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The innovation mullet: How Levi’s looks at sophisticated tech to simplify shopping

Levi's president James JC Curleigh speaking at NRF’s Big Show in New York this week
Levi’s president James JC Curleigh speaking at NRF’s Big Show in New York this week

Levi’s thinks about a balance between simplicity and sophistication as the key to relevancy in today’s market, according to the brand’s president James JC Curleigh, who opened NRF’s Big Show in New York this week.

He referenced the idea of the 1980s mullet haircut as to how this should be seen by consumers. “What did it say? Business in the front, party in the back. Well, the new brand and business mullet should be simple in the front, sophisticated in the back. The best brands on earth, the most powerful brands on earth, have found a way to deliver simplicity on the front side through a very sophisticated platform on the back side,” he explained.

“In today’s world, there are more choices, more angst points, more obstacle courses than ever before for our fans. We make jeans, and products you wear with your jeans. Let’s be simple. In a world of difficult decisions, picking out your favourite pair of jeans should not be one of them. We need to put you on a simplified course to make sure we can either keep you in Levi’s or introduce you to Levi’s in a simple way.”

To do this, modern organisations have to take a level of sophistication in the supply chain and in how they show up at retail, he said. The most relevant future innovation platforms are ones that consumers don’t see; they’re powered by partners interested in managing big data, artificial intelligence, RFID and productivity solutions. But ultimately what that’s about is a better experience for shoppers than ever before.

“We have a basic fundamental promise to our fan, to our consumer, that we can meet and exceed their expectations. It’s expected to have points of distribution – that the product is actually there, that their size is available and that they can navigate to the fit that is right for them. There are lots of modern ways through technology and innovation, and tried and tested ways through relationship and service to do this in the moment of truth. Delivering the expected has never been more important than it is today,” he noted.

He also nodded to the importance of turning moments into momentum, referring to the laws of Sir Isaac Newton, which infers that retailers at rest will stay at rest.

Referencing CEO Chip Bergh, he said Levi’s wants to always keep one foot rooted in the heritage of the past in order to remember where they came from, and one foot confidently in the future, to keep driving the brand forward.

To really achieve this momentum, he nodded to the idea of protecting the core and expanding for more. “Our vision for the Levi’s brand is to be the most relevant, most loved, lifestyle brand again,” he said. He talked about moving beyond jeans to various other lifestyle solutions, like the Commuter Jacket, its wearable tech offering in partnership with Google’s Project Jacquard team, which Curleigh demonstrated as he arrived on stage riding a bike.

He also referenced other key platforms introduced in the last five years on behalf of its fans, including the Levi’s stadium and the Levi’s music lounge.

“[We] started to look at the whole lifestyle brand we wanted to create for two reasons: first to keep inspiring the fans that never left us, and second to re-inspire those who never stopped loving us, but have left for other brands. We want them to come back,” he explained.