When workers at the urban farm in Braddock, Pennsylvania, get dirt under their fingernails and when youth walk into the town’s refurbished community center, they are being touched in a tangible way. It’s not from the support of federal stimulus money. It’s not just from the support of nonprofits. It’s by the work of a for-profit corporation and their latest advertising campaign. After Braddock lost revenue from its closing steel mills, its population plummeted, countless homes were abandoned, and unemployment and poverty took over. It truly gives Detroit a run for its money as it struggles to survive and rebuild. Levi’s has embraced Braddock in its newest campaign, "Go Forth ‘Ready to Work.'" Levi’s agency, Wieden+Kennedy, didn’t suggest using Braddock as just an interesting backdrop for a photo shoot. No, they encouraged Levi’s to invest in the town, document its unique ethos, and celebrate its residents as they seek to revive their city. The “Go Forth” branding campaign that previously launched featured young people frolicking about in a carefree, exuberant manner. Whatever you think of the previous campaign’s energy, this campaign has evolved as it features and supports Braddock in its promotion of Levi’s Fall Work Wear Collection. You can see some of the spoils of Wieden+Kennedy’s labor below.
Beyond the rustic imagery, the copywriting gives me goose bumps: “People think there aren’t frontiers anymore. They can’t see how frontiers are all around us.” Levi’s is known as the go-to example of the explorer brand archetype. This is not an instance of a brand trying to be something it is not. Young people and artists are moving into Braddock and using their sweat and creativity to revive Braddock. It’s the Wild West, the new urban frontier, where this work ethic lives. Braddock attracts people who see beauty in its dilapidation and who see an opportunity to have a tangible, meaningful result to their toil. I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Mike Giepert, a member of Wieden+Kennedy's creative team, who worked on the campaign. He said the Works Progress Administration model inspired this execution. The WPA was created out of the despair of the Great Depression, and it put countless people to work. He said they sought something tangible, something you could hold on to as a result of the campaign. Giepert also challenges other planners and creative teams to think creatively about how to produce something lasting. He added with the millions of dollars spent on media, why not carve out a portion to do just that. Finally, he recognized some have called their work exploitive of Braddock and its plight. They recognize such a debate exists even among some of the townspeople of Braddock, and they believe it’s a worthwhile conversation to have.
Beyond the campaign, Wieden+Kennedy, in association with IFC and the Sundance Channel, have created a documentary featuring the work of a handful of townspeople. You can see the first in the series here on YouTube. In consultation with the Mayor of Braddock, John Fetterman, they identified individuals who best represent the spirit of Braddock and tell their stories in a skillfully directed and edited piece. As a side note, the mayor who moved to the town is Harvard educated, has tattooed Braddock’s zip code to his arm, and is extremely passionate and articulate about the city’s needs. It has become stylish to co-opt causes in promoting products. “If you buy our product, we’ll donate to XYZ.” Levi’s recent campaign is different. If you buy jeans, a percentage isn’t going to Braddock. Levi’s has put skin in the game. They already have invested in Braddock. Yes, they’re featuring or co-opting Braddock’s work ethic, but that is sound strategy. It matches Levi’s brand and values, and they are not pretending to be something they are not. The Pepsi Refresh project has received a lot of media attention and rightfully so. By financially supporting the projects that receive the largest number of votes, they are crowdsourcing good, if you will. I don’t believe Levi’s and Pepsi’s recent campaigns are skin-deep. They are investing in communities. It’s not a gimmick. What Levi’s has done to support Braddock is different. It is a tangible representation of the brand. If “We are all Workers” resonates with you because of Braddock’s story, Levi’s succeeds in creating something concrete, gritty, memorable, and worthwhile.
Ed Reilly is a graduate of VCU Brandcenter and has worked as a researcher and strategist for advertising agencies and most recently, a product design firm. His breadth of experience includes immersion into NASCAR fan culture and empathizing with the hopes and fears of patients fighting severe illnesses. As his career has progressed, he has learned to value consumer insights without neglecting the need to create compelling product experiences. Connect with him on LinkedIn.