Huma Qureshi: Music Maketh the Ad – Will it Work Again for Levi’s?

When the English model Nick Kamen strolled into a laundrette in 1985 to the sound of Marvin Gaye’s I Heard It Through The Grapevine, Levi’s knew what it was doing. Music, subtle humour, emotional connection, 501 jeans, sex appeal.

The commercial had all the right ingredients.

These ads were immersed in pop culture –hip, cool, fashionable.This particular ad is famous, of course, as much for allowing Kamen to strip down to his boxer shorts as it was for helping Levi’s attain iconic status during the 80s and 90s.

It was a status Levi’s would later squander. But it was the use of music that arguably proved transformative.

Levi’s and music went hand-in-hand. Ben E. King’s Stand By Me, Percy Sledge’s When a Man Loves a Woman and T-Rex’s 20th Century Boy– the latter featured Brad Pitt before he became well –THE Brad Pitt.

All these ads, coupled with the brand, made for a particular emotional connector.


Much of the company’s advertising in the 80s played off a 50s and 60s nostalgia, but there was an understanding that music held sway over people’s imagination. The advertisement gave people a certain high. And, if you wanted to feel that way all the time, you could buy a fly-button red tab Levi’s and instantly, you were as cool as the ad.

Or at least that’s how I justified my own denim purchases.

And therein lay the success of building that loyalty to the brand, to the jean style and to your favorite ad.

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THE GREAT UNIFIER

Music is one of the great unifiers. It is central to any concept of a shared identity. Love, memory, beauty – it’s all wrapped up in music’s lyrical ball.

Back in 2015, a study by Nielsen attempted to prove this connection. It looked at the effectiveness of more than 600 commercials -500 of which included music- and found that commercials with some form of music performed better across four key metrics – creativity, empathy, emotive power, and information power—than those that didn’t.

“Music is powerful,” stated the report, aptly titled I Second That Emotion. “It can make us smile or cry, bring memories rushing back, and even inspire us to buy a product when it’s combined with the right advertisement.”

Memorability matters, emotions matter, and music impacts both.

Yet advertising’s relationship with music continues to be woefully erratic. The fact that brands’ musical successes are so memorable –Pepsi’s use of Beyonce’s ‘crazy in love in 2003 or Cadbury’s dalliance with Phil Collins’ In The Air Tonight in 2007 – only helps to confirm the mundanity and ineffectiveness of everything else. In effect, the music made the ad.

Levi Strauss never completely lost its connection with music, but it did lose its way as a brand. It’s always interesting to ponder the decline of brands, or why certain companies go on to outperform others, but the fall of Levi’s was harsh.

From a high point of $7.1 billion in annual sales in 1997, it went on to lose billions in sales, closed factories and laid off almost half of its workforce. Where once it had stood proud, it looked weak and alone. This is the iconic company that according to Bloomberg, had revenues exceeding USD7billion –to give some perspective, it was bigger than Nike.

Yet Levi’s has fought back. Chip Bergh, the company’s dynamic chief executive for the past six years, has seen to that. He ensured the brand invested in facilities, replaced much of its senior management, brought e-commerce in-house, extended the clothing range and expanded into new and as yet untapped markets.

That’s the economics of it, and looking at the creative side they soon realized innovations in new fabric, tweaking of outward appearance –like changing the stitching- and adding comfort and a real focus on new trends was the only way to revamp the brand.

All this, coupled with appealing, cool ads were going to help them grow again. Without a doubt, they still face quite a few difficult challenges, one of them from the runaway popularity and success of Athleisure wear.

All this aside, Levis has gone back to their tried and tested formula where it had found great success  – it has re-invested in the power of music. The Alicia Keys ad, 28 Thousand Days in 2015, then in August of this year Levis released ‘Circles’, an ad that through diversity celebrates ‘our connectedness through music and dance’.

With 22 million views and counting, it’s doing better than Levi’s could’ve hoped for. Fundamentally, it recognises that despite people coming from multiracial backgrounds and different cultures –they are by nature sociable. And one of the greatest drivers of sociability is music. Levis, it seems are on the right track.

In conclusion I would say, the Christmas sales figures will be a good test to see how far Levi’s the brand and product has truly come.

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