Gap needs to let its clothes be and focus on buzzy branding

MaryLou Costa is a key member of the Marketing Week features team and her blog brings her unique Australian perspective to brands. She also oversees the Market Research Focus weekly bulletin.

Only having just about recovered from logo-gate, high street fashion retailer Gap is attracting even more scepticism around its brand strength and performance with its latest news – that it has sacked its head clothing designer Patrick Robinson.

Robinson was hired in 2007 for his illustrious fashion CV – including Giorgio Armani and Paco Rabanne – and was tasked with bringing the brand back to the glory it experienced in the 80s and 90s, when it established itself as the personification of American cool and a staple of many wardrobes.

Robinson’s abrupt dismissal this week is a confusing one, as it seems that many of the problems ailing this brand have been beyond his control. Firstly, he designs clothes, not logos. And the New York Times reported that three months ago, the business blamed store presentation and not its clothing range for its faltering sales.

So why the about face? Robinson’s endeavours to refresh Gap as the go-to place for straightforward trousers, jeans and shirts, as well as cementing designer collaborations with Stella McCartney and Pierre Hardy. But to me, these moves have failed to be supported by strong branding, consumer engagement and buzz, which has stopped people thinking of Gap as a brand they want to be associated with. All the awful marketing cliches that I’m sure most of us are sick to death of hearing by now, but nevertheless, have become cliché for a reason – because they make sound marketing sense.

I’ve read comments online saying Robinson’s departure makes sense because the collections he produced failed to make an impact against the trendy lines the likes of Zara and H&M churn out season after season.

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But I have to disagree with these people, because Gap has never been about following and reproducing cheap trends. The original idea of Gap was that it was trendless, that it was its own style, that people used to gravitate towards because they felt the Gap look had a sense of personality about it.

The personality still exists in the clothes, but not in the brand. Rivals with similar clothing offerings have managed to develop stronger, more inspiring brands, and that’s where former Gap shoppers are now going. Namely UniQlo, whose branding portrays vibrant, city cool types – all in fashionless but fundamental clothing.

While Gap was rolling out discount vouchers, UniQlo was developing fun social media initatives, like setting up Facebook pages for people to share their UniQlo style and rewarding people who Tweet about the brand with special offers.

All of these elements make up the job description of the marketing department, not the clothing designer – I refuse to believe that someone with such a glittering fashion world CV could be the reason for a clothing chain’s lacklustre performance.

But, perhaps such a big change is part of a bigger master plan by the brand’s new chief marketing officer, Seth Farbman, who was appointed in February, presumably to distance the brand from its logo change disaster.

So I won’t sell this brand short yet, not until Gap’s next step is revealed which may possibly help make some sense out of the whole situation.

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