Beyoncé’s cowboy call-out for Levi’s can help reposition them both

Although Levi’s new CEO Michelle Gass said the company was “very honoured” by the shoutout, she stopped short of saying the song impacted sales so far.  (REUTERS)
Although Levi’s new CEO Michelle Gass said the company was “very honoured” by the shoutout, she stopped short of saying the song impacted sales so far. (REUTERS)


  • Her new album Cowboy Carter, which has a song dedicated to Levi’s jeans, has expanded country music as a genre, while Levi’s is rethinking how denim fits into people’s wardrobes. Two big American icons are trying to redo their brand profiles.

Levi Strauss & Co’s jeans got a hat tip with the recent release of Beyoncé’s album, Cowboy Carter, which draws on country and folk music across cultures and eras. It includes a sensual song called Levii’s Jeans. As fans speculate, the double ‘i’ plays off the fact that the album is ‘Act II’ of a planned trilogy. The company nodded by changing its Instagram name to ‘Levii’s’ and posting a carousel of photos with the subtitle, “Oh to be Levi’s jeans right now." There is speculation that a Cowboy Carter tour could be the type of windfall for the jeans maker that Beyoncé’s Renaissance tour was for glitzy Etsy businesses. It’s like a glittering ad campaign served on a silver platter for Levi. But it’s the brand’s cost-cutting and growth plan that will keep it headed well, not the Beyhive alone.

Of course, being on the radar of one of the biggest fandoms in the world has its perks. It could help Levi thrive during this stretch of slowing US consumer demand for goods and kick off its campaign to become a more sought-after brand. Yet, on its last earnings call, the company indicated that it’s not getting too caught up in the Queen Bey hype. That’s wise. In the long run, it’ll take more than Beyoncé to get choosy shoppers to spend on jeans.

Although Levi’s new CEO Michelle Gass said the company was “very honoured" by the shoutout, she stopped short of saying the song impacted sales so far. “Denim is having a moment, and the Levi’s brand is having a powerful moment around the world," she added. This comes months after the company began slashing costs. In January, it announced that it would trim about 12% of its global workforce, discontinue its lower-margin Denizen business and reduce discounts. Levi is also doubling down on getting shoppers to buy directly from it instead of department stores, and it is expanding its merchandise in an effort to become more of a denim lifestyle brand than just a jeans maker.

Achieving that particular aspiration will require more than cutting costs. While an iconic denim wear brand, Levi still faces all the same challenges dogging the rest of the retail sector. Executives from Etsy to Ulta Beauty have warned investors about a continued slowdown in consumer spending due to increased prices. Denim sales, more specifically, have been volatile over the last few years as shoppers switched out their skinny-leg jeans for wide legs. After that stretch of growth, denim sales fell by an overall 6% last year, according to Circana.

Levi is also taking a risky move by betting on its brand name to get people to shop directly at full price rather than on sale at Macy’s, for instance. While it sounds simple, that same strategy has marred even bigger names such as Nike. In the sneaker maker’s case, leaving department stores and third-party retailers pushed some shoppers to choose a similar sneaker at a cheaper price than seek out the Nike brand in its own stores or online.

For Levi to avoid that fate, consumer perceptions about denim have to shift. This is where Beyoncé may be helpful. The Levii’s Jeans lyrics help serve as fashion pointers for listeners: “Denim on denim on denim on denim, Give you high fashion in a simple white tee." This all plays well into Levi’s vision for its future as a premium brand. But it could lose market share if it doesn’t find the right direct and wholesale balance. Rivalry in denim-wear is fierce.

While Levi’s still leads in the American denim department, Shein Group is making inroads. Last week, the Singapore-based company announced it would be a fashion sponsor at Stagecoach: California’s Country Music Festival for a third year. It released a partner collection of western-inspired music festival apparel, including fringe tops, bedazzled denim and metallic boots. A pair of $21 high waist fringed jeans seems like a better deal for a Cowboy Carter concert than a pair of Levi’s $98 501 jeans (the brand’s best-known pair). History has also shown that Shein’s market operations move as fast as the swipe of a finger while browsing TikTok. Shein may be more prepared for Cowboy Carter than Levi is so far.

Perhaps sensing competition, Levi relies on fabric innovation and stays ahead of trends. For example, it recently released 511 Slim Tech Men’s Pants that are moisture-wicking and cooling and plans to launch new denim fabrics for warmer weather. And it’s investing more in baggier and looser silhouettes that are driving fashion trends and sales rather than skinny styles, says Kristen Classi-Zummo, an apparel industry analyst with Circana. As Cowboy Carter challenges the limits of country music as a genre and the meaning of Americana, Levi is rethinking how denim fits into wardrobes. Two US icons are leaning into the kind of American innovation that will keep their names on our lips years after this latest buzz. ©bloomberg

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