When the world zigs, zag.

In the early 1980s, Levi Strauss wasn’t doing so well. The once iconic American brand was completely out of touch with their audience and nobody thought they were cool anymore. Their ad agency, McCann Erickson, had created such an atrocious ad campaign for them that every time people saw the ad, sales would go down. According to ad legend John Hegarty, “It’s rare in advertising that, after seeing an ad, people will actually not buy the product.” People tend to ignore ads but if an ad actually convinces you not to buy a product, it’s quite a unique achievement.

At that time, BBH was a young ad agency that didn’t even have an office and they were one of many ad agencies pitching for Levi’s business. Levi’s knew they’d need a new agency and fresh ideas if they were going to get out of the massive hole they were in. Levi’s gave the following brief to agencies pitching for their account: “Do something we won’t like.” Makes sense, because whatever Levi’s had liked so far had been a disaster.

Some people even advised BBH to recommend a strategy of Levi’s dropping the manufacture of denim jeans and focus on casual clothing instead because jeans were simply no longer in fashion. But Levi’s took a different route. While other agencies were making commercials and filming their ideas, BBH decided they would only outline the brand’s strategic direction. If Levi’s agreed on the strategy, only then would BBH proceed to actually make commercials and other ads.

On the day of the pitch, BBH suggested that they make the pitch in Levi’s office but Levi’s said, “Oh no, we want to see you in your environment, we want to get a feel for the people and the surroundings that we might be working with.” So BBH had no choice but to invite Levi’s to their half-constructed office that didn’t even have a conference table so they had to “make” a conference table out of a random assortment of office desks.

BBH presented their advertising strategy to Levi’s. The crux of the strategy was that Levi’s ads should focus on their own enduring values of toughness, integrity and simplicity in a fresh, stylish way. It worked. BBH won the account and the first ad they made for Levi’s was for the launch of black denim jeans. At the time black denim was a new concept and this is the ad the agency came up with:

At first Levi’s was confused. The picture of the product wasn’t in the ad. Shouldn’t an ad have an actual product they are trying to convince people to buy? BBH said no because everyone knows what jeans look like and even though black jeans were new, it’s not hard to visualize it. BBH argued that dramatizing the value of black jeans was more important than actually showing the product.

The message of the ad was simple: if you wear black jeans, you will be different. You won’t be one of the flock. You’ll be heard rather than part of the herd. You’ll stand out from the crowd. This ad was reaching out to people who want to be different. Levi’s was reluctant to run the ad, but they did, and it did so well that they had to pull the ad because demand for black jeans grew higher than supply! Levi’s was so grateful that they gifted BBH a life-size stuffed black sheep, and the black sheep eventually became BBH’s logo and the foundation of their own agency philosophy.

Even today whenever BBH is creating ads for brands, they always ask themselves, “Where’s the zag in our thinking?”

It’s a question we should all ask ourselves in our own respective fields.

2 thoughts on “When the world zigs, zag.

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