Levi's bold stance hits the mark

Levi's recently took a bold step and visibly aligned its brand with those that support gay marriage rights.

Levi's recently took a bold step and visibly aligned its brand with those that support gay marriage rights. In company-owned stores across the country, it affixed to its mannequins the white knots that those in California and elsewhere are brandishing in rejection of a voter-approved amendment that defines marriage solely as a union between a woman and a man. The state's Supreme Court decided earlier this week to uphold that amendment.

The jeans maker no doubt realizes that it risks alienating some consumers, but this is not the first time it has sought to align its name with a social cause. In the early 1990s it launched “Project Change” to address racism; became the first Fortune 500 company to provide domestic partnership health benefits; and stopped funding the Boy Scouts following the group's firing of a gay scout leader. The company's headquarters sit in San Francisco, home to arguably the country's strongest gay community, and more recently it has sponsored MTV Networks' gay cable channel, Logo, as well as thrown its support behind the anti-Prop 8 movement last year. Earlier this week, the company donated thousands of dollars to The National Center for Lesbian Rights and The San Francisco LGBT Community Center.

So while the white knots don't represent a huge stretch for Levi's, the move sets the company apart from the competition. In taking such a stand, Levi's marks itself as an activist brand, but one that is smartly looking to build upon a movement that it sees as worthwhile and energetic. Instead of just selling to a community, it is becoming part of a community, and therein lies the key.

Earlier this month, Maine became the fourth New England state to approve gay marriage; Iowa has also made it legal, and several state legislatures across the country are considering the same. Activists in California have vowed to not let the fight end. Capitalizing on this momentum, Levi's director of PR and brand marketing, Erica Archambault, noted to The New York Times, “What's the pioneering spirit of today? A lot of people are rallying around marriage equality and fighting for that, and so many individuals within our company feel so strongly about it.”

Study after study has shown that today's consumer is demanding more of corporate America, and more from the brands for which they're shelling out their hard-earned recession dollars. That “more” sometimes means less packaging on a laundry detergent bottle to align with sustainability, or a portion of proceeds from dog food going to a local animal shelter, but sometimes it requires an even more courageous step. Levi's could have simply watched this fight go by, while still producing some advertising targeted at a gay demographic – but it didn't. Instead it sparked a conversation that will show it as a thoughtful and conscientious brand, rather than one looking for a quick ploy to endear it with a desirable customer base.

Rather than plastering its store with signage on the initiative, Levi's briefed its store managers and employees on the meaning behind the subtle white knots adorning its mannequins. The point, Archambault told the Times, was to allow the sales staff to “have an informed conversation [with customers] that's more interactive than reading off a card.” That show of solidarity with a community will keep the 156-year-old brand relevant today.

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