Relevance – what the Church needs to learn from the Advertisers who need to learn from Young People

When Nik Kamen strolled confidently into the launderette to the opening and inimitable riffs of Marvin Gaye’s “Head it through the grapevine” an advertising icon was born. Levi’s Stripping to his boxer shorts to the amazement of onlooking children, housewives and security guards, Kamen demonstrated that Levi’s was daring, original, confident, edgy and unashamedly sexy – all the characteristics youth of every generation aspired to be.

{sorry you can’t see the video, it got removed from YouTube, but I am sure you know which one it is}

The campaign’s audacity achieved massive Reach. The campaign grew from an advert to a newspaper “event”. Gaye’s music touched a new generation of fans and every subsequent chart hit from the Righteous Brothers to Ben E King featured in their adverts reinforced the implicit message that the authentic rock’n’roll era that resonated with the youth of the 80s carried the Levi’s ticket.

The 501 became the choice of the generation with Levi’s selling one in every two pairs of jeans globally in 1987.

Within 20 years however, Levi’s fortunes had changed irrevocably. Levi’s Reach was so pervasive that even your Mom and Dad were squeezing into a pair of 501s. Suddenly Levi’s had all the Reach it wanted but zero Relevance.

The Levi’s legacy represents a turning point in youth marketing. With clients measuring campaign success along the lines of market share, “brand equity” or awareness, agencies are compelled to follow these Industrial strategies.

It’d be imprudent to talk of Reach vs Relevance without mentioning the one brand that has changed the game completely. I’m often asked – isn’t the decline of Levi’s typical of all in its category? From 50% market share, Levi’s now has less than 10%. From #1 it now sits at #7 far behind Diesel and other niche challengers.

To this question I would answer wholeheartedly “yes” if it wasn’t for one brand that threw out the rule book – Nike.

When Levi’s experienced its nadir in 1987, Nike was still an also ran brand sitting behind the aerobics fuelled Reebok. But the brave decision to support a rising and relatively outside star of the basketball scene signaled Phil Knight’s understanding that Reach gets attention but it doesn’t necessarily make you care.

Michael Jordan was everything youth wanted to be – young, athletic, successful, rich, good looking and an outsider. Find me a schoolboy who didn’t resonate with Michael Jordan’s shoes being band from the NBA for being the wrong color.

Nike also had signaled that by supporting a relatively unknown star in marketing circles and not opting for the obvious mainstream choice of Magic Johnson, Nike stood for the little guy and had won a place in the heart of the generation.

Levi’s innovation focused on Reach; from standard issue 501s to pink, green, black, yellow or white variants – the relevance of which was completely lost on a generation who were now seeing Guess, Calvin Klein, Armani and other challenger brands rapidly erode market support.

Nike’s innovation continues to focus on Relevance till this day – Nike Women in Japan, Nike Aerobics, Nike Golf, Run London, Street Soccer, ID – all embody the company’s commitment to becoming increasingly relevant to a growing number of niches. Nike is the largest equipment manufacturer in Golf. Nike has moved from #2 in sports shoes to #1 in a growing number of categories.

Not all brands have the capacity or reason to dominate multiple categories like Nike but all have the need to mean something to someone rather than everything to everyone. As Levi’s has found out to its own detriment, being good is no longer enough – you must be relevant.

So this is the challenge, to seek relevence to young people for its own sake. The problem with a lot of Americanised Evangelism (and not all of it done by Evangelicals, I must emphasise) is that it seeks the glory of its own sake, it’s own message, it’s own mega-churchyness. Not everything needs to be Abundant Life, a Gospel so slick it makes me nauseous, a package so sorted it sounds nothing like what rises from the Scriptures; but must address the local, the organic and meet the needs of the niches that are around. This is how church truely emerges, not as a strategy, but as a response to local mission. This is why coming alongside young people and exploring their needs, inserting a missional story and a ministry which is relevant to them is key. I think I need to go back to Donovan’s Christianity Rediscovered for everything he says about the Masai is significant for mission to that tribe which we call young people.

“Being good is no longer enough” means that no matter how much I love Plainchant or Benediction or Lectio Divina, I must seek to bring these beauties into a relevent conversation with young people. One thing is clear: we cannot continue to do it as we have done…