Does Levi’s know you are a big fan of the brand? Does it even matter to the brand? Should it?

After yesterday’s saga of doing the online equivalent of shouting at Levi’s (I still feel bad at losing my patience, after a full week of waiting for Levi’s to respond with a very simple update of where I can exchange my defective pair of 511 that I bought at a Lifestyle in Coimbatore. I lost my patience only because the other pair was meant for Deepavali—today is Tamil Deepavali!—and I had to lug it around, without wearing it, just to show it in comparison to the other one, to point out the height defect), I’m just glad things ended smoothly by the end of yesterday.

I had managed to speak with Levi’s customer care through the toll-free number after it directing me to the voice-mail initially. Did you know Levi’s has a toll-free, by the way?

They had suggested I try the nearest Levi’s exclusive store and I did that. The store folks checked the jeans and confirmed it was indeed shorter (as against what was mentioned as the height), but refused to exchange because it was purchased in a Lifestyle Store. And asked me to try the nearest Lifestyle Store.

Meanwhile, Levi’s customer care called back again and said they needed 2 days’ time to resolve this issue. I told them the update and said I’m going to try the Lifestyle Store next, as suggested by Levi’s store folks.

I did that and the customer service manager at Lifestyle didn’t even bat an eyelid – he offered me store credit for the amount almost immediately!

I was chatting up with him and he said that GST has made such inter-store exchanges (particularly between states) more complex. When I told him that I called the toll-free to know about the returns process he asked me, “Which toll-free are you referring to? Lifestyle’s?”. I said, “No. Levi’s”. His reaction was, “What? Levi’s has a toll-free customer care?”.

It was an extremely revealing reaction. Clothing brands advertise a LOT (to communicate with customers), but they sell through retail chains (besides exclusive stores, of course, letting them close the buying process.

Mostly, they do not have a direct communication channel with customers. They merely broadcast, in their advertisements. So, it’s perhaps very odd for people to realize that a brand like Levi’s can have a toll-free number for people to call them in. It could be the same story for other storied brands like Lee, Benetton, Colorplus, Wrangler, Pepe etc. because all of them primarily depend on retail chains to close the sale (including online retail chains like Amazon or Flipkart).

So, essentially, the distribution and retail networks own the customers, not the brands, even though, we customers become fans and advocates of the brands, and not the retail chains. That’s a precarious situation to be in, I presume, in general.

Given this backdrop, it is even more intriguing what these brands on digital/social media. They build outposts on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and try talking to customers. But customers are only used to these brands broadcasting down at them from mass media vehicles like TV and print.

So they don’t do one-on-one interactions that well because they are not used to it… because they haven’t planned that in their processes.

Because they need not, until now.

Because all their one-on-one interaction usually is routed and managed through their exclusive stores, in the physical world.

Or, by the retail chains, on their behalf (my Lifestyle example).

Any questions? Walk into a store and ask!

Ask a question online—social media, toll-free, email etc.—they seem stumped about the fact that someone even bothered to ask a question via email or that someone discovered that Levi’s has an email ID!

Incidentally, I communicated with Levi’s on 3 channels last week – a Facebook Messenger message (since that popped up on the Levi’s Facebook page!), a tweet and an email. They picked the email to respond, 2 days later and when I gave them what they asked for (my contact number), they slept on it for 5 more days! And you thought Facebook Messenger and Twitter are ‘real-time’?

I presume they expected me to do what the rest of the world is conditioned to do – walk into a store! But our cities being in the state they are in (traffic, crowd, pollution etc.), doesn’t it make sense to presume that customers would want clear information and direction before wasting time in the physical world? And when e-commerce is the in-thing, with even Levi’s trying to sell more from their own online store, doesn’t it make sense to start looking beyond the offline?

At least for that, if not for owning customers through at least one direct communication channel that is not offline, I assume these brands need to radically rethink their communications strategy and processes to include digital, direct channels with their actual buyers.

Does Levi’s have a CRM play? What contact details do they—if at all—own about their customers? I have bought a LOT from their exclusive stores and do not recall sharing any personally identifiable contact detail even during billing (email or phone number, for example). Even if I have, I don’t recall seeing any update from them. They sure have my credit card or debit card detail, but they don’t seem to be doing anything through that either. Even if the store in-charge tells me that I can share my details, during billing, and join the membership program, the first thought usually is, ‘Oh, they are going to spam me with offers? Why bother!’.

Compare this with how a Marks & Spencer handles customer data. After my first purchase some years ago, I now get emails and text messages about their sale almost 6 times every year. They are all usually simple, readable and to-the-point. And almost always makes me and wife plan a trip to the nearest store. I also get messages on my birthday and anniversary every year (to note that they have not only made note of it when I gave it to them once, but also action it in their CRM system contextually), offering me something exclusive or simply inviting me to their store to make those days special by buying clothes for the occasion!

