Urban Cowboy

How does a brand that is over a century old make itself cool again? With a little help from the gays. Levi Strauss & Co. sponsored the world premiere of Milk at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco in October, and The Advocate sat down with the out president of the denim company, Robert Hanson, that afternoon to find out what Levi's and Harvey Milk have in common.

BY Corey Scholibo

November 27 2008 12:00 AM ET

ROBERT HANSON MILK PREMIER (GETTY) | ADVOCATE.COM 

You also sponsored the Out 100 event in New York
and have started advertising with the LGBT community
again. Why now?
Let me put it in a broader perspective because
it’s important for people to understand. Levi
Strauss & Co. has always had a rich and honorable
history in working on frontier issues, issues that are
oftentimes related to social justice. If I look
outside of the LGBT community, to just give you a
really poignant example, we integrated our production
facilities in the United States 20 years before the
Civil Rights Act of 1964. So we were working on behalf
of the African-American community all the way back
then before it was popular to do so. So it demonstrates the
company’s commitment to social sustainability
and social justice. We were the first Fortune 500
company to focus on HIV and AIDS, and have contributed $35
million since the virus became a problem. We were the first
Fortune 500 company to extend health benefits to the
domestic partners of our unmarried employees. We were
the only company in California to sign on to the brief
arguing the business case for nondiscrimination in
California’s marriage statutes, which have now
been joined by other great companies like PG&E and
AT&T, Viacom. We supported the No on Proposition 8
effort because we fundamentally believe that limiting access
to the world’s best talent pool by saying that
it’s acceptable to write discrimination into
the legislation of the state is not only socially
unjust but it just doesn’t make business sense.
That’s another example. We were one of the only
companies to partner with Out and Equal and others to
support the [federal] Employment Non-Discrimination Act, and
so on and so on. There’s a lot of work
we’ve always done on behalf of the community.

How long have you been with the company? I’ve been with the company for 20 years,
so a lot of this is during my time. I won’t
take any credit for driving any of it. But as an officer of
the company, I always understand and advocate the
advancement of all the issues that we focus on.
It’s only recently that we’ve reengaged in a
really thoughtful marketing relationship with the LGBT
community, because as we’ve gotten back to
profitable revenue growth and share growth, we’ve
put better products in the market and better distribution.
We diversified our distribution base and we’re
selling in more places that the LGBT community would
be shopping in. We feel it’s no longer about a
buy-sell transactional relationship; it’s
really about how engaged are you with these
communities.

Levi's brought you back from Europe to revitalize
the brand.
I moved myself back here, happily
[laughter]. But yeah, I came back from Europe
-- I was the president of Levi’s Europe from
1998 to 2001 -- and I came back in 2001.

So you started in San Francisco originally? Yeah, I started here in ’88. I was
actually an assistant advertising manager in our youth
floor division. I worked my way through to be the
director of marketing there. I worked on the Dockers brand
from ’92 to ’98 in new business
development. I worked on the Dockers golf in women’s
and young men’s business as well as ran all the
marketing for Dockers, including the “Nice
Pants” marketing campaign.

And were you out this whole time? Yes. Always have been, always chose to be.

How old were you when you started in ’88? I was ... ah, very tricky, very clever ... how
old was I? I was 25.

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