Lee National Denim Day marks its 14th anniversary on Oct. 2, and the event is still going strong—and just as fresh as the year it started, thanks to changes in strategy and the advent of social media.
Lee National Denim Day, held the first Friday in October since 1996, was originally created to allow employees to wear jeans to work in exchange for a $5 donation for breast cancer awareness efforts by Lee Jeans. The first year, the company expected 3,000 companies to participate and ended by signing 4,300. This year, with actress Christina Applegate as the campaign's "ambassador," the effort is on target to raise $5 million, pushing the 14-year total past $75 million with 700,000 companies participating as well as individual teams.
"This year's response has been fantastic," says Liz Cahill, VP-marketing for Lee Jeans. "We're really blessed to have a returning ambassador. Christina has been actually fantastic in driving traffic."
Proceeds from the single-day drive go to the Women's Cancer Programs of the Entertainment Industry Foundation, which supports Lee Laboratories, in turn working to find more effective, less toxic treatments for breast cancer; the Breast Cancer Biomarker Discovery Project, an effort to develop a blood test for earlier detection; Right Action for Women, Ms. Applegate's foundation providing aid for people at increased risk for breast cancer who don't have insurance or resources to cover breast screenings; and the National Breast Cancer Coalition to create information resources.
The event started as a way to help Lee give back to its core customer, women. "Not many people talked about breast cancer [in 1996]," Ms. Cahill says, "but a lot of us knew somebody who had been affected. We wanted to help raise awareness."
Working with its agency, Barkley, Kansas City, Mo., Lee decided to tie the cause to its brand. "Everyone was intrigued by the idea that you could create a program that could raise money," says Mike Swenson, exec VP-chief marketing officer at Barkley. "There was no way for us to envision the breadth and depth of what this program means to the cause of breast cancer, what it means to the brand of Lee Jeans. It's that fine line between cause marketing and cause branding."
As officewear became more casual—and breast cancer awareness grew more mainstream, Lee and its agency looked for ways keep Denim Day relevant. One way was through its ambassadors—the spokespeople it uses each year to promote the effort. After several years of using women, Lee turned to actor Rob Lowe as the first male ambassador, a move Mr. Swenson says was "incredibly successful." This year's ambassador, Ms. Applegate, is the first returning ambassador, serving once before to represent her mother, who was fighting for breast cancer, and this year representing her own fight with the disease.
Another way of keeping the effort fresh was to use social media. The Denim Day Website has allowed Lee to open up the event to individual teams. Now, rather than signing up through the workplace, individuals can create their own teams and sign up online. It also allows for more communication on a personal level via the Web site, Facebook and Twitter.
"We're very excited with the opportunities with social media—that's just exploded this year," Ms. Cahill says. "It's a wonderful way to get feedback. We started this program talking to consumers, now we're talking with them. We're building a community where people feel safe sharing concerns [and] looking for resources."
For the first 10 years of Denim Day, Lee remained focused on raising awareness. Now, the company is looking to research learning more about cancer. As part of that, each year it brings leading cancer researchers together to discuss their work so they can share ideas and information -- in fact, Lee may include other cancers in the future. "We've talked about expanding [our emphasis further] to other cancers," Ms Cahill says. "We're very focused on staying true to our core belief that we want to help our core consumer, women who are shopping for the entire family. They're telling us there's more than one type of cancer and how can we find ways to expand out."
Through the years, Lee has been careful to keep the focus on the cause more than the brand. "We wanted this to help our brand by showing [our efforts] helping our customers," Ms. Cahill says. "But we made a very conscious decision not to require people to buy our brand to participate in this event. We didn't want to profit off a horrible disease."
That strategy of focus on the cause has paid off both for the cause and for the company. "It is an important part of the Lee brand," says Mr. Swenson. "It absolutely has added a new dimension to their brand that wasn't there 15 years ago. It's an emotional connection, and it's hard to put a price tag on what that means to the brand.