jeans and t-shirt and puts them in the washer with some stones. He sits down to read a magazine in his boxer shorts and socks, as others look on in amazement.

With a 1985 TV commercial conveying this modest narrative, Levi’s 501 jeans were introduced to the mass British public. Despite its seeming simplicity, ‘Laundrette’ was an immediate cultural and commercial hit. It was discussed in national media. The music entered the charts. Nick Kamen, the actor playing the central character, became an overnight celebrity. Boxer shorts were suddenly fashionable, with two million pairs being bought in 1986 alone. And 501 jeans sold so quickly that demand outstripped supply.

There followed a series of similarly iconic commercials, all depicting youthful heroes in pursuit of their own American dream, equipped with little more than their 501s, a white t-shirt and an innate resourcefulness. Within three years of the re-launch, 501 sales had increased twenty-fold - at a premium price of between £27 and £30, in a market where the norm was sub-£20.

Levi’s succeeded because it didn’t follow the convention of the time and hold a mirror up to consumer tastes and preferences. Rather it shone a light on the brand and its unique story. It sought to persuade consumers of its merits, with a simple story stylishly told.

‘What the heart knows today, the head will understand tomorrow.’
James Stephens

Although Levi’s campaign was inspired by its heritage, it was not an exercise in dry historical narrative. First and foremost the advertising addressed the emotions. It suggested charismatic youth, heroic nonchalance and potent sexual chemistry. It promised freedom, escape, romance and rebellion.

Stripped of spoken words, the ads conveyed all this through compelling storytelling, impactful imagery and emotive music. As John Hegarty, the creative director behind it all, pointed out, ‘words are a barrier to communication.’

Emotional Product Demonstration

Despite the fact that the initial persuasive power of the campaign was emotional, it was also clear that consumers wanted rational reasons to justify their beliefs - to others and to themselves.

So amidst the stylish settings, slim heroes and sensuous music, the commercials always demonstrated the jeans’ functional attributes: their strength, durability and wear characteristics. 501s personalised with age and improved with wear. And the more you washed them, the better they got.

Creative teams found that such stories were excellent springboards for lateral ideas.  And Hegarty dubbed this advertising approach ‘emotional product demonstration.’

Mass Marketing a Cult

From the outset there was some concern that, in broadening the appeal of a product originally beloved by a small group of cognoscenti, the brand would lose that critical group’s support. What if our opinion leaders sought exclusivity elsewhere? Wouldn’t this undermine the whole endeavour?

BBH determined that it was critical to sustain a relationship with opinion leaders. It developed print advertising that directly addressed them in their own discrete magazine titles (publications like The Face, iD and Dazed & Confused). It sponsored cutting edge bands and grass roots music events. And it offered Shrink-to-Fit and limited editions of the core product - something the cognoscenti could call their own.

The lesson was clear: never forget the people that first loved you.

‘Creek’ 1994 - BBH

‘Creek’ 1994 - BBH

United in Dreams, Divided by Realities

Levi’s soon looked to export the UK’s successful marketing to other European markets. This ought to have been challenging: back in the 1980s few campaigns crossed borders because local cultural differences were thought to be too great.

But BBH found that, though young people might be divided by the realities of their everyday circumstances, they were united in their dreams. The 501 campaign worked wherever the local youth aspired to independence and individuality; to original expression and the open road.

By the mid-1990s Levi’s was selling 50 million units per annum across Europe – and always at a premium price.

‘Move it on without moving it off.’
Nigel Bogle

With every new execution in the campaign, the pressure grew to sustain freshness and interest. How do you avoid predictability and familiarity? How do you avoid losing the baby with the bathwater?

The advertising struck a balance. It retained its chassis: the narrative structure; the aspirational hero; the dramatisation of product functionality. And at the same time it underwent constant restyling in its bodywork: the setting; the historical period; the tone; the filmic style; the particular product story.

Over the years 501 commercials were set in pool halls, drug stores and gas stations; in swimming pools, creeks and under the sea; in black & white, colour and animation; in the nineteenth century, the Depression and in outer space.

As BBH co-founder Nigel Bogle summarised: ‘We need to move it on without moving it off.’

