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Levi Strauss: The secret to being authentic

Levi Strauss: The secret to being authentic Michael Estrin

Last August, Levi Strauss & Co. created a new position to head its marketing operations -- global chief marketing officer. With the new title, came a new face -- Jaime Cohen Szulc, a marketing veteran, but nevertheless a newcomer to the fashion and apparel industry. Szulc came from Eastman Kodak, where he was COO of its consumer digital group. Prior to that, he held marketing posts at Procter & Gamble Brazil and SC Johnson Latin America. Trained as a civil engineer, the multilingual (English, Portuguese, Spanish, and functional French) Szulc is tasked with organizing Levi's messaging around the world and across an ever-growing array of platforms. It's a daunting task, but one that Szulc says he approaches by remaining true to core marketing values, while taking care to identify elements of our world that have changed in the wake of the digital revolution.

Next month, Szulc will share his practical insights on global marketing in the digital age at ad:tech San Francisco at a keynote presentation titled: "We Know Where to Go -- Now How Do We Get There? A Global Take on the New Dynamics of Marketing."

It's those dynamics that iMedia wanted to know more about, so we asked Szulc to give us a sneak preview of how Levi's sees the new world, and more importantly what those realities mean for connecting a global brand to consumers who are increasingly taking control of media.

iMedia: How did your business perspective change in the last 10-15 years, mainly with the digital transformation?

Szulc: My core focus on brand health and financial metrics has not changed. However, as I think about a great legacy for any organization, given the major changes in our business environment, my ultimate long-term business aspirations have evolved. They now include achieving primarily four things:

  1. A massive consumer engagement and advocacy for the brand, at the lowest possible cost;

  2. An outstanding and relevant consumer experience, that is well integrated across all touch points to ensure consumers have a meaningful relationship with the brand;

  3. A two-way dialogue between consumers and our brand (and what it stands for) that is ubiquitous, relevant to what consumers are looking for, and available "anytime, anywhere," and last;

  4. An internal company culture that welcomes and is comfortable with change and diversity of thought.

For Levi Strauss, all this is particularly critical. We live in a time when the value of authenticity and originality is higher than ever. Levi Strauss & Co. invented jeans -- and our Levi's brand stands for the pioneering spirit that we all have in ourselves. So, we are the ultimate representation of what authentic is.

iMedia: How does digital fit in with your overall marketing/advertising strategy? Is digital one of many channels, or is it a lens through which you view all of your media?

Szulc: Many people believe the debate between digital versus analog is doomed to extinction. I am convinced the word "analog" will mean nothing to my children (who are 1 and 4 years old) as they grow up. Many things we called "digital" in the past were related to a computer -- I don't need to tell you this is no longer true. More and more, our vocabulary and thought process has to change. I try to approach the current business environment from the angle I call "digital spirit" -- fast, nimble, full of possibilities for continuous improvement, with a paranoia for potential business model disruption. We, as consumers, are more in control of our destinies, and have more choices than ever before. Having said that, from a message delivery perspective, each occasion requires a different approach.  Sometimes you start with traditional media and sometimes you don't. Levi's is experiencing strong results in both, and I plan to share some examples at the conference.

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iMedia: When you look at all the channels and possibilities that digital presents, what excites you most today?

Szulc: First, I get very enthused that consumers are in the driver's seat, willing to engage with brands that represent a "cause" that is relevant to each individual. This is not only going to be good for brands but will also be good for the world we live in. I firmly believe consumers will more and more reward brands who care, who take the time to understand them, and therefore interact with consumers on their own terms. In this world, more than ever, the idea trumps the medium. Very small investments can drive an enormous amount of energy and response from people who are willing to "carry your brand flag for you." I risk to say that it further evens the competitive playing field, providing more chances for any brand (independent of the size) to succeed. This will keep all us marketers up to speed and up to date.
The second thing I get very excited about is the ability to test, learn, and scale in a much easier, faster way than ever before. This is very powerful but requires leaders to be willing and able to embark on the journey of continuous learning and the understanding that great ideas can come from anywhere. Levi's is using several different marketing approaches to unlock creativity by making good use of digital.
iMedia: When you think about digital today, what worries you most?

Szulc: The level of complexity and change has grown in an exponential way. It is not anymore about reaching your target at the few touch points they relate to periodically. Each of us now relate to the world through many more touch points. And we relate to each of them in many different ways. This means we are all challenged to constantly re-evaluate our paradigms (from a personal and professional perspective) regarding the way we market products and brands. We also have to become better at evaluating alternative business models. No matter how big a brand or a company is, it is very difficult to be relevant (in a profitable way) across all touch points and your consumer base. This reinforces the importance of having consumers choose your brand and not the other way around -- it is a subtle change with a huge optics impact. 

iMedia: When you came on board at Levi, a new position was created for you -- global CMO. Can you explain what it means to be a global brand and how digital helps you shape and deliver the brand's message around the world?

