Lessons for next time. Where Gap went wrong.

Written by Sydney-based designer, Clinton Duncan.

What an exciting life the new Gap logo led. It snuck up on us, as if to pleasantly surprise us. Next, it got to experience the heady cut and thrust if the online design world via blogs and Twitter, where it gained multiple personalities and impersonators. It went viral, virtually became a meme, shot to fame, was widely reported on, made it tomainstream media and then, all of a sudden, it died. Snuffed out, not by a newer, younger model – but the old model it was meant to replace.

So, where to start with this debacle? Basically this boils down to three clear failures. A failure in sourcing the right consultant, a launch failure, and a failure of belief. While significant, these three failures were only the fuel, and the Internets simply brought the matches. Plenty of them. Branding programs are never perfect, and even the most imperfect births can still lead to strong, healthy brands. Following are three examples of brands that got one of the three parts wrong, yet still survived. Whether they are successful brands or not, well you can be the judge on that one…

The right tool(s) for job

Nitro London (now Sapient Nitro) created a new logo for the corporate, non-consumer facing, Kraft Foods Group, and, let’s be honest, the results speak for themselves. Now I’m not one to rip too hard on advertising agencies creating brands, my own opinion is many branding agencies would do well to get a little more actual communications experience. But this one was a shocker. Armin Vit tore it to pieces quite thoroughly on Brand New, so I’ll leave it to him.

No, you’re not seeing things. Yes, that’s the second, newer, Kraft logo. Now, one has to wonder, how it dawned that their new logo wasn’t working, and how they hadn’t noticed it earlier. But indeed, after five months, Kraft did come to the same conclusion any half-decent designer would come to in 5/100ths of a second. Their new logo wasn’t finished, and needed another round of design development. Unfortunately it still didn’t cross that critical Gap from ‘bad’ to ‘good’. Wrong tool for the job.

First impressions matter

Launching a brand isn’t simple, but it isn’t rocket science either. It basically comes in two varieties — the hard launch, where you refresh as many conceivable touch points as possible at once to create a day zero for the new brand. Or the soft launch, where you slowly replace elements on an as needed basis — a low cost approach that replaces the most important, or the cheapest, items first, then gradually rolls out the new branding over time as existing items run out, or as budget permits.

Sounds pretty simple, right? Well the first step in both these approaches is a press release or conference to announce the change, and that’s where the City of Melbourne almost screwed up their entire rebrand, handled by the Sydney office of Landor Associates (disclosure, my wife, Ivana Martinovic, worked on, but not directed, this rebrand, but I’ve never actually liked it, and consider it a clone of the NYC brand by Wolf Ollins).

The Lord Mayor of Melbourne, during a press conference announcing the rebrand, almost fatally derailed it. First, he showed up in a bad mood, rather an odd way to launch a new brand. Second, he engaged in a pathetic pissing contest with a journalist, citing Jackson Pollock as an example of ‘well you couldn’t do it’ in justifying the new logo. As the old saying goes, never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel (or measure page views by the million). Lastly, he arrogantly explained the Sydney office of Landor was selected because ‘no one in Melbourne was capable of doing the job’ — factually incorrect, as there are many capable brand agencies in Melbourne, and political suicide, as the mainstream media love nothing more than a parochial, ‘my kid could do that and you won’t believe how much they spent’ story about government waste.

If you don’t believe it, why expect us to?

The next example is one of the most transformative rebrands of recent times, and also another Landor job. Whilst the above project for Melbourne I rather dislike, the rebranding of BP will surely go down as one of the classics of big corporate branding. The only problem is the CEO wasn’t up to the lofty standards of the brand, and one could argue that is why he isn’t the CEO anymore.

Quite ahead of the greenwashing curve, BP launched their new ‘beyond petroleum’ brand positioning in 2001, cleverly launched by co-ordinating a repaint of it’s tanker trucks across 6 continents on the same day. Landor are a serious branding agency, and for such a high visibility branding project you’d imagine the global networks best minds were put to work. Thus my first two criteria for successful rebranding were met — the right consultants, and a good launch.

