Why Levi’s is launching an education programme to support young musicians

Levi’s has teamed up with Alicia Keys, Skepta, SZA and Vince Staples to launch a series of music education programmes for young people. CMO Jennifer Sey talks to CR about the project – and explains why the brand is putting music at the heart of its marketing

Alicia Keys with students at Edward R. Murrow High School in Brooklyn
Alicia Keys with students at Edward R. Murrow High School in Brooklyn

Last week, Levi’s announced a long-term initiative to provide young people with access to music education.

The brand has so far partnered with four musicians to launch programmes in the UK and US. It has worked with Alicia Keys to create a music technology course at Edward R. Murrow High School in Brooklyn, introducing students to sound engineering, audio-visual production, post-production, mastering and songwriting:

With hip-hop artist Vince Staples to create a music technology programme for teens at a YMCA in Long Beach, California, which kicked off with a songwriting class led by Staples:

And with London grime artist Skepta to launch a two-month music programme at a community centre in Tottenham, covering lighting design, sound production and building a social media presence as an artist:

Musician SZA also teamed up with the brand back in April to put on a summer concert and community event promoting healthy eating in New Jersey.

Jennifer Sey, chief marketing officer at Levi’s, says the idea for the project came out of research which revealed that music education was being cut in schools.

“We thought that was quite sad really, so what we aim to do with these artists is to create customised programmes that they help us build,” she explains. “Not each one is the same but we work with them to essentially bring music education back to their communities. The idea is to give kids a chance to learn music and express themselves in a positive way. If they become musicians, great. If they don’t, that’s fine too. Really, the benefit is in the learning.”

Projects will be documented online and Levi’s is promoting the scheme on social media using the hashtag #supportmusic. The brand is also selling #supportmusic pins online and in stores and proceeds will go towards funding new programmes around the world.

“We want to make a long-term commitment – not something where we’re in and out but something more consistent,” explains Sey.

Revolution exhibition photography 06-09-2016
You Say You Want a Revolution? installation image, courtesy of the Victoria & Albert museum
You Say You Want a Revolution? installation image, courtesy of the Victoria & Albert museum
You Say You Want a Revolution? installation image, courtesy of the Victoria & Albert museum

The launch of the project coincides with the opening of a new exhibition at London’s V&A Museum which Levi’s has sponsored. You Say You Want a Revolution: Records and Rebels 1966-1970 explores a cultural revolution and political activism in the late 1960s through music, fashion, film and design.

The exhibition features five pieces from Levi’s archive including a customised pair of patchwork jeans reflecting the ‘hippie’ movement, bellbottoms and slim fit jeans.

To celebrate the exhibition’s launch, the brand has opened a pop-up record store at its Regent Street shop selling classic records associated with rebellion and hosted a talk on fashion, youth culture and rebellion at the V&A last week.

Levi's teamed up with Soho record store Sister Ray to launch a pop-up shop in its Regent Street branch

Levi’s teamed up with London record store Sister Ray to launch a pop-up in its Regent Street branch celebrating the opening of the You Say You Want a Revolution? at the V&A. The store stocks records from the 60s and 70s associated with rebellion and revolution

Both projects form part of a wider strategy to put music at the heart of the brand’s marketing. In the 1970s and 80s, its jeans were worn by rockers, punks and country artists including Debbie Harry, The Ramones and Bruce Springsteen and the brand is keen to highlight its punk and rock roots while also aligning itself with new and emerging musicians.

“I’ve been in this role around three years now and we’ve definitely tightened our focus around music as a way to [promote the idea of] authentic self-expression,” says Sey.

The brand recently released an updated version of its classic 505 jean – popular with punk musicians in the 70s – and has been working with musicians and artists to create digital content as part of its global Live in Levi’s campaign.

