CMO Of The Week

CMO of the Week: Levi’s Global CMO Jen Sey

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For Jen Sey, pivoting Levi’s marketing strategy amid the coronavirus crisis was all about creating a respite for people. To generate some positivity in an otherwise unpredictable and fearful time, the global CMO at Levi Strauss & Co. tapped into something that’s deeply rooted in the brand’s DNA: music...

For Jen Sey, pivoting Levi’s marketing strategy amid the coronavirus crisis was all about creating a respite for people. To generate some positivity in an otherwise unpredictable and fearful time, the global CMO at Levi Strauss & Co. tapped into something that’s deeply rooted in the brand’s DNA: music.    

“We wanted to find a way to bring people a little bit of optimism and joy every day,” said Sey. “People want optimistic messages about the future -- they're really open to that. After we closed our stores we felt like we had an opportunity to connect with people through music.” 

And so 5:01 Live was born. As the main branded initiative for Levi’s during the coronavirus crisis, the 15-minute daily Instagram live music series takes place at 5:01 PST and features a wide range of artists, including Kali Uchis, Snoop Dogg, Questlove and Vic Mensa.  

5:01 Live also features a mainstay of Levi’s previous music efforts: giving back to the creative community. For the effort, the brand dedicated $500,000 of funds to go to the creative community, which has been hit especially hard by the crisis. Featured artists each give $10,000 to the charity of their choice, most of which have been coronavirus-related so far. 

“We’re focused on supporting the creative community,” said Sey, who is also an author and the 1986 winner of the U.S. National Gymnastics Championship, of 5:01 Live. “The uncertainty at this time is really damaging for artists. Shows are being canceled, so people aren't getting paid. We really wanted to give back to that community.” 

From an overall marketing spend perspective, Levi’s significantly pulled back its marketing dollars -- the only media it’s investing in right now is demand generation and search -- and pivoted to a largely owned and earned media strategy, which 5:01 Live easily lends itself to. 

With millions of unemployment claims and shelter-in-place orders, COVID-19 has hit the retail industry particularly hard. The U.S. Census Bureau said that overall retail sales during March dropped 8.7% (seasonally adjusted) from February -- the largest monthly drop ever recorded, exceeding the 4.3% decline in November 2008 during the Great Recession. 

In addition to 5:01 Live, Levi’s coronavirus efforts include a $3 million pledge to aid in relief support with a focus on its employees, community partners and supply chain workers through its Red Tab and Levi Strauss Foundations. It is also donating thousands of masks to hospitals around the globe.



Given Sey’s challenges and responses to coronavirus, she is the perfect CMO to kick off Brand Innovators’ new series, CMO of the Week, where each week we get inside the minds of  innovative CMOs. In the short term, much of the discussions with CMOs will revolve around coronavirus -- it is an unavoidable force now -- but as we come out of this crisis, conversations will evolve and broaden to include more topics around marketing, strategy and innovation.   

The interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Q: Like many other retailers, Levi's closed its U.S. stores in March. It also pledged $3 million to aid in relief support and launched the 5:01 Live series. How are you approaching your broader marketing messaging nowadays? What is the main focus of your messages overall? 

Jen Sey: Our main focus now is connecting with fans. We’re trying to not oversell. Apparel is one of the hardest hit sectors, with travel and hospitality being the only ones hit harder. We know that people aren’t in the mood to buy clothes right now, so we want to be appropriate. 

The idea is to bring people a little bit of fun and to give people a shared experience when they can’t otherwise get one. One of the things I miss is a shared experience, whether that’s a concert, a sporting event, or even dinner. We can have these experiences virtually but we can’t do them in real life. So this just gives us the opportunity to watch a show with our friends. You can see them comment, even though you’re not in the same room. We’ve gotten great feedback on it and we’re seeing high engagement and fans are really enjoying the series. 

Several big brands have planned big, anthemic campaigns around the virus. Outside of 5:01 Live, are you planning a big marketing campaign or TV creative around coronavirus and the response? 

Like most brands, our business is dramatically impacted. Our stores aren’t open, not just in the U.S., but around the world. And not just our own Levi’s stores, but our partners’ stores as well. We had to pull way back on marketing and the marketing dollars we spend. So we aren’t doing a big anthemic ad. We’re just focused on the music, which helps us find a way to engage people. 5:01 Live is the big push for us. 

We just felt like 5:01 Live was a fun and unique-to-us thing we can do, and it has the fun and charitable component of giving back to the creative community. Gen Z are making choices right now that demonstrate a commitment to community. We’re focused on supporting the creative community, because that community has been important to us. People are engaged with each new performance. Youth engagement online for us is surging. 

We’re also doing some product marketing. One thing that recently surprised us with its popularity was when we launched a new clothing collaboration with Nintendo’s Super Mario. It’s our most successful collaboration to date. It sold out faster than our Star Wars and Stranger Things collaborations. We’re seeing people do want a little bit of fun, and the Super Mario product is fun. It’s mostly being promoted through owned, email and ecommerce channels.

