Best Practices for Innovation at 165 Years Old
BY Marc Rosen | President and EVP, Direct-to-Consumer | Levi Strauss & Co.
From the beginning, Levi Strauss & Co. has made a mission out of outfitting pioneers – from gold miners remaking the Western frontier to generations of young people pushing social, sartorial and artistic boundaries that followed.
The face of our consumers has changed over the decades, but our commitment to giving them exactly what they want has never wavered. While digital has fundamentally rewritten the rules of retail, it has also put a dizzying array of technological tools at our fingertips to help us deliver a highly personalized and seamless shopping experience. The challenge – one that we take very seriously – is to sift through these tools and invest our time and energy in the ones that solve real problems and bring truly outstanding value to our consumers.
Our heritage gives us the gift of perspective – we’re not interested in every fleeting trend or headline-grabbing gadget. Our fans have been loyal through the decades, whether they’re straddling the soon-to-tumble Berlin Wall or rocking the festival stages from Woodstock to Coachella.
We will always be in the business of style, fit and design – but now we are also in the business of data, AI and cutting-edge user interfaces, and that requires us to think as much like a tech company as an apparel company.
We have to know when to embrace the lean and scrappy mindset of a startup, when to partner with an actual startup instead – and when to take full advantage of our size, history and global reach. It’s a delicate balance, a cross between a juggling act and a tightrope walk, but when it’s done well, we reap the benefits of both worlds.
Along the way, we’ve learned a few lessons:
We are constantly looking outside our own world for fresh inspiration, and that’s what sparked our recent foray into wearable tech. It started with a desire to solve a real-world need of our consumers on the go, and grew into the acclaimed Levi’s® Commuter X Jacquard by Google Jacket, connecting bike commuters to their phones with the swipe of a finger across the cuff. We were proud to break new ground as the first brand to partner with Google on its push to embed digital technology into apparel.
The project also opened up new avenues of thinking for us regarding driving innovation and measuring the success of some of our high-profile products. The Jacquard jacket showed us that it’s not just about the number of units sold, it’s about the journey that got you there as well as the buzz a unique product can make, which creates a halo effect for the brand.
DRIVE SPEED AND AGILITY
As the “startup” within the larger company, part of the role of the E-commerce Team is to drive speed and agility and remake the rules of traditional retail.
Denim ranks alongside bikinis and bras as one of the most difficult apparel items to fit. Our stylists do a great job of helping our customers navigate their options in brick-and-mortar stores, and we knew we needed to find a way to translate that experience seamlessly to our digital storefront.
Enter Indigo, a chatbot on our Levi’s® sites that takes a conversational approach to finding out a shopper’s style and fit needs. With chatbot technology rapidly becoming ubiquitous, we had a choice: spend a long time perfecting a tool that might already be out-of-date by the time it launched, or move fast, launch quickly and be prepared to iterate. We chose the latter, found a great partner and got it up on our sites within four months – and now we’re busy refining the tool based on how our real-life customers are interacting with it.
CREATE A DATA-DRIVEN “TEST & FAIL” CULTURE
We’re at a unique moment in retail where technology – particularly mobile – has evolved to the point that it is yielding readily accessible, scalable solutions to long-standing challenges in apparel.
We keep our focus on solving real-life problems for our consumers, and steer clear of pursuing new technology for technology’s sake – but we’ve made, and learned from, our share of missteps along the way. In 2005, we attempted to solve the fit challenge by installing behemoth body scanning booths in Levi’s® stores that recommended jeans based on consumers’ body scans. People loved the idea of getting help finding the right fit. The idea was a good one, and addressed a real need – but the technology wasn’t ready. It was too big, too expensive and consumers ultimately didn’t love the experience of being scanned in the middle of a store.
Fast-forward 13 years, and we have taken the lessons learned from the body scanner and repurposed them for a new solution to the fit problem: our Virtual Fitting Room. This visualization tool lives online (freeing up valuable in-store floor space) and shows how different styles will fit a consumer according to their dimensions. We believe it will help consumers feel more confident about buying jeans online – but we aren’t afraid to go back to the drawing board if the data and our consumers tell us that it’s still not what they’re looking for.
We’re wise enough to know that, in a market flooded with robust technologies, tools and apps, we don’t have to build everything from scratch – and fortunately, our company’s iconic status has sparked the interest of leaders in the industry.
For example, when it comes to sharing highly personalized style inspiration, social does it best. We recently launched a partnership with a leader in visual discovery to create hyper-personalized Levi’s® style inspiration boards that are based on a fan’s individual tastes, drawn both from a targeted questionnaire and style insights from that person’s discovery activity. We knew we didn’t need to reinvent a platform that already existed and is thriving.
Partnering with the leading players in the visual search and social shopping arenas is an obvious choice as we continue to build out our channels to create meaningful engagement with consumers.
KNOW WHAT YOU CAN OFFER TO ATTRACT THE RIGHT TALENT
We’re obviously a top talent destination for designers and denim-heads – but we also work hard to position ourselves as a cutting-edge place to work in fields as diverse as sustainability and data analytics.
We’re surrounded by competition from a host of Silicon Valley employers, but we’ve got something that many tech companies and startups don’t: a global consumer base and real enthusiasm for using technology to solve real-world problems for them. For the technically inclined, this offers a unique environment to test out new solutions and get fast feedback from real people.
Our future talent will have the capability to blend vision with the ability to create exceptional experiences for consumers. Our team members will truly have the opportunity to leave their mark on what the future holds for digital commerce at Levi Strauss & Co.
You can’t be a 165-year-old company that is still at the center of youth culture if you don’t know how to innovate and reinvent yourself. Everything we do here at Levi Strauss & Co. is focused to the point of obsession on building a seamless, personalized consumer journey. That’s never been more exciting than it is today, with the breadth of technologies that help us understand exactly what our customers want and when they want it – and most importantly, help us deliver the consistently compelling brand experiences that set us apart.
Marc Rosen is Executive Vice President and President of Direct-to-Consumer of Levi Strauss & Co.. He is responsible for leading the company’s global ecommerce and brick-and-mortar retail businesses, which includes 2,800 retail stores and ecommerce sites dedicated to the Levi’s® and Dockers® brands. He’s a member of the company’s global leadership team, which guides the strategic direction for Levi Strauss & Co., and sits on the company’s executive committee. Before Levi’s Marc served as senior vice president of global ecommerce at Wal-Mart Stores Inc..