Perhaps inevitably, the Levi’s 501 campaign did eventually run out of road. There was only so long that one brand could sustain mass loyalty to a single product in the fickle fashion category; only so long that the brand’s innovation could be primarily supplied by its marketing rather than by its product; and only so long that that brand could continue to grow volume and premium at the same time. Eventually the centre could not hold, and the market fragmented.

But it had been a pretty good run.

Levi’s print ad - Richard Avedon for BBH

Levi’s print ad - Richard Avedon for BBH

So what did I learn from working on this great, but now long-gone, advertising campaign? I picked up a number of lessons about the fundamentals of persuasion that served me well for the rest of my career:

1. Don’t seek to add value, seek to reveal it.
2. Harness the support that you already have: fan the flames of discovery.
3. Embrace the power of narrative: simple stories stylishly told.
4. Lead with emotion: what the heart feels today, the head thinks tomorrow.
5. However much beliefs may be founded on emotion, give people rational justifications for those beliefs.
6. Never forget the people that first loved you.
7. Find the aspirations that unify people, rather than the realities that divide them.
8. Keep moving it on without moving it off.

Of course, today we live in an ever more complex, interconnected, fast-paced world. The landscape of marketing and communication is unrecognisable from the more innocent times of the late ‘80s and ‘90s. But I think many of these themes still resonate. And perhaps like 501s themselves, they improve with age.

 

(This piece first appeared in The Pembrokian, July 2018)

No. 198

‘The Invention of Fogs’: Learning Not Just to Look, But to See

Claude Monet, Houses of Parliament

Claude Monet, Houses of Parliament

‘There may have been fogs for centuries in London. I dare say there were. But no one saw them, and so we know nothing about them. They did not exist until art had invented them.’
Oscar Wilde, ‘The Decay of Lying’

I recently attended the ‘Impressionists in London’ exhibition at Tate Britain (until 7 May). The show brings together works by French artists who escaped to the British capital in the wake of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71 and the strife that subsequently gripped Paris.

It’s compelling to see how fresh eyes regarded London’s crowded shopping arcades and the quiet streets of its suburbs; how they perceived England’s social stratification, eccentric fashions and enthusiasm for sport. The emigres were, for example, quite taken with the spacious green parks they found here, and the fact that people were allowed to walk on the grass.

They were also drawn to the Thames: to its disordered shipping, dubious community and atmospheric effects. The exhibition climaxes with a marvellous collection of paintings by Claude Monet of the Houses of Parliament shrouded in fog.

‘What I like most of all in London is the fog. How could English painters of the nineteenth century have painted its houses brick by brick? Those fellows painted bricks they didn’t see, bricks they could not see. It’s the fog that gives London its marvellous breadth.’
Claude Monet

This fascination with London’s fog was shared by another expatriate painter, the American James Whistler. And it was Whistler that Oscar Wilde credited with ‘the invention of fogs.’

Where, if not from the Impressionists, do we get those wonderful brown fogs that come creeping down our streets, blurring the gas lamps and changing the houses into monstrous shadows? To whom, if not to them and their master, do we owe the lovely silver mists that brood over our river, and turn to faint forms of fading grace curved bridge and swaying barge? The extraordinary change that has taken place in the climate of London during the last ten years is entirely due to a particular school of art. At present people see fogs, not because they are fogs, but because poets and painters have taught them the mysterious loveliness of such effects.’
Oscar Wilde, ‘The Decay of Lying’

I was particularly taken with this thought: that Londoners had not really paid much attention to the fog that enveloped them; that when they looked about them, they observed the same streets that had always been there. They could not see the fog for the buildings; the wood for the trees. I like the idea that it took outsiders to see the obvious; that without their vision fog didn’t really exist; that sometimes only people with a particular gift of perception can recognize the truth.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Nocturne:Blue and Gold - Old Battersea Bridge

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Nocturne:Blue and Gold - Old Battersea Bridge

Social change is all around us, hiding in plain sight. It’s in the behaviour of the outliers, the beliefs of eccentrics, the attitudes of the young. It’s in nuance and gesture; language and slang. It’s in unforeseen consequences and unrealised dreams.

Often social change lacks a name or a description. It’s there nonetheless for all to see. For the most part we look past it and through it at the structures and conventions of the past. We look, but don’t see.

