By  on October 1, 2009

The Levi Strauss & Co.-owned brand, whose classic chinos debuted in 1986 and became the unofficial pant of casual Fridays in the Nineties, is betting the renewed focus on its heritage business will not only stanch slumping sales but also redefine how male consumers wear and think about khakis.

“The brand is going back to focusing on what we do best: khaki pants for men,” said Jim Calhoun, president of Dockers. “Our global team is working hard to make men love their khakis again. The task is big. We’ve got to turn around a declining category — but as the leader, we’re the only brand for the job.”

Dockers continues to be the top selling casual pants brand in the U.S. but receipts have slumped in recent years. Levi Strauss does not break out sales for the brand, but noted in company documents that its performance has been “disappointing” in recent years. Dockers products, which include men’s and women’s bottoms, tops and a range of licensed categories, accounted for 21 percent of Levi Strauss net sales in 2006 and only 18 percent of total net sales, or about $792 million, in 2008.

The slump seems to have continued this year. According to the NPD Group, jeans sales overtook pant/slack sales, in which khaki receipts are included, during the last year. For the 12-month period from July 2008 to July 2009, men’s pant/slacks revenues slid 9.5 percent from $5.63 billion to $5.09 billion. For the same period, denim sales edged down only 2.2 percent from $5.40 billion to $5.28 billion.

The challenge, according to company executives, is that khakis are viewed as staid and corporate. “Men are refreshing their khakis at half the rate of denim,” said Jen Sey, global vice president of marketing for Dockers. “We’ve got to wake up the khaki category and restore the emotional connection between men and their khakis.”

Retailers agree that change is in order.

“The growth of denim has opened the door for khakis,” said Durand Guion, men’s fashion director for Macy’s. “The consumer understands that jeans have different fits and washes for different occasions. Khaki can replicate that model.”

But variety, he said, is a key to drive the business. “Fits, style and finishes are essential to make this category cool again,” he added.

Dockers plans to restore khakis’ prestige by broadening the category’s appeal through new, less work-oriented product, like a line of casual soft khakis that will hit stores in November. The range, which comes in nine colors, will be offered in a $30 model for chain stores and a $50 model for department stores. “The khaki department is a sea of beige,” said Sey. “We want to disrupt that.”

The company hopes to reach more contemporary consumers with a new fit program that will be standard across all products and channels. The program offers four fits from slim to classic. The company is also rolling out fashion-oriented items, like thinner-weight cottons, patterned pants, cutoff shorts and more streamlined cargo pants.

Dockers is also heading up market with the K1 collection, a range of khakis based on the company’s military archives. Aimed at heritage-obsessed consumers and specialty stores, the K1 khakis sell for $140, well above the brand’s traditional zone.

Priced above K1 is Made in San Francisco, the brand’s domestically produced capsule collection conceived as faithful reproductions of World War II garments. The collection’s two pants, officer’s shirt and a graphic T-shirt retail between $225 and $325. “We want to be relevant to consumers at every price point,” Sey explained.

The new marketing and merchandise strategy will managed by headquarters in San Francisco, which will for the first time oversee the brand’s global business. Previously, the American, Asian and European markets had distinct product and marketing programs. The brand’s revamped marketing strategy aims to entice men to reconsider khakis by emphasizing the product’s masculine, military roots. The national ad campaign, which drops in February, will feature new core khaki product and will employ cheeky, macho sentiments such as “Wear the Pants: Dockers,” and “Dockers may not be fancy, but they are far from ordinary.”

“We’re focusing on a more masculine presentation,” said Sey, who added that in-store programs that reflect both the new campaign and fit program will start to roll out in December.

Dockers is dropping “San Francisco” from its tag line, and the new label just reads “Dockers.” The emphasis will be placed on the brand’s wing and anchor logo — an icon that will be prominently stamped on pant interiors.

In total, the new marketing strategy marks a considerable break from the brand’s previous campaign, which emphasized the Dockers lifestyle via ads that depicted the brand’s various products for work, dress, weekend and golf.

“We lost our focus by going after women’s and pursuing head-to-toe dressing,” said Sey. “Khakis suffered because of it. We’re going to rein in our marketing message to focus on what we do best.”

Sey reiterated that Dockers is not exiting any businesses and will continue to offer women’s, men’s tops as well as its licensed products. “But those products will be viewed through the khaki lens. Now it’s about the essentials that go with khakis.”

Dockers’ new global strategy bears the influence of its brother brand Levi’s, which has successfully rolled out merchandise across international markets for years, most recently with the successful relaunch of 501s in 2008. Both Sey, and Steven Evans, Dockers vice president of global merchandising, joined Dockers from Levi’s during the past 12 months, and both execs worked the 501s relaunch.

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