Part chemist, part evangelist, part tap dancer, all cotton. Bring to mind the successful “Fabric of Our Lives” campaign or the edgier Cotton Incorporated ads on TV today and you see Ira Livingston's knack for recognizing trends and “dancing to the music.”
The fast-talking, quick-on-his-feet native of The Bronx and vice president of Cotton Incorporated's U.S. consumer marketing, Livingston has seen cotton's rise from the bottom of the barrel to more than 60 percent market share today. The change occurred on the strength of concentrated research, marketing and advertising. Almost from the beginning, Livingston has spearheaded the effort to go directly to the consumer with cotton's message.
Trained as a textile chemist in Philadelphia, Livingston traded the search for new combinations of elements for creating chemistry between cotton and consumers.
Cotton's rise in market share is the stuff of legend. But when Livingston arrived at Cotton Incorporated in 1975, synthetics ruled the day from mill, manufacturer to retailer.
“We knew we couldn't change the minds of the manufacturers … so we made the big jump, the big leap of faith to go out to the consumers because, if we could convince them to ask for cotton, then the retailers would go back to the manufacturers and request cotton.”
By drawing on the “serendipitous discovery” of the jeans and T-shirt uniform of baby boomers, Cotton Incorporated happened upon the trend of the “casualization of America. You have to understand where consumers are coming from.”
The “Fabric of Our Lives” campaign, drew heavily on the comfortable, warm fuzzy feelings of cotton and helped create the strand between comfort and cotton.
After a long, successful run with that ad campaign, Cotton Incorporated recently went with an edgier focus, appealing directly to women 18 to 34.
“They have different buttons,” Livingston says. “We had to go out and find something that's going to be interesting to them. They're leaving home, going to college, buying a house, having a child for the first time and all of those times are times when they think about buying. We just recognized what we've already known: Women love to shop. We're giving them permission to shop for cotton.”
It's the same marketing philosophy that Livingston continues to use, whether talking to a group of Texas cotton producers or mill representatives from China.
The process of making a presentation is still exciting to Livingston. “I go over a presentation that I haven't delivered multiple times about five to 10 times,” he says. “I rehearse it on the plane, and the night before,” admitting to leaving some of his best presentations for the basement walls of his Connecticut home. “I'm almost evangelistic. I'm sure there are some beams in the basement that are convinced that cotton is the only way to go.”
Before a group of Texas farmers visiting Cotton Incorporated's world headquarters recently, Livingston makes references to things Texan. A photographer follows him around the room. “Is that your personal photographer” a producer asks. “Why, yes, yes, it is. He's photographed my son's birthday. He's a family friend.”
The crowd howls, and Livingston doesn't miss a beat, moving back to his Power Point presentation and making comments about the attractive young people on a slide about retailing in Mexico.
On a recent trip to China, which makes more than 2 billion yards of denim annually, Livingston talked for more than an hour trying to convince manufacturers to buy U.S.-grown cotton. At the end of the presentation, came the question about the increased costs of using cotton. “I tried to explain to them about the diversity of products they could produce with cotton.
“It's those years and years of experience that I can dance when the music is played,” Livingston smiles. “I have two sets of taps on my shoes, just in case.
“You have to understand where people are coming from, and different cultures,” Livingston says.
In his 30 years of making trips to the South, Livingston has learned the “genteel and politically correct” way to say things. “Coming from New York, you blurt it out before someone else beats you to it.”
While cotton now sits in the cat-bird seat as far as market share is concerned, it's not a time to relax and rest on laurels, Livingston points out. “We have to convince the importers that maintenance is just as important. If we start backing away, it could all fall apart.
“To put characteristics into fiber such as wrinkle and stain resistance requires a complex balance,” Livingston says. “People expect cotton to do certain things.
“Moving from a negative situation to a positive situation in cotton marketing was exciting,” Livingston says. “The situation we face now is that it's not exciting. I can't go to the board and say, ‘We've had a 2 percent increase in market share. It's just not exciting.”
It all gets back to his marketing philosophy of building relationships.
“If you can build a relationship with a person, whether you're selling toothpicks or automobiles, if that relationship is true, then it's going to be an easy job,” Livingston says. “The first job is to sell yourself.”
At this point in his career, the 61-year-old Livingston is more interested in leaving a legacy to his staff than worried about building a career. “One of the major drivers is to share the expertise that I have with the people in my group.
“It takes a while to get a feeling about the correct way to say things, how to put together fashion books and how to make sure that everything is the best it can be,” Livingston says.
“Usually, people just want to get a job done and move on to the next job, but there is a quality image associated with Cotton Incorporated over the years that I'm trying to instill,” he says.
At this stage of my life managing people is half my job,” he says. “Everybody has a different story. You have to be open to their problems and understand the opportunities that allow them to produce the best they can.”