Urban Cowboy

By Corey Scholibo

Originally published on Advocate.com November 27 2008 12:00 AM ET

He is one of the
most prominent LGBT businessmen in the apparel industry,
but you won’t find him in a suit. Entering his
Western-themed office on Battery Street in San
Francisco, arguably not the fashion hub of the United
States, you will find a dapper but decidedly relaxed
executive sitting at an aged wood table -- part of the
casual Western motif of his office -- and clad in
jeans. As president of Levi Strauss & Co.'s Levi's
Brand Division, Robert Hanson has been tasked with
revitalizing the over a  century-old brand, and
he knows that the LGBT market is a key component in
doing that. When he moved back to the United States
from a position with the company in Europe in 2001, the
denim market was saturated, and Levi's was having
problems both with its product and with its
distribution and marketing. Hanson has done a lot of things
to help turn this around, but he knew from the
beginning that LGBT consumers were going to be
instrumental in making the brand cool again. In 2007 the
company launched a new gay-specific television advertisement
in which two men ended up together, which sparked buzz
not only among gays but in the advertising world as
well. But this was just the beginning. Levi's was the
sole sponsor of October's premiere of Milk at the
Castro Theatre and the after-party at San Francisco
City Hall. On the day of the premiere, The Advocate
sat down with Hanson to talk about how he helped make
Levi's hot again and what the company plans to do to
continue to get the gays.

Why did Levi's decide to sponsor the premiere of
Milk in San Francisco?
Number 1, I think we’re really honored to
be the sole sponsor of the premiere of the Milk film.
I think it’s primarily rooted in the fact that
if you look at who Harvey Milk was and what he stood for
from a values standpoint, he was an original. He had
courage. He had integrity. Those are values that I
think are importantly associated with the Levi’s
brand. On a more logical level, Danny Glicker, the
stylist for the film, went back and looked at The
Times of Harvey Milk,
and there’s no
question that in the ’70s, when Milk was at the
pinnacle of his impact, he and those around him wore,
as a part of their uniform, the original 501
button-fly jeans. So if you look at the film, at the
core of the wardrobe you see the Levi’s 501 jean, you
see the Levi’s 505 jean, which is our
straight-fit, you see the Levi’s trucker jacket.
Those are all a part of the uniform of that time. And
the final point is we’ve been working to deepen
our engagement with the LGBT community. I think
we’ve been targeting progressive gay and lesbian
people in particular because this is a group of people
who we have an authentic relationship with,
we’ve done great work with, and frankly,
they’ve been great advocates for the brand for
a long time. We’re also opening a store in the
Castro quite close to where Harvey’s camera store
was. So there’s just serendipity with all of it
coming together.

Well, the jean was a sign of rebellion. When Milk
first started getting involved in politics he
wasn’t wearing a suit. He was wearing
jeans, and people told him he needed to dress more
appropriately and walk the walk. Do you think that
feeling of rebellion has stayed with the brand, or
are jeans just part of the suit now?
I would say yes, it stayed with the brand.
Rebellion manifests itself differently with every
generation, and if you talk to younger people today,
the sense of aggressive rebelliousness, like you're fighting
against something, isn’t what young people would say
they feel. I think they feel they are fighting for
something. So I think there’s a sense of
independent-mindedness or an independent spirit that is
associated with the Levi’s 501 jean that
certainly was associated with Harvey Milk and is still
associated with our jeans.

Did you personally identify this film as something
you wanted to get involved with? How did your
partnership come about?
Sort of organically. We knew all of this was
happening because we made ourselves available to Danny
Glicker to help wardrobe the film. But we
didn’t actively seek a sponsorship role or any sort
of funded relationship. It was just "Look, it’s
authentic, it makes sense; how can we help?”

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.

 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.