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 1:00 AM ET

 ROBERT HANSON X100 (PUBLICITY) | ADVOCATE.COM

OK, aside from sponsoring Milk, how did you get
the gay community back on board with the brand?
Fundamentally, it’s all about great
product. I think before, we didn’t have good
enough product. Now we do. Then the next step was to rebuild
our relationships with great customers like Barneys, Urban
Outfitters, Macy’s, and others, so that our
brand was more widely available with premium
distribution where the LGBT community shops. The next step
from there really was about developing our own store
network because a lot of the LGBT community shops in
vertical specialty, and we didn’t have a very
big network of our own stores. The final bit, which
we’re just getting to now, is getting the
marketing relationship rebuilt. So it’s a very
methodical approach. It took a little bit longer then I
would have wanted, which I’m pretty
dissatisfied and impatient with, but I think what
we’ve been able to demonstrate, given that
we’re seeing nice share growth in both
men’s and women’s, is that the strategies are
working. They’re leading to a fundamental
recovery and leadership position for the Levi brand. I
think the marketing engagement work that we’re doing,
like the work that we’re doing on the Milk
film, is a great example of how we’ll do that.
Not only with the LGBT community but with the Latino
community, the African-American community, and more
progressive consumers across a number of
constituencies in the states.

Do you think you’d be doing all of this work
with the gay community if you weren’t with this company?
I think the company would be doing it,
certainly. Because the track record that we have of
engaging thoughtfully with the LGBT community goes
well beyond my tenure as a senior leader within the company.

So you didn’t have to come in and say, “I
really think we need to focus on this
community”? The brand had already decided
this was important?
I give all the credit to my team. It’s
the team who is very maniacally focused on the
consumer, and they’re the ones that have crafted the
majority of the strategies that are working now and are
deepening our relationships. Now, obviously, I
understand, coming from the position I come from as an
out gay leader, I understand what it’s like to be
part of a subculture. I get that. But where I might
have in the past more self-identified as an out gay
leader, I think what I self-identify now as is a
leader who’s at the table who contributes to the
company and [happens to be] gay. I just think
it’s important, because you evolve. I meet
people all of the time who I think are more talented and
more capable then I am but maybe not as fearless. But
if I can be a person who is fearlessly getting to the
table and employing my skills, it creates a pathway
for others to come after me who have an opportunity that
perhaps wouldn’t be available to them.

I just want to talk about that Levi’s campaign
you did where a man was on the phone and in one version
a hot girl in a phone booth burst through the
floor of his apartment and in another a hot guy
does the same. That was a pretty bold leap in the LGBT
marketplace. Where did that come from, and were
you scared about it or did you think you had
correctly read the marketplace?
Never scared, because I think Levi Strauss &
Co. has had a long history in working on issues that
are closely associated with social justice. So we just
believe fundamentally that it’s the right thing to
do, and we believe in the philosophy of "profits are
principles." This idea was gotten to in a really
simple way. We said, “Who are the consumer
segments that we should have the better and deeper
relationship with? The LGBT community is one of them,"
and then our creative teams both internally and at
another agency at the time came together and said,
“Look we’ve got this great film,” and
it would be really easy, which isn’t typical,
because it just had an ending where you could flip it,
where you could shoot it in two ways and air it in broad,
mass communications with the traditional male-female
ending and air it in more targeted communication, with
still massive reach but more targeted, that would have
a broader appeal to the LGBT community in particular and
show the male-male ending. It was just the right thing
to do. And yet we did get a lot of credit, which I
give to the team for putting it on more broadly viewed
cable networks. We ran on programming like Project
Runway,
for example. We made those kinds of
decisions versus just putting it on Logo, where we obviously
ran it as well. You know, it’s step by step by
step. We’ve had a long and rich relationship
with gay and lesbian people. We appreciate it, and
obviously you know all the facts. The market is worth a lot,
so it does come down to business for us. But
there’s an authentic relationship that I think
binds the community and the brand together.

Tags: Business

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