A series of films released over the past year features a diverse group of creatives – from electronic duo Classix to indie rocker Kurt Vile and Japanese drummer and vocalist Kavka Shishido – discussing their work and creative process while dressed in Levi’s:

The musicians featured span a range of genres, including grime, blues and electronica, and Sey says the brand aims to partner with artists who are “authentic in their voice and how they express themselves.” Authentic is an oft-overused word in marketing, but each artist has their own distinct style and most are songwriters, producers and instrumentalists. Some, like Keys, have sold millions of records, while others have a more modest following.

When working with artists, Sey says the brand takes a collaborative approach, allowing them to have a strong input in the creative process. “I think we get the best work that way,” says Sey. “It requires an open mind and some creativity and nimbleness but I think ultimately, we get better work and more energy from the artists – they’re more excited about it.”

“We want [artists] to be able to create something they feel good about,” she continues. “If the primary, core tenet of the brand is self expression then I don’t want to invite you in to be part of the brand and tell you what to say. It violates our own principle. The artists we select have a very distinctive voice of their own. We bring them in because of that, because they have something to say, so we want to hear from them.”

In the 1980s and 90s, Levi’s was known for its brilliant, weird and provocative ads – there was Launderette and Flat Eric, print ads with older models and BBH’s famous black sheep poster with the tagline ‘When the world zigs, zag’.

TV and print is still a key focus for the brand, says Sey, but she acknowledges that they are no longer its main priority. Social media and experiential marketing have become equally important – many of its recent campaigns were created with a focus on digital content and the brand has 23 million fans on Facebook and 1.5 million on Instagram, as well as a growing audience on Snapchat. It recently worked with visual artist Doug Aitken to launch an ambitious programme of cultural events across the US, travelling from San Francisco to New York, and has been experimenting with pop-up concept stores and workspaces-cum-shops for commuters in various cities.

“TV and print still work really well for us – they reach a lot of people and they drive a very high R.O.I. but obviously you need to be out there more continuously now and use all of the tools at your disposal to engage the consumer,” she says. “Things like event and experiential marketing are very important and I would say those create truly buzz-worthy moments, whether it is the V&A exhibit or our presence at Coachella. It gives you the chance to engage consumers in a real life experience and create fans of the brand.”

The brand hit something of a slump in the 2000s, when sales dropped significantly. Sey – who has been with Levi’s since 1999 – attributes this in part to inconsistent marketing and a preoccupation with being cool, rather than staying true to the brand’s roots. The brand also faces considerably more competition than it did in the 80s and 90s, not just from designer and boutique brands but from high street stores with their own denim lines.

“I’ve seen us thrive in terms of our overall business performance and be somewhat more challenged, and I think when we are challenged, it’s when we become a bit fearful about what’s happening in the market, worrying about not being cool or being too old and we chase cool. When we do that, we don’t come across as authentic because we are not,” says Sey.

Levi's black sheep ad by BBH
Print ad by BBH for Levi’s

“Our financial performance was inconsistent from about 2000 up until 2010, 2011 and I think we weren’t true to who we are,” Sey continues. “People embrace that when you do it well and you have to be consistent, so I think this consistency of message – of Live in Levi’s and music right now – is really engaging.”

Now, the focus is more on reviving classic styles and celebrating the brand’s 160-year history while attempting to engage younger consumers through social content and events. Its Live in Levi’s positioning, meanwhile, promotes the idea of Levi’s jeans as jeans to be lived in – a more enduring or hardwearing alternative, perhaps, to jeans by high street stores or luxury fashion brands.

Its advertising may not be as experimental or as memorable as it was in the 80s and 90s but Sey says the focus now is on putting the brand ‘at the centre of culture’ – whether through supporting musical talent, spotlighting rising stars, hosting the Superbowl at the Levi’s Stadium (home to the San Francisco 49ers) or sponsoring the V&A’s new exhibition.

“Everything we do is about asserting denim leadership, promoting self-expression and putting the brand at the centre of culture. It all comes back to those three tenets,” she says.

“[Advertising] is a far more complicated world but at it’s core it’s the same – you have to tell stories that people can engage with. There are just so many more stories to tell now.”

Find out more about Levi’s Music Project here. You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970 is open until February 2017. For visitor info see vam.ac.uk

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