Do the masses really know what’s best for your brand?


Gap’s decision to pull its rebranded logo after the public reacted negatively raises all sorts of tricky issues for marketers.

The Gap was right and the blogosphere was wrong. Big bluechip corporations don’t change an iconic logo on a whim – it’s a hugely long and complex process involving consultants and designers, the C-suite and the board, researched within focus groups, and tested again and again. And it speaks not just to where the brand is now, but where it wants to be over the next ten or 20 years.

So why did the team at Gap let their rebranded logo be overturned by a bunch of people who, by definition, know less about the company, its aims and its strategy than they do? A group of people that includes many who don’t like change anyway (because that’s human nature), some frustrated designers who think they could do better, and some who think spending huge amounts on any corporate rebrand is simply a waste of money. At what point does a brand have to have the courage of its convictions and simply ignore what’s being said in the social space?

This question of who owns the brand is one of the most vexed in digital marketing. In the middle of the past decade you couldn’t go to a digital marketing conference without hearing that brands are no longer what marketers tell people they are, they’re what their friends tell them they are. The backlash followed shortly afterwards, with marketers claiming on the same stages that because the company decided what products and services to offer, when and at what price, control remained with them. And while this argument has been going on, brands have been navigating between those two poles. They’ve been using social media to listen to what people are saying about them and trying to both influence what’s being said and draw useful business information from it, all the while waiting for the misstep that will see them pilloried across the twittersphere for the latest social media failure.

Why did the team at Gap let their rebranded logo be overturned by a bunch of people who know less about the company, its aims and its strategy than they do?

Two thoughts emerge from this. The first is that, as Vikki Chowney, editor of Marketing Week’s sister title Reputation Online wrote in a recent column, a lot of so-called social media failures “very rarely display anything more sinister than misplaced judgement in terms of what people now expect from brands online”. A lot of the time the storm that follows is stoked by a few social media consultants wanting to promote their services, and disappears when the next failure comes along.

The second thought is that companies never controlled their brands in the first place, and all that social media has done is shattered the illusion that they did. Just as a film or book means different things to different people, so do brand communications. What the smart companies have realised is that, while they can’t control how people interpret their brand messages, they can and should aim for consistency in those messages at every touchpoint the customer has with the brand, from advertising campaign to call centre to delivery worker or shop assistant.

And it is up to individual brands to negotiate their relationship with the customers, and potential customers – there’s no hard and fast rules. One example of a brand that seems to have harnessed customer enthusiasm to a striking degree is Moleskine, whose huge fan community has taken the somewhat shaky story of it being the notebook used by Hemingway and Picasso and turned it into a cult brand for creative types.

But when the company took over control of one of the most popular Moleskine fan sites recently, it was seen as a step too far by some in the community.

This in turn highlights another issue for brands trying to judge customer feeling. How can you tell what’s not being said about your brand, and how many people aren’t saying it? Are the majority of Moleskine customers muttering under their breath about corporate control, or is it just a few purists?

All of this feeds into the desperately difficult question of how seriously to treat feedback through social media. It’s clearly vital for brands to monitor the space for individual problems, and to resolve them. But when it becomes a question of strategy, as it did for Gap and to a lesser extent Moleskine, when do you take the unfashionable step of asserting your inside knowledge and understanding and decide to simply weather the storm?

There are perhaps two guidelines. The first is something explored recently by Saatchi & Saatchi strategy director Richard Huntington on his blog Adliterate. He was writing about the trend to crowdsource advertising, and the conclusion that he came to was that while crowdsourcing creative can work, and can throw up something extraordinary, it can’t be relied on strategically. The Diet Coke and Mentos films might have been a massive internet hit and brought both products to the front of people’s minds, but they had nothing to do with the brand values of either. Huntington’s view? Crowdsource creative sometimes, strategy never.

And the second guideline is this. If Gap was surprised enough by the strength of negative feeling towards its new logo that it killed it, it clearly hadn’t done enough research. It’s vital to listen to your customers, but it’s even more important to listen to them at the right time.


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