Conspiracy theorists wide of the mark

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I’m still recovering from the Gap logo debacle. You will recall that the fashion retailer managed to introduce a new logo, withdraw the new logo, start a crowdsourcing campaign for a new logo, withdraw the crowdsourcing strategy and then return to its old logo in the space of a single week.

It was tragic stuff, but what has proved even more depressing is the reaction to these events by the marketing community.

A relatively large proportion of those who passed comment on Gap’s bizarre decision-making concluded that it was a clever and well thought through stunt designed to generate maximum press coverage and brand awareness.

The blogosphere was filled with comments that congratulated Gap on its clever PR strategy. Many of the readers who retweeted my article from last week, like IndigoCrowLtd, did so with an open question mark as to whether Gap had actually been doing all of this on purpose. And one of Harvard Business Review’s bloggers – Umar Haque – openly debated whether Gap had executed the logo change as a deliberate piece of “gonzo” communications and then concluded that marketing had become even more obsolete in his eyes as a result.

Even national journalists, like The Guardian financial editor Nils Pratley, described the saga as a “cunning wheeze” designed to “create the impression that the original logo is a much loved classic”.

There is only thing wrong with all of the above ’experts’ – they are totally and utterly bloody wrong. Gap president Marka Hansen might be a bit incompetent but she is not a certifiable idiot. Why would she undermine her own leadership in front of investors and commentators alike? This was a sequence of stupid decisions originating from branding incompetence. Nothing more.

When it comes to marketing mistakes, conspiracy theories are often used to explain what was, in reality, just a total cock-up. It happened in the Eighties when Coca-Cola launched New Coke and lost millions in just ten weeks. Despite the fact the CEO and chairman of the company both denied they had been engineering a deliberate dud, many business commentators concluded New Coke had been a masterstroke designed to remind the market of the heritage of Coke original.

I often tell my students that when a big brand runs a shit campaign they should not come to the same conclusion as many consumers and think: “That big brand can’t be making such crap ads on purpose, it must be subliminal or something.” They should just conclude that it’s a shit ad.

When a politician like Gordon Brown gets it wrong nobody speculates that he lost the election in some kind of clever strategic bit of reverse psychology. It’s the same in sport. When Fabio Capello got us knocked out of the World Cup with barely a whimper, none of the pundits suggested that this was a deliberate ploy to prepare the team for victory in 2014. So why is it that when marketers make mistakes, conspiracy theorists suggest that this was all part of some super-secret, über-clever strategic ploy?

I believe the answer lies with the public’s perception of marketers. Most consumers think we marketers are incredibly intelligent and effective. They assume that we excel at our jobs and are able, almost at a whim, to change public opinions on a daily basis. There is also an equally strong belief among the public that marketers are nefarious manipulators who use subliminal tools to make people do things that they otherwise would not consider.

When confronted with a clear case of marketing incompetence, the masses go all Watergate on us.

Ever since Vance Packard published The Hidden Persuaders in 1957, the masses have deluded themselves that we are all wizards of mind control. From Don Draper to Max Clifford, marketers have been portrayed as a deadly combination of manipulative effectiveness. So strong is this view, that when confronted with a clear case of marketing incompetence (and there’s plenty to pick from), the masses go all Watergate on us.

The truth, alas, is that we are a rather disappointing industry. Does the public perception of evil marketing masterminds engaging in clever, counter-intuitive ploys sound like the hopeless bloke that you work across from each day? The one that couldn’t find his arse with both hands? Most marketers don’t even know who their customers are, let alone being able to change their perceptions and behaviours. Rarely in the annals of modern business has a professional reputation been so unearned by so many.

But nobody will believe me. For the same reason that half the population now thinks that Gap’s marketers are geniuses, non-marketers reading this column will assume my argument is part of some clever, Machiavellian plot to lower the defences of the general public and render them vulnerable to a new phalanx of brilliant, counter-intuitive marketing campaigns. What bollocks. If only they knew how crap most of us are. Mind the Gap (again).

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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