Lesson #1: Push Your Ads To The Limits

“Anything we do in advertising is controversial,” says Klein. “If it’s provocative and sensual and related to what we’re selling, I'm willing to take the chance. I have fun with the ads.”

By all accounts, Calvin Klein was a marketing genius. Pushing all the boundaries and changing the existing industry standards, Klein redefined what was acceptable for fashion advertising. And, he did so with tremendous success, profiting off both the negative and positive public feedback that was received. Klein understood the power of a suggestive image and was able to link his brand name with the young, sexy and risqué images portrayed in his advertisements.

The first signs of Klein’s marketing savvy came in 1979, when he had model Patti Hansen photographed on her hands and knees wearing his new, tighter jeans and placed the ad on a massive Times Square billboard. It caused such a sensation that it was left up in place for four years, demonstrating remarkable staying power in such an industry of fleeting fads as fashion.

Never to be underestimated, Klein outdid his previous marketing campaign with the now-infamous commercials featuring a young Brooke Shields in tight CK Jeans saying such suggestive phrases as, “"I've got seven Calvins in my closet, and if they could talk, I'd be ruined." The suggestions of sexuality coming from a seemingly underage youth infuriated large segments of the population and the ads were subsequently pulled by all three of the major television networks on which they aired. But, to Klein, this campaign was still a major success. Sales of his jeans continued to climb to two million pairs each month and, subsequently, they allowed Klein to expand his product line to include shirts, skirts and jackets. In 1980, these products netted the company nearly $180 million.

When Klein ventured into the underwear business in 1982, he used the lessons he had learned from his previous campaigns to create a similar buzz for his new product lines. “I create the underwear to make people look sexy,” says Klein. “So my point is that when I advertise it, for sure I’m going to show it to its greatest advantage. And, I’m going to do it on somebody who has an excellent body, male or female, doesn’t matter.”

This time, Klein dressed a muscular Olympic pole-vaulter in his new underwear and little else. He rented space in 25 New York bus shelters to display these blown up posters. Overnight, all 25 had their glass smashed with the posters stolen. Taking this as a sign of success, Klein immediately began to design a line of women’s underwear featuring similar male-style boxers and briefs as those displayed in the posters. In 1984, the demand for this new line had become even too much for Klein’s own manufacturing capabilities and he decided to sell the division to Kayser Roth Corp. for $11.2 million.

Klein continued to display his marketing genius with a series of ads in 1985 to market his new line of perfumes. With a $17 million budget for Obsession and another $6 million for Obsession for Men, Klein focused heavily on a print and TV campaign, again featuring pictures that tested the limits. In one such ad, two men are pictured naked and embracing a woman. Daring to again push the envelope, Klein’s risk paid off. A survey found these Obsession ads to be the most memorable print ads of the year for four years running. As a result, Obsession became the second best selling fragrance in the world.

Known for his provocative and suggestive marketing campaigns, Klein never held back. Even in the face of widespread criticism, Klein continued to market his products in ways that he knew would draw attention. He understood the importance of a good marketing campaign and his success came about largely as a result.

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