Levi’s Katia Walsh Shares Real Insight Regarding Digital, Data and AI
A company that has followed a progressive course over its 168-year history, Levi Strauss & Co. has played an important role during revolutionary moments within history. From creating an integrated employment force in the mid–20th century or ensuring greater supply-chain transparency in the 1990s to encouraging United States citizens to vote in 2020, the San Francisco–based denim leader has remained committed to progress.
This part of the brand’s mission made it a perfect fit for Chief Global Strategy and Artificial Intelligence Officer Katia Walsh, who considers herself to be an unlikely fashion professional but has felt aligned with Levi’s principles. As a student journalist growing up in communist Bulgaria, Walsh was reprimanded in school at 15 years old for writing a story that displeased local officials. Despite the disciplinary action that she faced, Walsh recognized the power that lies in sharing information and the fragility of the freedom it can afford. While Walsh didn’t grow up to become a journalist, she did begin working with Levi’s in April 2019, sharing a commitment to innovation by facilitating how information is shared and the ways in which it can promote the greater good.
“Growing up in communist Bulgaria, Levi’s signified so much more to me than a piece of clothing,” Walsh explained. “It was a dream, it was a symbol of the unattainable, it meant democracy and freedom. I will never forget this image of Levi’s-clad youth sitting on the top of the crumbling Berlin Wall in November of 1989. It is a platform for doing good in the world in more than one industry.”
For Walsh, the fact that Levi’s is a fashion company—not a financial technology or telecommunications firm—doesn’t mean that it cannot find a place at the forefront of innovation surrounding information, data and artificial intelligence. To the contrary, the denim company’s background makes it a prime candidate to lead in this space due to its collection of data from its extensive history and innovations launched over the last few years, such as 2019’s Future Finish, which relied on laser technology and machine learning with a neural network solution that yielded thousands of finishing options via an artificial-intelligence network. Working from the inside out, Levi’s is focused on digitizing its entire company to streamline workflows for employees and create personalized experiences for its customers, whom Walsh refers to as “fans.”
“We are building a new, cohesive capability that integrates digital data and AI to field the digital transformation of the whole company. The reason I am pointing toward the three subsets of the capabilities of digital, data and AI, is that they are very interconnected,” Walsh said. “It’s basically a magic flywheel where digital makes data big and big data makes artificial intelligence possible and artificial intelligence makes digital products smarter.”
With its loyalty program, which launched in 2020, Levi’s built a large customer pool that now includes 5 million members, yet this facet of the company’s business is more personalized to each of these clients than ever before. With data protections in place to ensure security, Levi’s is continuing to cultivate this offering, which collects client information that is then channeled into creating a tailored direct-to-consumer experience for customers, thereby easing the shopping process and affording greater freedom to its fans. With direct-to-consumer business comprising 40 percent of Levi’s revenue, the company is strategizing best practices to cultivate this segment.
“We are attempting to personalize the individual consumer experience online. This is beyond the personalized benefits of the loyalty program. It’s about how you see the homepage, the products that are listed there, the product descriptions that are there—even the reviews are all personalized to your needs, preferences and previous browsing behaviors so it’s always relevant to you,” Walsh explained. “That kind of personalization really helps deepen the connections with our consumers.”
Citing digital, data and AI potential, which she refers to as the “three Cs—smarter creation, smarter connections and smarter commerce”—Walsh feels that these digital tools can help fashion evolve into a better industry for people and the planet through humanization of the apparel business. While using data to establish a closer, more human relationship within business might seem strange, Walsh believes these processes will help Levi’s perform more good in the world.
“We have always been not only advocates of sustainability but real warriors in making sure we are a sustainable company in terms of production and manufacturing, product creation and the sustainability of people,” Walsh said. “AI can help companies in that industry do good in the world.”
Photos courtesy of Levi’s.