In the mid-1990s, Kenny Wilson sat quietly at the back of a meeting while more senior colleagues at Levi's talked about the success of the brand. Yet amid the backslapping, underlying brand equity figures - are we trendsetting, are we sexy, are we youthful? - were going south at an alarming rate. The kids no longer thought Levi's were cool.
'I remember thinking "We're on the edge here",' Wilson recalls. And he was right. Global sales plummeted from a high of £3.8bn at its peak to £2.3bn by 2001. First-quarter figures this year reveal an operating loss and sales that are inflated by currency gains against a weak dollar. A Mintel report last year recorded British jeans sales rising 40 per cent from 1998 to 2002, with Levi's share still ahead of rivals such as Wrangler, although sales of its traditional brands are still down.
But Levi's is no longer in freefall and Wilson has something to build on. The Brussels-based president of Levi's brand in Europe since November 2001, he remains cagey about the brand's figures. However, the European market is worth around half a billion pounds to the company. It has ten per cent market share in Europe and one in five pairs of jeans sold above £45 are Levi's, the price category that really interests Wilson.
Signature brand takes off
For the moment, however, this interest in the high end is not driving the market. Eleven per cent - £57m - of global sales in the first three months of 2004 were of Levi's Signature brand, introduced last year and available cheaply at Wal-Mart or Asda. The feud with Tesco, over the sale in the EU of cut-price US Levi's, appears to be over as the supermarket has started a trial run offering the Signature range.
In faded jeans and an old T-shirt bearing Japanese characters, the 37-year-old is not the obvious model of a senior executive at a world famous consumer brand. But like its 501s, Wilson is a product of Levi's - albeit one marked out at a young age for success during his 14 years with the company. Although not responsible for actually selling jeans, his role is in driving sales by underpinning the equity of the Levi's brand. His remit covers product development, design, retail marketing and managing the 11 PR agencies that work with Levi's throughout Europe.
Wilson knows the value of PR: between 15 and 18 per cent of Levi's European marketing spend is on PR and promotion.
'Ten years from now we can't rely on putting out ads,' he says. 'In fact, we probably can't now and PR is one of the elements of the mix. Unpaid-for editorial probably has more impact than ads in some ways.'
Levi's paid-for promotion has always been memorable, from the pop chart standards of its glossy ads in the mid-1980s, through to the techno accompanying yellow puppet Flat Eric and Handel over the couple running through walls two years ago. But today's teens weren't even born when Nick Kamen stripped off in a laundrette, and in ads now there are no tunes, just chat. The new Antifit 501 campaign features two youths talking. 'The idea was to get something more real, a dialogue, as opposed to "here's a film, look at it",' Wilson says. And PR has to reflect that relationship. He adds: 'I try to make myself as accessible as possible as we want to build real dialogue with people.'
This time last year, journalists were taken en masse to Berlin to see an exhibition of Levi Strauss & Co's 150th anniversary at the start of a major PR push for Antifit. 'We paid for that four times over in terms of editorial coverage across Europe,' Wilson claims. 'But we don't want to make a flash in the pan with someone and then not see them for a year.'
Recent sponsorship of Elle's style awards has produced valuable female-targeted coverage and sales. Elsewhere, in 1998, as part of his first big pan-European role in charge of Levi's Engineered jeans, the ones with the twisted side seam, Wilson was happy to do the rounds of style editors with the product in a bag that he would bring out and show them.
As a communicator with both external and internal audiences, Wilson says he has learned the value of shutting his mouth: 'I want to be surrounded by bright, challenging people. I want people who have got a point of view. I won't necessarily agree with it, but I try to listen a lot more and talk a lot less - to the retailers, press, stylists. It's been a real, conscious effort.'
This attitude has come with experience. 'The Levi's brand has to be consistent country by country, but how you market it can be different,' he explains.
'The advertising, the TV campaigns, are the same, but we have local PR and marketing teams in each country because that's the only way to do it. Every country wants to think it is different. In a pan-European job, the last thing you want to appear is British-centric.'
Wilson rates keeping fresh a brand that has been around as long as Levi's among his most difficult jobs. On a global scale, has brand perception been a little tricky for a brand that is seen as quintessentially American?
Without mentioning Iraq, Wilson meets the question head on: 'People are smart. They know it's an American product, and trying to hide the fact is the wrong way to go. European kids are bright enough to say "these are the things we like about America". We didn't feel an (anti-) American backlash.'
For now, his goal is to drive top-line growth in 2005. EU enlargement will help, he says. 'I spent time in Poland, the Czech Republic and Russia in January, and these countries provide long-term growth opportunities.
In Poland now you could be in Thurrock. People may have less money but they love brands.'
Wilson is likeable but contained. The things that irritate him are a mix of the weighty and the small: underperformance, bigotry, people talking over one another. Anecdotes do not pour from him but he does reveal a clue to his philosophy when asked to say who he admires. Like most people's lists of heroes, Wilson's has something of an identikit feel to it: Nelson Mandela, Richard Branson, Sir Steve Redgrave and so on. Yet he also cites football manager Sir Alex Ferguson as an influence.
'He did something great for my city,' Wilson explains. So far, so Manchester United football supporter, you might think.
Except Wilson is from Aberdeen and is talking about when Ferguson's unfancied team from the north-east of Scotland won the European Cup Winners' Cup against all odds in 1983. But Wilson's admiration goes beyond fandom. He saw Ferguson's management technique at close range because, at 16, he was signed to play for the club. Things didn't work out - that's another story - but Wilson recalls the manager's attributes.
'He had drive, the focus to be excellent, and he ran a tight ship.'
Going for gold
More than a little of that seems to have stuck with Wilson. Just imagine the following gum-chewed speech being delivered in a football tunnel before a match: 'I am tough, decisive, creative and driven. I want people around me who want to make a difference and want the space to do great things. But if you want to work nine to five and ebb through life, don't work with me.'
These are not Ferguson's words - although put them into that team talk and they could be - they are Wilson's. And it is this attitude that you suspect may help Levi's sell more jeans in Europe at or above £45 a pair.
1990: Joined Levi's as sales account manager for Scotland
1998: Various roles at Levi's, then Northern Europe regional marketing director
1999: European marketing director
2000: Brand director, Red Tab Men's and Women's and Levi's Engineered Jeans
2001: Europe brand president.