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Levi’s Hiring ‘Just Do It’ Veteran Means Shift to Global Focus

Rebecca Van Dyck of Levi Strauss & Co.
Rebecca Van Dyck, global chief marketing officer for Levi Strauss & Co. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

Rebecca Van Dyck, who led Nike Inc.’s “Just Do It” campaign and helped Apple Inc. make the iPhone a best-seller, just took on a taller advertising task: reviving sluggish sales at Levi Strauss & Co.’s namesake brand.

Van Dyck, who joined Apple in 2007 on the day the iPhone was introduced, was tapped in March to help lead Levi’s first global marketing push. It’s part of a larger effort aimed at getting products out the door more swiftly and luring customers back to a 150-year-old company that’s been buffeted by rivals.

“I had always worn Levi’s, but they sort of drifted away in my mind,” said Van Dyck, dressed in a white blouse and dark blue Levi’s. “I want us to be present and show up and be confident, and that’s going to be appealing to young people as well as old people who grew up with Levi’s.”

The San Francisco-based company, dominant in jeans for almost a century, has seen its share dwindle as other companies entered the market with lower costs and luxury alternatives. Van Dyck’s hiring is part of an overhaul that includes new leadership, a shift in management structure to eliminate regional control over design and a reduction in how many products are released each year.

“We’re 20 miles into a 100-mile journey,” said Robert Hanson, president of the global Levi’s brand, who recruited Van Dyck.

Levi’s grew out of an 1873 patent for the first jeans, or “waist-high overalls” as they were called, by Bavarian immigrant Levi Strauss. The pants, made of denim and reinforced with copper rivets, were made for gold miners in California and later became popular among lumberjacks, railroad workers and farmers. An early ad shows a Levi’s-clad cowboy lighting a cigarette with a branding iron.

‘Iconic Brand’

Levi’s industry supremacy -- Bruce Springsteen wore a pair on the cover of his 1984 album “Born in the USA” -- lasted until about two decades ago, said Marshal Cohen, an analyst at NPD Group Inc. Now, almost every apparel company makes jeans, challenging Levi’s at both the high and low end, he said.

While it’s still the top seller, Levi’s share of women’s jeans sales slipped to 4.4 percent in 2010 from 5.4 percent in 2005, according to researcher Euromonitor International. Its slice of the men’s jeans market dropped to 7 percent from 8.4 percent, Euromonitor said. The company has $1.6 billion in debt, and sales growth has been stagnant over the past decade. Levi’s posted $4.41 billion in revenue in fiscal 2010, less than what it was in 2000, according to Bloomberg data.

“Levi’s went from being a company that was a leader and this iconic brand, to now being one of many players competing for consumers’ money,” Cohen said. “Everybody and their mom makes jeans.”

Turnaround Challenge

Van Dyck said she was drawn by the challenge of Levi’s turnaround. One goal is to make Levi’s more relevant to customers who don’t consider it hip or fashionable, she said.

That includes a global rollout of the successful “Go Forth” U.S. advertising campaign, a push that was unveiled on Facebook yesterday. The new effort highlights “pioneers,” such as politically active young people who help their communities. Van Dyck hired Brian Irving, another Apple alumnus, to lead digital marketing.

Besides advertising shifts, Levi’s is centralizing leadership at its California headquarters, an office with panoramic bay views. As recently as a decade ago, Levi’s operated independently in each country, resulting in regional fiefdoms that left it unable to adapt quickly to new trends.

Hanson said he was drawn by Van Dyck’s experience working with two of the world’s most well-known marketers, Nike Chairman Phil Knight and Apple Chief Executive Officer Steve Jobs. Van Dyck helped guide widely seen television, print and billboard campaigns that show iPhone and iPad features.

Supporting New Styles

“She has a track record of working on a number of brands that have achieved the iconic status that I think Levi’s has had in the past, and we aspire to have again,” said Hanson, who also hired a vice president in charge of men’s design in April.

The company’s recent changes go further than a shift made in 2007, when the country-by-country structure was consolidated into three regions -- U.S., Europe and Asia. Under the new system, the company will more quickly support behind new styles, said Hanson, who began as global president last September.

Under the old setup, Levi’s was late to capitalize on the shift toward skinny jeans, lagging behind competitors such as Diesel and VF Corp.

The steps, some of which predate Van Dyck, may be working. Levi’s, which also makes Dockers khakis, swung to a $21 million profit last quarter, from a $14 million loss a year earlier. Sales rose 12 percent to $1.09 billion.

“We’re beginning to see the early stages of the transformation working,” Hanson said.

‘Shine a Light’

Levi’s also has introduced new product lines, including Curve ID, which helps women match jeans to their body type, and a line of jeans for bike messengers with features such as reflective stitching and “anti-stink” material.

Van Dyck is also helping winnow the number of styles of jeans, shirts and other items released each year. On one of Van Dyck’s first days, she and other executives laid out a batch of Levi’s inventory for the coming season to pick through what was repetitive, not selling or could be ditched. The company is trying to cut by half the 10,000 styles it churns out each year.

Her main hope, Van Dyck said, is to make the company stand out as relevant again.

“Levi’s has a history of being that brand,” she said. “We’re here to shine a light on that again.”

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