Lee Jeans makes its name with a cause

What began as a one-day event has evolved to shape Lee Jeans' year-round communications strategy

What began as a one-day event has evolved to shape Lee Jeans' year-round communications strategy

Denim and breast cancer may not seem to have a clear correlation, but as far as cause marketing goes, it's been one of the most successful pairings in recent history. Since 1996, Lee Jeans has held its National Denim Day, during which companies allow their employees to wear jeans to work - any pair of jeans will do, although Lee Jeans are what the company hopes for - in exchange for a $5 donation that goes directly to the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation.

During its 10-year span, Lee has helped to raise more than $60 million for breast cancer research. Initially, the relationship was conceived as a way to entice companies to let their employees wear jeans to work, says Mike Swenson, president of Barkley Evergreen & Partners Public Relations, Lee Jeans' AOR.

"From a business side, we realized that the majority of the jeans we were selling were being sold to women," adds Liz Cahill, director of PR and advertising for Lee Jeans. "We wanted to do something that would be important to our consumers."

After realizing that a significant portion of women within the company had been directly or indirectly affected by breast cancer, the team settled on the Komen Foundation as a partner.

Cahill says National Denim Day and cause marketing play a significant part in the overall communications strategy. "We use it as a communications effort to drive brand awareness of Lee," she says. "We know if people are aware of our brand and aware of the fact that we support causes that are important to them, that drives purchase consideration." The communications team uses the event to contribute to the desired image of a "brand that cares," something they track as part of their overall efforts.

The event is held on the first Friday in October as a kickoff to Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Cahill says. "Because we are one of the founding events going on, we want to make sure that we stand out," she adds. "PR is probably the biggest driver of getting that message out."

Indeed, even with an integrated cause marketing effort such as this one, PR does take a prominent role. Perhaps the most visible aspect of the campaign is its celebrity spokespeople. In addition to helping to select the spokespeople, the PR team is responsible for conducting media training and helping them stay on message. As is the case with most cause-related events, Lee only picks spokespeople who have been personally affected by the disease.

"We want that because they are so much more passionate about the cause," Cahill says.

Recent spokesmen have included Charlie Sheen, Rob Lowe, and Desperate Housewives stars James Denton and Ricardo Antonio Chavira. Cahill says that while the company has had women as spokespeople in the past, there is a certain advantage to having men speak for the cause. "What we have found is that having a male face in that sea of pink definitely [has] some stopping power," she says.

Last year's event drew the participation of nearly 30,000 companies and raised $8 million. And media coverage was still strong. Entertainment Tonight sent a crew out to Lee's Kansas City, MO, headquarters to film Denton and Chavira. "We've really built some great relationships with the media," Swenson says. "What we're finding is... that it's a program that is now established and supported, and the media look for it every year."

And while the event is only one day a year, it has seeped into the marketing department's year-round efforts. Cahill notes that the company constantly looks for ways to incorporate the cause into international advertising, work with retailers, and communications. "When you have that kind of commitment from the company toward a cause, then it can't help but work its way into its marketing throughout the year," Swenson adds.

About 60% of women have a more favorable image of Lee because of its sponsorship of National Denim Day, according to a Lee National Denim Day awareness study, conducted by Harman Atchison Research Group.

Francesca Castagnoli, senior staff writer for Self, says Lee has been an "innovator" in a market where there are an increasing number of companies trying to tie themselves to the breast cancer cause. "I really think that women who are shopping and being conscientious about their money are aware of the dedication that Lee has," she says. "They have been in it for so long that it rings true."

Indeed, Cahill says that behind the sponsorship, there is a genuine goodwill gesture. "It's not necessarily about selling jeans. We hope they buy our jeans because they like our brand," she says. "This truly is about trying to raise money for breast cancer."



Lee Jeans (part of VF Corp.)


Gordon Harton


Kansas City, MO


Denim and casual brands in mid-tier level, such as Levi's

Key Trade Publications:

Women's Wear Daily, DNR

PR budget:


Marketing Team:
Director of PR and advertising, Liz Cahill
Research manager, Shawn Travalent
Fashion product placement/PR manager, Jennifer Johnson
Lee National Denim Day manager, Nancy White

Marketing services agencies:
PR: Barkley Evergreen & Partners
Advertising: Arnold Worldwide
Media buying: mediaedge:cia

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