If I call M&S, they have my number and connect that to my purchase history when they talk to me.

With Levi’s, my number, despite being a passionate fan of the brand and having bought the 5XX series for a very long time and speaking about them online a lot, they have no clue who I am and even fumble for responding to a simple query.

This is NOT to say that I’m entitled to better reception when I call Levi’s. This is ONLY to exclaim how any and every customer is merely a nameless stranger to Levi’s regardless of what those customers think about themselves (as passionate, vocals fans, who also follow them on Facebook and Twitter!). That’s quite a sad state to be in, for a brand, I reckon!

Almost any white goods brand in India usually has a small white form/tag attached in it when you buy them new. It’s the warranty card, which you need to fill online or send that physical copy to the dealer/retailer or brand. Usually, the dealer/retailer fills it up for you and sends them to the brand so that your product is registered.

Is there a parallel from that experience, for an apparel brand like Levi’s? Could Levi’s get buyers (regardless of where they purchased it from) to ‘register’ their buys online using one or more identifiable code in the product, along with their names, contact details etc?

Now, why would people register a pair of jeans or a belt? What’s in it for them, after all? But that’s the point – Levi’s needs to make it worthwhile for people to register their purchases! Incentivize (not necessarily monetary, there are so many other ways) that registration to gather data about not just how many million nameless people are buying their products, but also know who those people are, to some extent.

Levi’s already has a notional method for this if you visit their online store. There’s a prominent pop-up asking you to leave your mail ID, for a 20% off when you sign-up for the first time that also entitles you to a newsletter.

So, it’s not as if they don’t have a clue about the CRM process at all – they have indeed thought about it. But I gather that most of their sales come from their retail partners and their own exclusive stores. For all those purchases, Levi’s probably has no idea about the ‘who’, and only gets aggregate data of the ‘what’ was sold.

You may argue – who in their right mind would bother taking the 60 seconds to consider registering their new pair of jeans on a brand website? Well, good question – but if the brand assumes that people would be interested in ‘follow’ing them (or ‘connect’ing with them) online on a Facebook, Instagram or Twitter even without buying anything at all, why wouldn’t at least the big fans bother registering their purchases particularly after having spent the big money on it?

The most interesting part about all this is that Levi’s India *does* have a membership program! It’s called “Levi’s® Loop™ Member Program” and it is not mentioned anywhere on the India website. Here’s the Levi’s India website sitemap. I could not find any leads or links to the membership program!

But it comes up on a Google search!

The fact that it is adequately hidden even in the India website perhaps says a lot about how important it is to the brand! The terms say you can become a member, “by simply making a purchase of any product in any of our participating Levi’s® exclusive brand stores in India, operated by Levi Strauss or its franchisees and sign up by providing your name, date of birth, email, telephone number and at the store”. But I assume the point about this program is more transactional, like any ‘rewards’ program.

It’s ironic that brands get into a transactional communication program with a customer willing to offer so many personal details upon a purchase, but hire an external digital agency to produce wonderfully interesting everyday content to keep the millions who have clicked on a Like or a Follow (even without purchasing anything or giving access to specific personal details) on social media interested! Shouldn’t it be the other way round? Once you sign up for their membership program, it is ‘here’s an offer you can redeem’ or ‘come and buy now’ or ‘we have got this new!’. If you only like them on social media, their communication goes on to win Cannes creative awards!

It’s quite interesting to note the priorities of brands – ‘buy’ is on top, understandably. But that’s very transactional. ‘Keep buying’ should be equally on top, I presume, but the brands use mass media and broadcast advertising to make that happen, instead of building a direct pipeline with people who have already put their faith in the brand once. Or, do a namesake, cookie-cutter, strictly transactional ‘membership’ program that looks like any other membership program and offer it along with a lot of dos and don’ts (including this, “At the moment, purchases made on Levi .in are not eligible for Levi’s® LOOP™ reward points”!).

My assumption, as an outsider, is that a membership program is more about delighting existing buyers with exciting brand stories, the very reason they chose to become ‘members’ over and above buyers. If the brands can delight random million strangers on Facebook and Instagram, I’m very sure they can do even better with ‘members’. The frequency has to differ, of course – you cannot afford to bother people on a direct communication channel like email or text messages every day, but every time you communicate, sporadically, it has to be contextual and meaningful. And if it is based on the kind of product purchases I have made, whatever scale is possible within those constraints, even better!

Having said all this, I remain a HUGE fan of the brand (despite one defective 511 in the experience mix). I had even stated this up front in my email to Levi’s last week, to just demonstrate that I’m not cribbing or ranting about one defective product, but genuinely want to know the answer to a simple question. I was no doubt dismayed by a defective product, but I understand that it can happen. I had in fact added a set of tweets just to back up the point about me being a big fan.

And I have signed up for Levi’s newsletter. As a communications professional, I’m very curious to see what they send me!