So don’t wait to read about behavioural trends and cultural transformation in an industry publication, conference or blog. Don’t just adopt the tired labels and classifications of others. Don’t follow the crowd into clichéd observations about content-curating cryptocurrencies and machine-learning millennials; about authentic algorithms and scalable safe spaces.

Don’t just look at the world around you. See it.

No. 165

Whistler’s Butterfly: Creative Talent Often Comes with a Sting in Its Tail

Screen Shot 2017-09-06 at 10.47.08.png

‘[Whistler] is indeed one of the very greatest masters of painting, in my opinion. And I may add that in this opinion Mr Whistler entirely concurs.’
Oscar Wilde

For much of his career the artist James McNeill Whistler inscribed his work with a stylised butterfly monogram based on his JW initials. He designed the device with elegant wings and curved antennae. And in time he gave it a barbed tail.

In many ways Whistler’s butterfly represented his own talent and personality. He was an articulate, charismatic, independent spirit, who could create extraordinary beauty. But his gifts came hand-in-hand with vanity and a sharp tongue.

‘I maintain that two and two would continue to make four, in spite of the whine of the amateurs for three, or the cry of the critic for five.’

Born in 1834 to prosperous parents in Lowell, Massachusetts, in his youth Whistler travelled to Russia and England. He was educated (somewhat reluctantly) at West Point, studied art in Paris and settled in London in 1859.

Whistler immediately found himself at odds with the art establishment. He disliked the narrative and naturalism that were the order of the day. He detested the flattery and sentiment to which Victorian audiences were so partial. He rejected the conventional notion that art had a moral or social function. Rather he believed in ‘art for art’s sake.’

Working from a limited colour palette, with balanced composition, Whistler sought to achieve ‘tonal harmony’. He often compared his work with music. He painted subdued, thoughtful, full-length portraits. He painted dreamy ‘nocturnes’ of the Thames at rest. He painted his mother in profile, seated, in an austere black dress, her white bonnet atop neat grey hair, her lace-cuffed hands clasping a handkerchief.

Arrangement in Grey and Black No 1 or Whistler’s Mother

Arrangement in Grey and Black No 1 or Whistler’s Mother

Whistler was small of stature, but large of personality. He dressed like a dandy, cultivated a curly moustache and sported a monocle. He enjoyed the Bohemian life, parties and entertaining. And he found a natural soul mate in Oscar Wilde.

Wilde: ‘I wish I’d said that.’
Whistler: ‘You will, Oscar, you will!’

In truth Whistler was rather arrogant and egotistical, something of a self-publicist.

‘I can’t tell you if genius is hereditary because heaven has granted me no offspring.’

He may have needed an audience, but he didn’t need friends. Whistler liked to pick fights.

‘I am not arguing with you – I am telling you.’

Whistler’s unconventional views and combustible temperament inevitably brought him into conflict with the forces of conservatism. Famously in 1877 he sued John Ruskin for libel after the critic had accused him of ‘flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.’

At the trial Ruskin’s counsel queried the price Whistler had charged for ‘Nocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket:’

Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket

Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket

‘The labour of two days is that for which you ask two hundred guineas?’

‘No,’ replied Whistler, ‘I ask it for the knowledge I have gained in the work of a lifetime.’

Whistler won the case, but was awarded only a farthing’s damages. The court costs bankrupted him.

Bitter experience didn’t convince Whistler to moderate his views. In 1890 he published ‘The Gentle Art of Making Enemies’, a record of, and reflections on, the Ruskin case.  He dedicated it to ‘the rare few, who, early in life, have rid themselves of the friendship of the many.’

Whistler reminds us that creativity doesn’t necessarily come hand-in-hand with congeniality; that innovators don’t always arrive with good table manners; that inspirational talent often has a sting in its tail.

Truly original thinkers must by definition be somewhat egotistical. They have to attach a particular value to their own distinctive worldview. They must feel comfortable with going against the crowd.

This creates dilemmas for Agency leadership. We want our creatives to break convention in their work, but we balk at too much unconventional behaviour in the office. We want them to express their individuality, but to do so within a team; to be emotional on paper, but rational in meetings. We want our talent to be creative, but we don’t want it to destroy too many things along the way.

