Buying jeans, honestly, is the most frustrating experience. They never fit, and you feel like your body is all wrong — like you just put on 20 pounds even if you didn’t feel that way before you walked in the store. Just last week, I shopped three stores and tried on about 15 jeans before finally buying a pair. I never wore them and then ended up returning them because they really didn’t fit that well.
So, I was very interested to hear that Levi’s believes it has solved this problem, at least for younger women. After analyzing some 60,000 body scans from 13 countries, Levi’s determined that 80 percent of all young women were one of three body types, which it classifies as slight; demi; and bold. The nomenclature sounds like it was dreamed up over a vente latte at Starbucks, but the premise is that getting jeans that fit is more a matter of shape than size.
What a smart idea. Like many innovations, its appeal is in its simplicity, and the straightforward, sensible way it solves a common, vexing problem. Levi’s calls its new fitting system Curve ID, and while it is receiving a fair amount of buzz, it is not just
another fashion gimmick; it goes far beyond what Gap, Lee’s and others have to offer. It is also the first step in Levi’s journey to change its perception as a predominantly male brand — all cowboys, ranchers and construction workers.
After all, if there’s one thing most men don’t understand, it’s how hard it is for women to find a pair of jeans that fit! Actually, to its credit, Levi’s created the first pair of jeans for women some 75 years ago, but who knew that? It’s just another example of Levi’s
identity as a pioneer and innovator. Curve ID, meanwhile, may well be one of the most significant innovations in the way women shop for jeans since then.
In an earlier day, Levi’s might have launched a massive advertising campaign behind Curve ID, with maybe a buzz marketing initiative for good measure, and left it at that. It really wasn’t that long ago that an innovative concept like Curve ID, with enough marketing and word-of-mouth behind it, would be almost a guaranteed success.
But Levi’s president, Robert Hanson, understood that something more was required if Levi’s were to connect in a truly relevant way to the young women who might buy its jeans. Robert knew that young women could be a major source of growth for Levi’s, but only if the brand came to be known for something more than having provided a solution to a shopping problem.
Robert phoned Mary Alderete, who had worked on Levi’s jeans while at Foote, Cone & Belding in the ’90s. Mary had since taken off time to raise her two sons, but Robert persuaded her to join Levi’s as its vice president of global women’s marketing. The challenge was to turn Levi’s into the most loved brand of jeans for women around the world. As we all know, people — not just women — buy products with which they are emotionally engaged. We’re human beings and emotions drive most, if not all purchasing decisions.
Mary joined Levi’s in September of 2009, just as Curve ID had launched globally. Every Levi’s store around the world had the same window, capturing the essence of the new concept. Levi’s built a Facebook page behind the launch, developed some iPad apps
and two ad campaigns — one in the US and the other worldwide.
All of this helped create awareness that Levi’s had invented jeans designed to fit each of the three body types — but that fell short of the ultimate goal. If Levi’s were to become the most loved brand of jeans for women, it also had to demonstrate that it was relevant in their lives in a more profound way. This led to the idea of helping women not only in terms of the shape of their jeans, but also the shape of their lives.
To get at that, Levi’s needed better insight into how young women, in their 20s, viewed their futures. Mary and her team commissioned a huge research study and white paper aimed at understanding what it’s like to be a 24-year-old woman in 2010.
The study was conducted in two phases, both qualitative and quantitative, and involved 1,000 Millennial women between the ages of 21 and 29 in five countries: Brazil, France, Japan, the United States and the United Kingdom. What Levi’s found was that women in their 20s are now experiencing a world unlike women of previous generations and have a very different outlook. The results were consistent worldwide.
Consider, for example, that 96 percent of the women surveyed said that “being independent” was their most important life goal. Traditional pursuits did not score nearly as high: Just 68 percent said being a mother was the most important life goal; 50 percent said that getting married was their most primary imperative; and only 43 percent said that becoming wealthy was their top priority. By comparison, 87 percent defined success as “being able to shape their future.”
These findings might surprise some people, but it didn’t surprise me. I see this very same outlook in my own daughter, Alexandra, and among the many young women I’ve interviewed for my insights work. They are so driven to find their passion, and thoughts about which kind of career might be the most lucrative take a back seat. Many of them are talking about pursuing not-for-profit endeavors and making the world a better place. They’re totally motivated by this higher purpose and finding meaning for themselves, personally.
This attitude certainly was evident among earlier generations, but it appears to be much more prevalent now. Levi’s was very smart to go out and try to understand what is driving today’s young women, especially because Millennials — both women and
men — are so often misunderstood.
We hear a lot about this age group being unfocused, or lacking in ambition. They don’t seem all that anxious to get jobs (as if there were any to be had), and lack anything like a plan. The Levi’s study actually confirmed this, finding that 58 percent of women worldwide “do not have a definite plan to achieve their long-term goals.” This is puzzling to older generations, but among this younger group, it is a source of pride. “These women don’t have that literal, vertical plan to find one thing and climb that ladder in that very linear way,” Mary told me. “They’re much more about exploring.”
