A Gap––in Leadership.

For unjustified reasons in my brand eyes, the management at the Gap, the lagging clothing retailer, recently conjured up a new logo and unceremoniously launched it to the world. “Unceremoniously” refers to the fact that there was no launch, no announcement, no PR campaign—just the silent shifting of the old logo guard to the new on the company website. Despite the lack of fanfare, the new logo was not only noticed, but was royally rejected by its virtual visitors. In an attempt to quickly diffuse some of the negativity and confusion circulating in the social media sphere, the Gap retreated and pulled a 180. It invited its “fans” to now give input on a new design, i.e., to ultimately drive its brand. According to AP, “Crowd sourcing the new logo, or allowing fans to help design a new one, was the company’s original solution to the issue of quelling consumer confusion. Marketers are increasingly letting fans help or fully make decisions, including PepsiCo Inc.’s Doritos brand having fans create and vote on Super Bowl commercials. But a logo change left up to the crowd is much more rare.”

This unusual move, even if short-lived, begs the question: What on earth is going on at Planet Gap? And where are its fearless brand leaders?

This is a tell-tell-tale about what is wrong with companies and advertising/marketing today. The internet and its social media applications are tools, not the Holy Grail of marketing. Allowing spectators to help design a new logo works for a controlled and one-time promotion like a charitable event or sweepstakes. But a marketing department that lets fans make decisions in matters that stick reeks of a company that doesn’t have a clue—WTF!—what it’s doing or where it ought to be going. How are you supposed to build or maintain a brand when you’re illustrating that you don’t know how to lead? Relinquishing power and creative control to win some more Facebook “Likes” does not make a good strategy. In fact, it’s no strategy at all.

Marka Hansen, president of Gap North America, rationalizes the company’s decision making in her defensive Huffington Post entry. Using phrases like “contemporary and current” to stick up for the new design, she argues that the Gap needed a revised logo that was more reflective of current trends in the company’s recent buying decisions. Which sort of sounds like code for “We think a new logo will boost our sluggish sales.” Even if that were the case—and that’s debatable—unfortunately, the new logo looked more appropriate for the launch of a new tech company.

It certainly didn’t suit the next rendition of the Gap, which has been fashionably tied to a unique logo that’s worked for well over 20 years. The PMS blue square containing its moniker in classic serif letters and dropout type is a trademark recognized worldwide across the spectrum of consumer brands. Revising this logo is a square opportunity to embrace and build upon judiciously and thoughtfully, not to easily or quickly dismiss or to solve impulsively via a virtual public open mike.

The Gap blunder feels reminiscent of the Coca-Cola Company’s launch of “New Coke” in 1985. Like the Gap, in an overzealous attempt to create a quick buzz around a brand that was perceived internally as dormant, Coca-Cola put a spin on the “original” soft-drink recipe, one that was geared to making it taste more like Pepsi, of all things. As with the new Gap logo, the new recipe and product was a bust, and New Coke was pulled, too. The company hadn’t counted on the depth of the connection its audience had to the “original” Coke formula.

For those of you who think that New Coke was a fluke aberration specific to that brand’s formula and/or that Coke drinkers are just overly sensitive—or for those Pepsi loyalists out there—remember Pepsi Clear (AKA Crystal Pepsi)? That 1992 Pepsi product flop, which lasted a year, taught the PepsiCo folks the obvious: that removing two of the biggest ingredient draws from its flagship product—the color and the caffeine—was a bad idea. Duh.

The first lesson here: When a change is needed, the world of social media doesn’t allow for operating in a vacuum. Given the possible ramifications, as brand catalysts and marketing mavens, schooled both before and well beyond Social Media 101, we would never think to force feed anything on an audience without priming these consumers first. By test-marketing new prototypes to a fault, we did our homework and were respectful of dismantling or disrupting any emotional or visual brand bonds and loyalties. Marka Hansen suggests in her blog post that the Gap needed to “evolve.” Fine. But if so, and one tactic was a logo change, what Marka and her team failed to remember was that it’s also a marketer’s job to bring its audience along for the journey. Crowd-sourcing is a tool that should help with transitions and testing. It should not, however, trump or replace traditional pillars of brand building (or—ahem—branding professionals).

The truly staggering question though is why the Gap felt the need to concentrate its energy on a branding makeover it didn’t need. We’re in a down economy: People are shopping “down” these days, in all retail products. They’re looking more to the moderately priced “Gaps” of the fashion world to fill some voids in their closets in an economically sensible way. In this frugal environment, the Gap, an icon of brand leadership and fashionable thrift, should be able to strut, shine, and outfit us all—not to be scrutinized, second-guessed, or to say they’re sorry for being who and what they are. They needed to tap into what they do well, not hide it behind a new, ineffective logo.

All the “old” companies that have built a legacy, tried and true, have built their brands on having cojones—and a big set at that. The new young talent taking office seem to have zero confidence in their tactics, no understanding of the market they’re catering to, and no capacity to use simple common sense, a triumvirate of flaws that simply creates disaster—and bad logos.

Which brings me to Lesson #2. As my father, a Coca-Cola aficionado, would often remind me when I was frivolously campaigning for something new: Sweetheart, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Filed: branding, crisis management, crisis pr, fashion

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1 Comment

  • Nice article! It makes a great deal of sense. These companies spend so much to attain new clients but rarely put forth the effort to keep their existing ones happy. Everything is an argument or an angle. I guess they think we will forget.

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