I think leaders of creative businesses need to be tolerant. We have to accommodate a certain amount of vanity, misbehaviour, sharp words and rule breaking – if it is in the service of the work. But when eccentricity creates collateral damage; when it is self-serving and injurious to colleagues, then we have to step in. We have to draw the line at abuse of power.

Creative leaders must learn to harness talent to a commercial goal without diminishing its potency, and without compromising the company’s values. This is not easy. It requires judgement. And we must be ever mindful of Whistler’s own observation:

‘An artist is not paid for his labor, but for his vision.’

No. 148

NOTES FROM THE HINTERLAND 10

If Music Be the Food of Commerce…

Claire van Kampen’s magnificent play, Farinelli and the King, relates how, in the mid-eighteenth century, Philippe V of Spain hired the renowned castrato Farinelli to sing for him so as to sooth his frequent bouts of depression. The king and performer struck up a close relationship and the commission lasted until Philippe’s death almost ten years later.

Farinelli and the King is funny, sad and thought provoking all at the same time. It is graced by the peerless actor, Mark Rylance, and the celebrated counter-tenor, Iestyn Davies. It runs at the Duke of York’s Theatre until December 5.

As the play’s programme notes point out, ‘the therapeutic value of music has been recognised for centuries.’ Apollo was the Ancient Greek god of medicine as well as music. Music therapy was practised in Ancient Egyptian temples and Persian hospitals. Subsequently music treatments were adopted by medieval infirmaries and were used extensively in two World Wars. Today music therapy is a widely practised and respected medical science.

‘Music has been shown to significantly decrease the levels of the stress hormone cortisol, leading to improved mood and cognitive function. A study has also found that music can shift activity in the frontal lobe of the brain from the right to the left, a phenomenon associated with positive effect and mood.’
Dr Tim McInerny, Consultant Forensic Psychiatrist, Bethlem Royal Hospital

For many of the same reasons that music has therapeutic effect, it also has commercial effect.

For most of the ‘90s I worked on the Levi’s advertising campaign and it created a compelling case for the commercial capacity of music: to engage audiences; to convey an emotional narrative; to create memorability and distinctiveness.

Of course, everyone nowadays claims to appreciate music’s persuasive power. But, I wonder, does everyone properly understand how to realise that power?

Some imagine that music selection is merely a matter of sourcing a cool, contemporary track. But young consumers don’t thank you for hijacking tunes they already love. In recent years some have followed John Lewis down the ‘modern acoustic version of familiar songs’ route. But, as Oscar Wilde said, ‘imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness.’ Some imagine there’s a spurious science to sourcing tracks. Some think it’s just about buying hits. Some will agree to music’s importance, but balk at its cost, thereby betraying their lack of faith. 

Fundamentally, I believe that music selection must be a creative decision, not a strategic one. It’s not about matching the music to the target audience; it’s about matching the music to the creative work: capturing the spirit and tone of the drama; allowing the narrative to unfold at the right pace and tempo; enabling consumers to feel the message, not just see it or hear it.

Music should amplify the communication, not stand in its way. If you get that right, then you’ll find an audience; and it will be an audience that is properly emotionally engaged.

‘Musick has charms to sooth a savage breast,
To soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak.
I’ve read, that things inanimate have mov’d
And, as with living souls, have been inform’d,
By magick numbers and persuasive sound.’

William Congreve, The Mourning Bride

Synthesized Success

Young songwriter Neil Sedaka was in a jam.

Though his mother hoped that he would become a classical pianist and he had a scholarship at the Juilliard, all he wanted was to write and perform pop songs. Sedaka had composed ‘Stupid Cupid’, which had been a hit for Connie Francis in 1958. That same year he’d signed to RCA Victor as a performer, and had a hit with ‘The Diary’, which sold 600,000 copies. But Sedaka’s two subsequent releases were failures and his record company was considering dropping him. He had one last chance.

‘Billboard had a page called Hits of the World. I bought the number one record in almost every country in the world and analysed it. I took the beat from this one; I took the drum from this one; I took the guitar licks from this one; I took the harmonic rhythm from this one. Like a designer would do.’
Neil Sedaka, King of Song/ BBC

The result was ‘Oh! Carol’, a melodic triumph of sweet-natured youthful yearning. It sold 3.5million copies.