People are obviously watching a lot of shows and movies, whether on TV or streaming, and online publishers are seeing a ton of traffic. But ad budgets overall are contracting in response to this crisis. How have you changed your media mix since this began? Are you investing more in OTT, or digital, or TV? Or have you pulled back some spending, and if so, how are you making your dollars go further?

We didn’t pull anything that was in flight, those commitments were made. But we have pulled back on advertising that wasn’t already purchased. We’re experiencing unprecedented decline in revenue. Almost 100% of our stores are closed around the world, so we are in a mode where we’re protecting cash. It remains to be seen, as things start to open up, where we invest.  

We’re focused on earned media as well as our owned channels. We’re not really spending anything on media except for demand generation and paid search to drive traffic to our website. We don’t have any other brand media out there right now other than what we’re doing on our owned channels. 

You've done a lot with music, so 5:01 Live seems natural, but how did the idea come to be, and how did you pull it together? And how did you decide which artists to enlist? 

For us the filter we always use is, “do they have an original and authentic voice?” We’re not just about rock and roll or country music. It’s really just about the artists themselves.

With 5:01 Live, we wanted to move fast, especially in the early days [of the virus]. It was important to get something out there. Our philosophy for this is that it’s about progress, not perfection. So we went really fast. There were definitely some technical glitches, but it didn’t matter because people are patient right now with that kind of thing.  

In order to go fast we started with the artists we knew already and had been working with. But then once we started, more artists poured in and wanted to be part of it. We had more than we could even book. We budgeted $500,000 for the program -- $10,000 per artist to the charity of their choice -- and we have more than we can even run right now. We’re hoping to find a way to continue this. Even beyond when life gets back to normalcy. But right now, we’re more than booked. 

We have very good relationships with artists. Programs we’ve done and the ways that we work, we have a good reputation there. Artists feel good about the work they do with us. For example, just before coronavirus, we launched a campaign with Khalid. He launched a new product for us, the Chino XX, which is a men’s chino that targets more of a Gen Z consumer. We did a show, a campaign, and we have a music project in the works with him. He was really happy with it and felt he could be proud of the work he did with us. We think that contributed to the artist outpouring once we launched 5:01 Live.

Are you going to extend the $500,000 budget charity aspect for 5:01 Live?

We’re looking at how we can extend the program. We have limited budgets right now but we’d like to continue it and there’s potential to continue it even when things reopen. Maybe we could keep it as a permanent Friday thing -- every Friday at 5:01 as you’re getting ready to go out you can hear a fun live performance. 

And every year we have what we call 501 Day, May 20th. It’s the day the patent for the blue jean was signed in 1853. So for that we’re looking at doing a longer-form show on that day with a roster of artists instead of just one. And then potentially, we’re looking at how to extend this into real life, because at some point things will get better and people will want to get back together again.

Will it still continue as long as this lockdown goes on? 

Right now we’re booked into May. It’s not clear when things will open up, so we are taking it a week at a time. And we have a backlog of artists willing to do it, and we have some funds to be able to do to it.  

What's next in terms of your marketing around coronavirus and the next few months? Your CEO wrote in early April that your coronavirus plan will evolve, so will there be new initiatives, and if so, what? New marketing with it, too?

There’s so much uncertainty. You can't really make any meaningful predictions or forecasts about where the business is going. America is still basically 100% closed, as are most markets around the world. Our china stores are open, but traffic is coming back slowly but consistently. We just need a lot more data before we can say where, when and how we will invest. We don’t want to invest in marketing that isn’t useful and at the same time we don’t want to not invest.

Our brand was very strong going into this, we have every confidence that we’ll be strong coming out, but we have to manage our investment carefully right now.

How do you plan to phase back into standard marketing when the time comes? 

Mid to long term, we’ll see a return to normalcy with an acceleration in digital. Not just digital in terms of marketing but digital in terms how we work together and how we sell. I think we’ll see an acceleration of investment in digital across the board. We were already heavily invested in digital marketing. It was about 60% of our spend going into this. I don’t know that we’ll move far beyond that. TV does have a high ROI for us, so I suspect we’ll continue to invest there as well. 

But we will have to accelerate the integration of offline and online, and think about what a seamless offline/online experience is. We were already thinking about that, but what does it mean in the future? We have to think about what experience is, and what the consumer expects from an experience. We’ll see a lot of this as people emerge from their homes. And it might be different generationally. I think we’ll accelerate a focus on younger consumers. We’re a broad-reach brand, we welcome people of all ages, but obviously younger consumers are important to the future health of the brand, and I think younger consumers are most optimistic coming out of this. 

As far as how we invest coming out of this, we’ll test different things. We’re going to look at different countries and see if investment helps accelerate the return to normal. We’ve got pilots in place looking at that kind of thing to hasten the return to normal business. 

How are you spending your time at home aside from work? 

I haven’t really had any time. I’ve never worked more in my life!  I’m mostly just working and making time to spend with my 4 kids. And also get some exercise. I try to get outside every day to preserve my sanity. 

Brand Innovators CMO Of The Week is a new editorial series in which we’ll be profiling the top marketers at leading brands, every Monday morning.

Maureen Morrison is an editorial consultant and is based in San Francisco.

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