Friday, October 08, 2010
Plus ça change.
What a delightful poopstorm the new Gap logo has been. I’m not sure what’s more howlingly funny: the brilliant Twitter feed of @gaplogo (the irritable, vaguely sociopathic anthropomorphized logo drunkenly lashing out at its critics), or Gap’s own lame retreat from the redesign on its Facebook page (“We love our version, but we’d like to see other ideas…) and in the CEO’s HuffPo blog (apparently, the imperative to design a new logo has something to do with “new black pants”).
The substance of the criticism thus far has focused on the design. Lay people say they hate it and question the need for change, and design geeks are still in paroxysms over the use of Helvetica and the strange blue box hovering in the background. But if this were a giant focus group, I wouldn’t be buying a word these people are saying. The words sound logical enough, but there’s nothing evident to explain all the emotional heat behind them. Helvetica doesn’t have the power to enrage all by itself, not unless it’s on a parking ticket. Something else is going on here.
There are certain things a brand does that should be refreshed all the time. That’s how people know you’re still alive, and you’re still aware that they are, too. Things like advertising are part of the marketplace conversation, and they need to flow. But there are other things that should almost never change, especially without an obvious motive (black pants notwithstanding). Consumers need to know that you are authentic, that you’re sure of the values you claim to have as a brand, that you have some self-respect and a vision of your own. A logo is on that list. For a brand, new ads are like new clothes, but a new logo is like going into the witness protection program. It’s unsettling, and it’s risky.
But it’s not the riskiness that’s got people exercised about this. It’s that Gap doesn’t seem to appreciate that risk. They made the change, they didn’t explain it respectfully, and to ice the cake, the change didn’t carry any semiotic freight that people could connect with. They just did it. As if they weren’t afraid of the consumer at all. That’s arrogant. And that’s what’s bugging people, whether they realize it or not. It’s amplified by the fact that Gap had really started to acquire some gravity as a brand, and by the fact that it’s a fashion brand and thus a mediator and curator of value rather than a creator of it. But mostly it was just the arrogance. They acted like a big oil company, changing their identity because they damned well pleased, and blithely assuming we’d relearn it because they said so. If you want to reproduce this phenomenon, try rearranging the furniture while your spouse is at work.
I think the great yet-unlearned lesson of our age for marketers is that they don’t have sole dominion over their brands anymore. In the parliament of the marketplace, brands are negotiated with their consumers. The new Gap logo could have been a thing of transcendent beauty, and it still would have got under people’s skin for a while. Consumers don’t really care that much about logos. But they hate it when they see even the slightest sign you’re willing to take them for granted.