Szulc: To me, a true global brand is one that has a clear, distinctive, and relevant identity, which is the same anywhere you go. Depending on the circumstances, it may solve the same specific problem, and/or promise the same benefit to consumers around the world. There's also the debate on the balance between global and local. This is as much of a governance issue as it is one of strategy. More uniformity of the brand message gives you a "global face," economies of scale and global deployment speed, while adding flexibility brings more local relevance. Each brand has to find its own balance. Digital made it easier for consumers to pick on the differences -- but the expansion of travelling and the internationalization of brands and retailers are also playing a key role.

The biggest challenge of my job at Levi Strauss is to find ways to fully unleash the huge potential of the brand, while leveraging the similarities that already unite us today. Within this context, digital is a huge enabler.

iMedia: Somewhere out there is a small or medium-sized digital agency that really wants a piece of your business. What can they do to impress you?

Szulc: There is an old movie in which a disguised man learns from a woman that all she wanted was a man who was honest and who would come up to her and say, "I want to go out with you because you are pretty." Well, later the undisguised man goes to her and says exactly that. The result is she gets insulted and leaves. Jokes apart, I expect the unexpected. In general terms, however, I'd say I appreciate people who are willing to work on a balanced scorecard basis, in a way that risks are assumed jointly and fees are almost always contingent on results. Our agency network architecture has to provide for that flexibility because there is no way for me or anyone on my team to randomly evaluate each potential partner in isolation.

iMedia: Over the last few years, we've heard a lot of talk about a blurring line between advertising and content. What do you make of that?

Szulc: We're in a world in which there is a lot of grey space -- between advertising and content, but also between media and content, mainly due to the internet. There are a few dynamics in place, among them there are two that I feel are most relevant to this matter: 1) The uncertainty of who will pay for "traditional media" content in a world where it is more and more commonly coming free from consumers (think YouTube and Wikipedia), and, 2) consumers growing resistance to a "push" marketing model (i.e. if you buy me, you become ).
Depending on how you look at it, this could really be an "unlock" for marketing creativity. You may use brand entertainment content by leveraging existing content or by creating content specifically for a media vehicle. At the same time, you may be using micro-targeting and traditional media. For us at Levi's, it is about being tuned into the energy and events of our times at all levels (product, marketing, channel, etc.) so that you maximize consumer engagement along your brand journey.
iMedia: With so many ways for a brand to connect with a consumer, from email, to search, to social media, how do you view the role of the main Levi's website?

Szulc: There are only a few places where consumers can fully experience the ultimate expression of the brand. The Levi's brand website is one of those few places, so it is hugely important. Having said that, from a digital perspective, there are several areas you can focus your efforts: community (e.g., Harley Davidson HOG), commerce (e.g., vertical retailers such as Wal-Mart), CRM (e.g., direct marketing companies), education web services (e.g., Pampers), etc. The two questions are: How does the investment in this asset compare with other potential investments, and within this asset, what is the best approach for the brand at this point in time?
iMedia: If there's one constant in digital, it's that technology is always changing. As a manager of a large marketing team, how do you make sure that your team is up to speed on the latest trends while keeping them focused on the day-to-day challenges of managing the Levi's brand?

Szulc: I see it as a mix between training, exposure to case studies, bringing expertise from the outside, and also trial and error (i.e. a huge appetite for learning). There's never a perfect combination, or if there is, it changes over time based on circumstances. Given the speed on how the space changes, you can never be up to date all the time. My experience says it is best to keep some of the core development and strategy separate from execution, so we are carefully choosing which projects have to be led by whom. But in some of the areas, such as blogging, the development is the execution and vice versa. So, in this case you need to have someone who can execute brilliantly and fast, and at the same time, is already thinking about what is coming next around the corner.

Michael Estrin is a freelance writer.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

Michael Estrin is freelance writer. He contributes regularly to iMedia, Bankrate.com, and California Lawyer Magazine. But you can also find his byline across the Web (and sometimes in print) at Digiday, Fast...

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to leave comments.

Commenter: Raquel Corona

2010, April 12

Great interview and definitely share your view regarding "digital" strategy. Our Chief Vision Officer at 26 Dot Two (San Francisco based Media Strategy and Creative Agency) actually did a quick video snack on the topic of "digital" agencies. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mKqqEUwYgFU

Commenter: Ellen Considine

2010, March 30

I started my comment in the morning and got side-tracked, so didn't see Tom's remarks. Try finding jeans made here- I did. I found Longhorn jeans, cotton grown here and jeans made here. I thought we should start a FB page to boycott Levis.

Commenter: Ellen Considine

2010, March 30

Isn't it ironic that such an iconic brand that banks on its Americanness doesn't make anything that I am aware of
stateside? Didn't they move all textile manufacturing overseas in 2004 or 5?

Commenter: Tom Donaghue

2010, March 30

As a longtime Levi's customer, I think the first and foremost thing Szulc could do in figuring out where Levis is going is to get the company back to producing QUALITY jeans in U.S. factories.

Soon after Levi's began producing their world-famous jeans in 3rd world factories the quality of the product -- and loyalty among its core customer base -- plummeted.

Sadly, Levi's is no longer known for quality or authenticity and no amount of clever messaging will reverse that. They're just another manufacturer of cheaply-produced clothing ... nothing special, nothing authentic. Perhaps Szulc can help the company understand that.

And as a longtime Levi's customer, I think that's a damn shame what has happened to its core product.