I’ll admit it. I’m obsessed with the entrepreneurial times we live in. In the last 10 years alone, countless new brands have changed the world and disrupted their industries, and become indispensable in our daily lives. Uber. Amazon. Netflix. Warby Parker. Shinola. Sonos. Instacart. Thrive Market. WeChat. The list goes on and on. All brands that I admit I’m kind of obsessed with. Welcome to the golden age of start-ups.
Which makes my recent trip to the amazing Levi’s Haus of Strauss in Los Angeles all the more remarkable. Being immersed in such a truly authentic brand was every bit as inspiring as spending time at the storied campuses of Facebook’ and Apple. And then it hit me. Levi’s is over 150 years old, founded in 1853. WHAT? Old brands are supposed to be dinosaurs looking for tar pits. And yet here I stood, in the incredibly cool Haus, where rock stars, All-Stars and uber-agents, all come to tour the Haus and get hooked up with a pair of 501’s. How in this start-up obsessed era is it possible for a brand to be so cool, relevant and original over 150 years after it launched? Turns out, it’s fairly simple. Levi’s has stuck with a few simple rules that should inspire any brand that wants to be more than a flash in the pan.
ORIGINALITY. Like all Super Brands, Levi’s is a true original. Back in 1872, Levi Strauss was running a supplies store that catered to California gold rushers. He partnered with a taylor named Jacob Davis and created a pair of blue denim pants to cover the wool pants that miners wore to work. Their fine wool pants kept tearing in the mines, so Levi and Jacob came up with a solution. But these weren’t just any pair of blue denim pants. These had rivets! They could withstand the heavy workload of the California gold rush. Like the disruptors we are all so enamored with today, Levi Strauss disrupted the clothing industry and produced a product that was a true game changer.
Levi’s iconic 501 was born in 1890, and the red tab first appeared in 1936. Back in the 80’s 501’s were IT. I remember my first pair of 501’s, which were #1 on my birthday list, like it was yesterday. I put them on and jumped straight into the swimming pool. Shrink to fit was a big deal back then. And the fit, style, strength and comfort of a pair of 501’s is every bit as top shelf today as it has been for over 125 years. True originality.
VALUES. Millennials famously demand that the brands that they buy from are good corporate citizens. Corporate values are critical for any Super Brand, but they are nothing new. When the 1906 earthquake absolutely leveled San Francisco (and the original Levi’s headquarters), Levi’s employees didn’t miss a single paycheck. In 1991, Levi’s enacted the very first global workplace standards, their “Terms of Engagement”, insuring that their workers worldwide would be treated fairly and with respect. Those terms also outlined Levi’s commitment to the environment, decades before global warming became a mainstream concern. Levi’s has made their core values clear from the beginning.
AUTHENTICITY. Think about this. Levi’s created the blue jean industry. Then icons like James Dean, Steve McQueen and Marlon Brando rocked them. Along came the 70’s and brands like Jordache and Vanderbilt were all the rage. Later, designer jeans at $200 a pop took over. Baggy jeans. Distressed jeans. Mom jeans. Brands like Lucky and True Religion dominated, and Levi’s temporarily seemed “dated”. But Levi’s never gave in to the temptation to follow along. They would add a few new designs, and tweak the classics a little bit, but they kept being Levi’s. They stayed true to their roots and never sold out and never bought into the designer jean craze. Instead, they stayed authentic and true to their roots. And now we’ve come full circle. Levi’s is by far the coolest brand in the jeans world, primarily because they’ve remained authentic, original and true to their values.
So there it is. Proof that in spite of our collective obsession with disruptor brands, the ultimate definition of cool is not what’s new. It is what’s true. So go grab a new pair of 501’s and jump in a swimming pool. You’ll feel like just James Dean.