‘Oh! Carol
I am but a fool
Darling, I love you
Though you treat me cruel.’

‘Oh! Carol’/Howard Greenfield & Neil Sedaka

Sedaka went on to secure huge pop hits in the ‘60s with the likes of ‘Happy Birthday, Sweet Sixteen’ and ‘Breaking Up Is Hard to Do.’ And then he sustained the success in the ‘70s with the genius of ‘Solitaire’ and ‘Laughter in the Rain.’

Of course, we’re always seeking to be original. But sometimes commercial creativity requires us to be alert to the competitive context, to what works and what doesn’t. Sometimes, when we’re in a jam, we need to beg, borrow or steal.

Synthesizing one’s own success from the successes of others is a skill in its own right.

 

Creativity Can Even Survive Rate Card Pricing

On a recent visit to Chicago I encountered The Entombment by Giovanni Francesco Barbieri. Painted around 1656, it’s a sad, beautifully naturalistic depiction of death and despair.

The artist is more familiar to us as ‘Guercino’, or ‘The Squinter’, a nickname given to him because he was cross-eyed. Guercino kept relatively detailed account books and we know that The Entombment was his response to a commission that required ‘one full length, one bust length and three half figures.’

We can see that Guercino ably accommodated this rather prescriptive brief, whilst also delivering a very engaging image. This perhaps illustrates that creativity can survive even the crudest pricing policy.

No. 55

Advertising, A Trivial Career For Serious People?

I recently attended a performance of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. The play is a light-hearted classic that creaks a little in a modern context. It’s nonetheless crammed full of elegant wordplay and bulletproof bons mots. Wilde subtitled the work A Trivial Comedy for Serious People, and throughout he celebrates the seemingly superficial things in life: courtship rituals, social etiquette, when and how to eat muffins, that sort of thing.

I found myself thinking about the communications industry. We could hardly claim it’s the most important business in the world. Here we are, gently suggesting that the familiar and everyday might be bigger, better, faster and fresher. Lives do not depend on us; history is not written about us. We nonetheless pride ourselves on the clarity of our thought and we apply ourselves to our trade with vigour and seriousness. Ours is perhaps A Trivial Career for Serious People.

Of course, media folk sometimes imagine that we could have done something a little more worthwhile with our lives. In a parallel world we could perhaps have been painters, poets or politicians. We could have been contenders. Couldn’t we?

But we should not be too harsh on our chosen career.

In the programme notes to The Importance of Being Earnest the journalist Al Senter observes that the critics of Wilde’s day were dismissive of the frivolous comedies that were then fashionable in London. They yearned for theatre of Ibsen’s seriousness, plays that considered genuine social issues. Senter suggests that Wilde may have been making a very particular point with his subtitle. For Wilde the trivial and serious are intimately related:

“We should treat all trivial things of life very seriously and all serious things of life with a sincere and studied triviality.”

This tension between the trivial and the serious is what I’ve always liked about the communications industry.

I like the application of intelligence to the commonplace; the elevation of the inconsequential and incidental. Events of personal and public import are generally intertwined with the petty and insignificant; in the words of the old Reader’s Digest column: “Life’s like that.”

Of course, somewhere between the serious and the superficial you’ll also find great comedy. The communications industry has generally had an ambivalent relationship with humour. While advertising often seems to be laughing, comedy has generally been prescribed a very particular role. It earns engagement; it’s the sugar coating that attracts audience attention. But it can, in excess, divert attention from the core message and as the great adman David Ogilvy famously suggested: “People don’t buy from clowns.”

I think comedy is more valuable than this. The brand with a sense of humour demonstrates a shared understanding with ordinary people that life isn’t lived in straight lines. It indicates a certain amount of humility: that this brand has things in proportion; that it understands its place in the world.

Too many brands are puffed up with their own self-importance. They demand centre stage like a tragic Ibsen heroine. They talk of purpose and passion and values as if they’ve just discovered them. They presume we care.

The writer and broadcaster Clive James once wrote: “Common sense and a sense of humour are the same thing, moving at different speeds. A sense of humour is just common sense, dancing. Those who lack humour are without judgment and should be trusted with nothing.” I’m inclined to agree.

First published: The Guardian Media & Tech Network, 4 September 2015

No. 46