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Levis: The Karma Capital That Got Away, Part 2

Posted on the 17 February 2011 by Drpamelarutledge @pamelarutledge

Welcome to Historic BraddockIn part 1 “Levi’s: Go Forth and Exploit,” we wrote about our problems with the Levi’s Go Forth Campaign, such as romanticizing and trivializing the Great Depression and exploiting the efforts of the town of Braddock, PA to fit their Steinbeckian narrative. Here, we will focus on the opportunities for what we call Karma Capital–economic profit combined with positive social impact–that got away.

Brands and corporations have significant impact on individuals and culture. The Levi’s campaign shows a considerable deafness to the current social and technological environment and the shifting psychologies and cultural sensibilities of their market. In a globally networked world, every message from a company and organization will ripple through the system. They could have created some serious Karma Capital by aligning social goals with their bottom line.

Levi’s missed an opportunities on two levels. Instead of a contrived narrative, they could have authentically celebrated attempts to reinvent and revitalize Braddock and towns like it. Granted, it doesn’t work as well with the ‘Grapes of Wrath’ grit look, but it would have both truth and inspiration going for it. Change is hard. It means letting go of something old to embrace something new. At the essence of the Levi’s campaign, the message is (or should be) that we all can reinvent ourselves through hard work. But Levi’s focus rests on the ‘stuck,’ not the potential or progress.

At a higher level, America can only reinvent itself if it moves beyond Industrial Age ideals and builds an economic base built on knowledge, technology-training, innovation, and flexibility. Campaigns such as this are like driving by looking through the rear view mirror. We need to face forward and reeducate and retrain people so that they can successfully move into industries with growth potential.

Levi’s is still marketing in the traditional model, forgetting that individuals matter and that every message has impact and the potential for positive change. Levi’s could have focused on positive efforts to revitalize the town, such as Mayor John Fetterman’s “two-pronged approach” to attract homesteading, such as creating the first art gallery in the four-town region with artists’ studios and public art installations and encouraged projects such as growing organic vegetables in the shadow of a steel mill.

Braddock Vegetable Garden

Organic vegetable garden in the shadow of an old steel mill.

A better model, however, is a company like Zappos. Levi’s could have taken a lesson from Zappos’ corporate culture and considered projects such as opening a call center in Braddock and launching a documentary-based campaign showing workers gaining computer literacy in a high-tech environment. And if they were REALLY smart, they would provide Levi jeans for all employees and their families.

This is a sad story of lost opportunities all around. Levi’s could have had a positive long-term impact on real people (and their brand) by taking action that would have resulted in genuine rather than transitory productivity. They could have celebrated the positive rather than preparing a message that, from almost any angle, is negative. They also built the campaign as a completely closed system, so audience participation is reduced to those who are making fun of the ads, when they could be engaging with Levi’s to promote a larger cause. Levi’s isn’t asking for help for Braddock or its citizens, they are merely using Braddock to ignite predominantly negative emotional triggers to promote sales.

Here are the lessons we can learn from Levi’s ill-conceived campaign:

  1. Don’t scare people by linking current conditions with metaphors of something far worse
  2. Don’t trivialize hardship or disrespect real people
  3. Take responsibility for the cultural symbols you invoke
  4. Focus on what people are accomplishing, not on the failures
  5. Make your brand part of a higher-level mission
  6. Invite your customers to join your efforts alongside your brand
  7. Align business success and growth with positive social impact

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