The thing is that they are ambitious; it’s just a different kind of ambition. It’s an ambition to make the world a better place, in their own way, at their own pace. They are driven by idealism and they are using their passions to find their path, perhaps not unlike the way Baby Boomers did in the ’60s. They’re just going about things in an entirely different way because they live in an entirely different world.
They look at Baby Boomers and Gen Xers and see that they worked really hard and sacrificed a lot, but wonder if it was really worth it. Are they really happy? Are they any wealthier? Is our world a better place? It’s not that they’re blaming or criticizing their elders, but they tend to be more interested in fulfilling their soul, and care less about traditional expectations from previous generations.
The job market certainly is bleak, but this generation sees a world of opportunity opened up by the internet and its related technologies. They naturally think globally, and realize that it is possible to rally people behind ideas in ways that weren’t possible in the past. They recognize that they can have a big impact within a very short period of time.
However, they also know they can’t necessarily achieve that impact by themselves, which goes directly to the most intriguing and valuable insight from the Levi’s research. Levi’s found that this generation is not depending on previous generations for advice because their world experience has changed so quickly and dramatically.
Ninety-four percent of the Millennial women in the Levi’s survey agreed that “the best mentors are people you can both give advice to and receive advice from.” Eight-eight percent said that “a mentor is someone who helps them shape their future, regardless
of their age or professional experience,” and 77 percent said that “mentors can be someone their own age.”
Millennial women, more than anyone else, are looking toward each other for support, advice and guidance. This insight led directly to Levi’s decision to launch its own social network, ShapeWhatsToCome.com, to facilitate this new, peer-to-peer style of mentorship. To some degree, women were already finding ways to connect and share experiences both online and offline, but there was no single place to get the one thing they said they needed most, which was this new kind of mentorship.
As Mary explained: “These women know that it’s their peers, it’s other young women who are going through the same journey as they are and negotiating and navigating that path who have the most relevant perspective. So, we came up with this idea of streaming perspective in a communal forum, where women can connect and share ideas.”
A STRATEGIC PURPOSE
What’s most remarkable about all of this is the way Mary and her team managed to intertwine its product innovation with its communications strategy, which is every bit as — if not more — innovative in itself. Most brands find some kind of cause, or higher purpose, that may be related to the brand essence in some way, but are not necessarily so tightly woven with the strategy.
It’s impossible to separate the Curve ID product innovation from Levi’s brand identity (pioneers, innovation) and its goal to support the aspirations of Millennial women to be pioneers and innovators in their own right. The Levi’s strategy may also be the most seamless example of the “me, we, higher purpose” model we’ve been exploring in The Hub for more than a year now. This is the ability of an organization to enjoy a competitive advantage by understanding what matters to their consumers (me); how to apply that understanding to create collective power (we); and ultimately make a difference in our lives (higher purpose).
For Levi’s, the “me” is partly the very basic need to find a pair of jeans that fit. But it is also the need to define success on one’s own terms. The product and the way Levi’s is engaging women is intertwined like a double helix: shape your bodies; shape your lives.
The “we” is that this generation knows that they can’t shape their lives on their own; they’ve got to work with — and get — inspiration from others, as well as give back to others. It’s that kind of give-and-take that this generation accomplishes so intuitively, in their own, different way.
The “higher purpose,” is not some abstract charity or ostensibly relevant cause; it is the individual futures of the women Levi’s would like to call its customers. So, it’s very personal — each woman is given the opportunity to cut her own path. But it’s a path that’s cut with help from others, and with each woman offering help in return along the way.
Best of all, so many of these women are mainly interested in finding ways to make the world a better place. If this works, it would be a truly virtuous circle. Of course, it’s too early to know if it will work. ShapeWhatsToCome is still in its pilot phase, in just three countries (the US, the UK and Japan). But Mary Alderete is nothing but optimistic, and expects that the initiative will also help shape the future for Levi’s.
“Consumers buy more brands that are relevant to them and that they connect with emotionally,” she says. “That’s why we felt it was really important to address not only the shape of her body but also the way she wants to shape her life. That’s why the total package builds our relevance, our equity, and ultimately, our sales.”
For now, however, Mary says that the most important measure of success isn’t just sales. It’s also engagement and brand affinity — the extent to which Levi’s is changing perceptions of its brand and how Millennial women are involved with its products on an emotional level. To that end, Mary says Levi’s has established performance metrics (key performance indicators for visits, engagement, sharing, etc.) to make sure they are investing their dollars wisely.
Levi’s has taken a top-down “business” approach to its objectives as opposed to a “marketing” approach. Their strategy is solid, smart and authentic to both the innovative, pioneering brand DNA and the enterprising, uplifting spirit of Millennial women. It’s not about who owns the conversation; it’s about what these young women want and helping them achieve those goals on their own terms.
It is “me, we, higher purpose” at its most strategic, business-building best. As for me, I’m off to the Levi’s store at the Mall of America to buy a pair of jeans that this time truly fit.
© 2011 WomanWise LLC.
Me, We, Higher Purpose principle is a trademark of WomanWise LLC.