Levi’s Kenny Mitchell says the iconic brand has legs to grow

The new chief marketing officer’s insights on operating at the speed of culture and looking at the brand from a ‘psychographic’ point of view
Bruce Horovitz
NRF Contributor
Levi's Chief Marketing Officer Kenny Mitchell
Levi's Chief Marketing Officer Kenny Mitchell

Few brands enjoy the global familiarity of Levi’s — and maybe that’s a challenge. How does such an iconic brand stay cool? That’s one reason why Levi Strauss & Company’s new CEO Michelle Gass recently lured in new chief marketing officer Kenny Mitchell.

Mitchell’s resume has serious heft. Before joining Levi’s, he was chief marketing officer at Snap Inc., where he led brand and business marketing efforts globally, with a focus on driving the growth of the Snapchat community. Before that, he held senior marketing roles at McDonald’s U.S., Gatorade and NASCAR.

Mitchell has his work cut out for him at Levi’s — how to make a 171-year-old brand look and feel contemporary. At the same time, he’s also charged with boosting Levi’s sales well beyond the blue jeans aisle and growing direct-to-consumer sales. NRF contributing writer Bruce Horovitz asked Mitchell about his plans to accomplish this.

What’s it like to be the new chief marketing officer for Levi’s?

I’m really honored. It’s a marketer’s dream to work on such a world-class, iconic brand.

Does the Levi’s brand need a re-do?

I’ve been on board for about 10 months. The opportunity I see in front of us is not about re-doing or re-imagining. It’s about efforts to keep the brand in the center of culture in ways relevant to our consumers that are consistent with the time. I think of things that are highly relevant and unexpected to help break through the clutter.

Is Levi’s losing some luster as the brand — and its consumers — age?

The brand has never been stronger. And it’s equally strong in all markets. We continue to be the number one denim brand globally.

As the new guy, what are your marketing plans under a new CEO?

One of the things I want to focus on, as a newbie, is getting the team on a clear point of view for this next chapter. Looking at the history of Levi’s, it has always been and will always be an unofficial uniform for progress. So, we want to celebrate and inspire folks who are making moves for the better. These can be very small moves, or they can be moves from folks who are transforming the world. We will use that as a foundation for how we want to bring the brand forward.

An individual dancing in denim.

Can you give me an example?

We just launched a new brand campaign celebrating the 10th anniversary of “Live in Levi’s.” We decided to use dance as a bit of a proxy for a movement in pursuit of something better. We did it in a very cool way. It focuses on telling the story of a protagonist who is inspired by someone else who is moving. When she moves, she inspires her friends to move. The ad has been performing very well. And that’s just the start of the storytelling.

What else is part of the storytelling?

We work closely with the folks who drive subculture. For example, the other weekend we were at the Coachella music festival. Our team works with musical artists and stylists. We helped to style seven or eight acts on the Coachella stages. It’s about people who are moving things forward. That’s how we keep the brand hot in the center of culture. At Coachella, custom Levi’s looks were worn by performers Lil Yachty, Dom Dolla, Laura Lee of Khruangbin, and rapper Blxst.

A few years ago, Beyoncé was wearing Levi’s in ads. Is there anything new with her and Levi’s?

As you know, Beyoncé came out with her Cowboy Carter country album. One of her songs on the album is called “Levii’s Jeans.” We are honored that she named a song after our brand. That’s a testament to the iconic nature of the brand.

Was she paid for this?

No. This was completely organic. That’s what makes our brand team so proud. A cultural icon such as Beyoncé chose our brand name for her song title.

How did Levi’s respond to Beyoncé’s song about the brand?

We were able to operate at the speed of culture. We change our social handles on Instagram and TikTok to communicate with fans in real time. She used two ‘i’s to spell “Levii’s,” so we instantly updated our thumbnails and language on Instagram and TikTok to have “Levi’s” with two ‘i’s to pay homage to the song.

How does Gen Z approach the Levi’s brand differently from past generations?

They think about the brand holistically. When they think about a brand, they think about what it stands for. How does it connect to their personal identity and how does it show up in the world? To Gen Z, it’s about the values behind the brand. If you’re not operating in a way aligned with their values, you can turn them off.

Can you be more specific about how Levi’s appeals to Gen Z?

We try to show them how Levi’s is a canvas for their creativity. Gen Z really values an authentic story. Levi’s is a brand with a real heritage that’s not fabricated. It’s the brand that Steve Jobs wore when he first introduced the iPod and it’s the same brand that (rapper) Lauryn Hill has worn in concert.

Who is Levi’s core customer?

We’re a very democratic brand. When I was named CMO of Levi’s, I told my mother, who is in her 70s, and she became very excited — and I also told my daughter, who is 17, and she, too, became very excited. We think of Levi’s from a psychographic, not a demographic, point of view. Our customer is someone who is original and who is looking to make changes big and small. It’s someone who wants to blend style and prestige with high quality.

Levi’s new CEO seems to want Levi’s to sell a lot more than jeans. How will you do this?

Our aspiration is to be the leader in denim lifestyle. That’s head-to-toe dressing from T-shirts to tops to sweatshirts to jackets to accessories. We have a tremendous rope and latitude as a brand to be the denim lifestyle leader.

Would that also substantially boost sales?

If we sell one top to one bottom, we significantly increase revenue.

Are fewer Levi’s transactions are taking place at department stores like Macy’s and Nordstrom?

Our shift is to be a more direct-to-consumer business. Nearly 50% of our revenue for the most recent quarter was direct-to-consumer. That can be from ecommerce or at our 3,200 retail stores. This is important because it’s where we can control and provide an elevated consumer experience. From a margin perspective, it’s a good move, too.

Levi's Kyoto store front.

What is your goal in direct-to-consumer sales?

Our goal in the next few years is to be at 55% direct-to-consumer and 45% wholesale. That’s still a critical component of our business. You can’t beat the reach that comes with wholesale partners. We don’t have that tremendous footprint that they have.

How many retail stores globally do you plan to open this year?

We opened about 100 last year and expect to open at least 100 more this year.

This will be an ultra-political year in the United States. How will Levi’s tap into that?

Levi’s will continue to operate in ways that align with our values. We won’t shift that. One of our areas of focus is democracy and our participation in it. We are continuing to drive for voter engagement and participation. Similarly, in the college space, our focus is on driving engagement and participation in a nonpartisan way, particularly with younger folks. We have a history of that.

How is retail changing?

Consumer expectations are very high. You are not just compared to other retailers but to the last great experience a fan has had. So, you must be thoughtful of consumer experience. How do you always make yourself something that people look forward to? Retailers must respond to heightened expectations from fans.

What are you wearing right now?

I’m wearing Levi’s 501s — customized with patching on the thighs and knees. I also have on a Levi’s trucker jacket made of denim and linen. Talk about denim on denim, I’m rockin’ with that.

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