Mark Ritson: Is this gap’s idea of 360-degree branding?

Most people don’t know that Gap was originally named after the generation gap that existed in 1969 between traditional retailers and the new fashion sensibility sweeping through California. But after the bizarre 360-degree brand journey that Gap’s current leadership took us on last week, the gap in question could equally have been inspired by the gulf between branding competence required and that on offer at the San Francisco-based retailer.

Events began with the announcement Monday last that Gap were introducing a new logo. Gone were the white letters on a blue background, to be replaced by an effort that looked, as one designer put it, “like somebody used PowerPoint and kind of did it in five minutes flat”.

Within hours, social media sites were alive and kicking with criticism of Gap’s new identity. Two new twitter accounts in particular, @OldGapLogo and @GapLogo, quickly attracted 5,000 followers with a satirical dialogue based on their respective identities. OldGapLogo’s tweet’s were a sad and plaintive call for help: “Help…I’ve been taken hostage. Everything is dark and I don’t know where I am”. Meanwhile, the new GapLogo was tweeting slightly sinister messages like: “In other news: I’ve invaded Poland and eat little children. Just kidding – we haven’t invaded Poland. Yet.”

With media criticism mounting and a branding crisis emerging with the usual appalling velocity, Gap’s senior management team was forced into an embarrassing volte-face. Three days after the revamp was introduced, the company announced the retraction of its new logo on Facebook. Apparently Gap was “thrilled to see passionate debates unfolding” and had decided to shelve its new logo and start a “crowdsourcing project” to elicit better logo ideas.

What would once have been termed “we haven’t got a fucking clue what we are doing and have just reversed ourselves in the most humiliating public manner possible”, is now redefined as a crowdsurfing strategy leveraging a consumer dialogue using social media.

But the saga had yet another twist. This Monday, president of Gap North America Marka Hansen announced that the company was withdrawing its crowdsurfing strategy too, and would return to its original logo immediately. According to Hansen, Gap had “learned a lot in this process” – which is handy because it appears to have begun that process with little or no clue about branding or corporate decision making.

In a remarkable seven-day period, Gap has gone full circle from old logo to new logo to crowdsurfing to apology to old logo. One week later and it’s right back where it started – except now with major consumer confusion and question marks over the capabilities and decision-making of Hansen and her team.

In seven days, Gap has gone full circle from old logo to new logo to crowdsurfing to apology to old logo

When I teach my MBA elective in Brand Management I always make it clear to my students during the course introduction that I will be exploring the topics of logo design and typography in Week 13. The fact that my course is only 12 weeks long, gives you a pretty good idea about my feelings on the importance of logos and fonts when it comes to branding.

I make exactly the same point when I advise clients. It’s not that logos aren’t part of brand management, it’s just that their overall importance is relatively miniscule, and any potential advantages of identity change are very limited. As Gap has ably illustrated, there is no upside whatsoever in changing your logo, but the potential downside, as your new logo is bombarded with criticism, is huge. If you even mention the logo or get into a debate on identity you look like a superficial twit who doesn’t know what they’re doing. Better to keep the old logo and focus on other priorities – in Gap’s case, the fact that some store sales were down 2% last month and 4% on the year after already dropping 10% back in 2009.

A glance at Britain’s biggest brands is a walk through the familiar and unchanging clunkiness of established logos that have better things to do than fiddle with the fonts. Tesco’s logo is the same crap blue and red thing that has graced its plastic bags for a generation. HSBC’s identity has been unchanged since the group was created in 1991. Shell’s logo is pretty much the same seashell that a young Marcus Samuel picked up on a beach on a family holiday in 1839. Of course, each of these logos has been polished and tweaked since their origination. But it’s been slight and it’s been done without public fanfare.

There is a particular species of brand manager that seems to think font size and logo pigmentation are an essential part of the branding challenge. My sincere advice to any marketers who ever find themselves having a spirited argument with a colleague about the size of logo or correct use of font is to stop, locate the nearest window, and jump out of it. You have lost the branding plot and mistaken the peripheral and unimportant elements of identity for the real and very crucial strategic challenges of brand management. Mind the Gap.

Mark Ritson is an Associate Professor of Marketing, an award winning columnist, and a consultant to some of the world’s biggest brands.

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