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Pendleton Mills and Levi’s Pull the Wool over our Eyes

Pendleton Mills and Levi’s Pull the Wool over our Eyes

Two of my business passions are manufacturing and brand authenticity. I believe in making things right, and being honest, credible, and sincere in marketing. As a native Oregonian, and Portland marketer, it's a subject that hits close to home.

Which is why a recent article in Oregon Business magazine caught my eye…

Made in the USA!*

Written by Oregon Business associate business writer Jacq Lacy, Pendelton Partners with Levi's highlights the relationship between two venerable US brands: Levi's and Pendelton Woolen Mills. Lacy writes about a new line of trucker jackets, “intended for buyers of American-made products.” The article explains how the jacket fabric wool is woven in Oregon, shipped to Mexico for sewing, then sent to Asia for final “assembly” by Levi’s workers.

The theme of the marketing campaign is “We are all workers.” It highlights the new jackets in use by Navajo Cowboys/Cowgirls in New Mexico. As explained by Oregon Business Magazine, the strategy (incredibly) is:

“...that a company partners with an iconic American-made brand, and thus becomes American-made by association.”

Before I tear apart how bad this idea is, let’s look at a few details:

  • Levi's closed 11 of its US factories in 1999; it closed ALL of its US manufacturing site in 2002 and moved the jobs to overseas contract companies. Like many “US” brands, Levi's makes all of its products overseas.
  • The Levi’s/Pendleton jackets and shirts aren’t cheap: shirts retails for $118; jackets $148-$178
  • Levi’s advertises the product as “Made in the USA (of imported fabric).” It’s unclear, based on the story, how this can be true: the product is sewn in Mexico and “assembled in Asia.” See the graphic below (I've added the asterisk).

I could go on and on about the problems with globalism, free trade, or poor working conditions in third-world factories. However, it appears that Levi's is actually a reasonably responsible citizen when it comes to overseas manufacturing. And, I’m guessing that the actual products are well-designed and well-made. I like the use of the “worker” theme too – it fits with the legacy of both companies.

The problem here is that the marketing for this product is simply inauthentic. Using Navajo cowboys and Pendleton wool to create an “American Made association” is disingenuous at best; at worst, it’s a cynical manipulation of customers, Native Americans, and the media.

Rather than pulling the wool over our eyes, these companies could turn this into a success through one of two strategies:

  1. Engage an American manufacturer. I’m sure there are still factories that make clothing in the United States. The price point of this product (high) suggests that Levi’s could afford to lose some margin in exchange for really great public relations
  2. Drop the whole “Made in America” charade. Levi's/Pendleton can still win with the “worker” approach, and could even extend the concept to include workers in other countries (Argentinan cowboys would be cool!). Levi's campaign could go from Ameri-centric to globally inclusive.

It will be interesting to see if this campaign gains traction (and if others cringe at the hypocrisy). I welcome your thoughts in the comments below.

For more on this subject...

PS For more reading on the state of apparel manufacturing, check out Kelsey Timmerman's blog and book, "Where am I Wearing?"

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