Fast forward to 2010, and the disconnect between bp’s talk, and their walk, finally caught up with them, and half the Gulf of Mexico, for that matter. A litany of corporate decisions and behavior in contradiction with beyond sloppy safety standards, drilling ever deeper and in ever more unstable political regimes all contradicted the beyond petroleum positioning, but it took something as high profile and visible as The Gulf spill to hammer it home.

The damage was brutal, BP’s share price halved, a US President took aim, fake twitter profiles, boycotts and protests on what seemed like every corner. Their CEO resigned, and their brand was damaged, many said irreparably. But consider this — the strength of the brand they’d built perhaps saved BP — in a similar situation, any other company might have fallen prey to takeover, but BP’s share price never quite dipped low enough to make the economics work — brand value at work?

Enter the Internets, the screaming, swearing, bitching Internets

Things moves fast on the Internet, crazy fast. My own response to the Gap logo was less than eight hours after the website was updated, Brand New covered it within 24 hours, Gap responded on Facebook within 48 hours, the three fake Twitter accounts for @gaplogo@newgaplogo and @oldgaplogo all had 5k+ followers within that time as well. At 72 hours, the head of brand was defending the move on mainstream press, and by 96 hours, it was all over — new logo taken back, Apple-Z!

Gap dropped the ball on all three of these criteria. Firstly, they gave the job to their longtime advertising ‘creative directors’ Laird + Partners, an ad agency who’ve done the Gap work for a long time. Recent campaign work by Laird made extensive use of Helvetica, and clearly the depth of thinking was “we like all this new advertising, lets update the logo to match.”

Lesson one
Ad agencies (and particularly fashion focused agencies) are great at creating campaigns with a 1-2 year horizon, but a brand should live for decades, not seasons. Good branding consultants take this long-term view, and create a brand for today, and tomorrow.

By silently updating their website with the new logo, and nothing else, they almost apologetically launched the new logo — they didn’t even bother changing their Facebook profile picture. It telegraphed to their customers that they weren’t that serious about the relaunch, and it wasn’t supported by any communications to out it in context, and make sense of why.

Lesson two
A new brand, even if it’s just a new logo, requires a launch strategy that considers the possibility of a bad initial reaction. Oliver Reichenstein from iA wrote an excellent post describing how negative reactions to a rebrandare often the desired response.

Gap’s launch of the new logo left much to be desired. On the day it appeared, a search of their site, the news section, the corporate site and its media releases returned nothing. Nada. Zip. Thus Gap gave themselves no way of creating a context within which a response could be framed. Disastrously, initial reactions, with nothing but an errant logo on the site, focused on ‘is this a joke?’. Thus the narrative was set — the new logo has come out of nowhere, it’s laughable, surely it’s a joke, it’s clearly a terrible logo.

Lesson three
If your new logo is pissing the design community off, the worst thing, and I repeat, the absolute worst thing you can do, is to ask those same designers to help you fix your mistake. For free. People might disagree with you, but if you explain yourself, and stick to your guns, people might not agree. They may dislike you, but at least they will respect you.

It was at this point the new Gap logo became doomed. A bad logo created by an inappropriate consultant, a terrible launch with no apparent plan or forethought, and a demonstrated lack of belief as evidenced by the back-pedalling.

But consider this — perhaps the decision to undo the logo, was not in fact about saving face by the people at Gap, and not about protecting the brand. The rollout hadn’t happened yet, it was just the first, admittedly lazy and ill-considered, step in taking the new logo to market. The vast amount of chatter and discussion was inside baseball within the design, advertising and marketing industries. An Advertising Age survey found an overwhelming majority of consumers, 80%, completely unaware of the change.

Which then calls into question: why the redesign? Was its intention really to serve the Gap brand, or serve those that work on it? These days, lots of people make a lot of money from constantly updating, refreshing, evolving or redesigning brands, on both agency and client side. I’m tempted to wonder — was the real reason Gap rebranded not because it needed to, but because, well, what else would we in the branding industry have to do otherwise?


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