John lewis ads should be careful to mind the gap

As john lewis prepares for its first-ever television advertising campaign, the gap is demonstrating how such campaigns can damage a brand, says Sean Brierley

John Lewis’s products may never knowingly be undersold, but its brand is. While the rest of the business world has beaten a steady retreat from advertising in favour of more effective marketing communications, it has decided to give TV advertising a try for the first time.

The ads include an autumn sunset with the caption “New lighting?” a forest floor covered with fallen leaves with the caption “New carpet?” and a dog climbing onto the bank of a lake shaking off the water with the caption “New towels?”.

John Lewis is truly brave to launch its first ever ad campaign with no unique selling proposition, no differentiation from its competitors and no representation of its benefits other than “We sell towels and carpets”.

Further along the high street, one store has had exactly the opposite problem, too many USPs, too much differentiation and too many benefits.

And in reality, The Gap has been overselling itself for years and the latest ad campaign which implores consumers to “get into the groove” is no different. It has been stuck in a groove by constantly trying to redefine its proposition and engaging in demographic meddling.

When The Gap first came to the UK it was marketed as a trendy new American brand. It appealed to a wide variety of demographic groups and defined itself by the products it sold.

The Gap’s problems set in under its chief Millard Drexler, who had pursued an over-ambitious expansion strategy, opening new Gap stores and expanding the upmarket Banana Republic and downmarket Old Navy stores.

Drexler quit the company in September of last year after 29 months of falling sales. The company made an $8m (&£5m) loss last year compared with a $1.12bn (&£700m) profit in 1999.

However, the underlying problem was not expansion, but branding. Under Drexler, The Gap defined itself more and more as a family brand. Its marketing became focused on the family holiday periods of Christmas and Easter and it quickly lost its cachet when younger women and gay men started to desert it.

Worse still it became the label for dress-down Friday, as unfashionable men made a bid to “get funky”. The Gap became required attire for middle-aged men who sit in South Kensington beer gardens. A kiss of death for any brand.

The major turning point came when the decision was made to sub-brand with the launch of Gap Kids and Baby Gap. Then the brand proposition became a mess.

But the real problem for The Gap lay in the fact that it did not understand that the family is not a demographic group, it is a collection of demographics. By trying to appeal to all in the family it appealed to none.

The Gap then attempted to wrestle with the problem of having alienated its core demographic groups. It did this by hiring stars such as Macy Gray to try to attract younger consumers. The strategy failed.

Under the new chief executive Paul Pressler, a former chief of Disney theme parks, few lessons appear to have been learned. Though he has relaunched the clothes range, hired new designers and appears to have axed the Gap greeters who mug people at store entrances, the new commercials feature Madonna, the only person to have re-positioned herself more times than the Gap, and the hip-hop star Missy Elliott.

Madonna has recently re-branded herself as a mother and children’s author. Her book – “Harry Potta and da Chamber of Bitches” was launched last week. Actually it was some limp guff all about English roses.

Nevertheless, she is wrong for The Gap brand. The reason she was hired has nothing to do with her demographic status and everything to do with her global appeal, another problem for the new campaign. The Gap is not a global brand. It is a US brand with a global reach.

Endorsement may create awareness, but consumers are unconvinced that the relationship between the brand and the celebrity is anything other than a commercial one. Madonna, who notoriously wears designer labels, is possibly the most unconvincing brand endorser for The Gap – apart, of course, from Missy Elliott.

It is Elliott’s bling bling that The Gap really wants to rub up against.

The intention is to let some of the hip-hop cool attach to the brand – but there is a danger that it is falling into a trap of trying too hard to look trendy – Gangsta Gap is anathema to the brand proposition.

The Gap brand is supposed to be about apple pie and Santa Claus, not social dislocation.

Yet no matter how cool Missy Elliott and the Gangsta Gap image becomes, younger women and gay men will not be attracted back to the brand because of its association with families.

Additionally, The Gap faces the problem that the demographic of fortysomething men, who have continued to buy the chinos and branded shirts, will be put off the brand because of the stronger female presence.

As long as The Gap continues to promote itself as a family store and fight with itself in its advertising, its difficulties will multiply. An alternative route might be to change grooves by ditching the sub-brands altogether or keep Gap Kids and Baby Gap and re-brand the main brand as Banana Republic.

Or there is always the John Lewis school of advertising: “New chinos? New cords? New t-shirts? – Int t’Gap brilliant!”.

Sean Brierley is a former deputy editor of Marketing Week and author of the Advertising Handbook

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