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.


tlambertus said...

Nicely put. IMO putting a new logo out there with this much change is akin to finding out a good friend has multiple personality disorder and they now are choosing to make one of their lesser known alters their identity. My response, "woah, this is not a side of you I've seen before, I'm not sure I like it." The surprising thing for me (by the mere fact that this happened), is that they may have revealed through this that they have empowered people who do not truly know their own brand. If I was a board member for example, I'd be much more concerned over this fact, than the logo itself. I.e. "Hold on a second, do -any- of you know what we stand for and who we are one of?"

BrandCowboy said...

That is an excellent point. From a leadership perspective, this probably reveals a more serious issue than the logo blunder itself, and the boss' HuffPo blog seems to support the thesis pretty well. Particularly the promise to get back to us in a couple of days with a rationale for the new logo. As the kids say, WTF?!

Great to hear from you, Tim!

tlambertus said...

You too Bruce, always enjoy your insights, and looking forward to the new book!

Laurence said...

They've been heading down the rebranding path for some time. A quick trip to my closet finds a couple iterations of the Helvetica workmark as the sole brand identifier. But there was no public outcry over that.

I think there are a couple of things at play here: The logo is just plain bad. The iterations I found in my closet are much more palatable and reflect a progressive evolution of the brand. So I think the public outcry is deserved. If you make bad stuff it's only fair you get called out for it.

And consumers now have the means to instanteously, collectively vocalize their displeasures. I'm sure that's frightening when seen from their perspective. But it means a brand needs more than ever to understand it's own values and act with conviction.

I personally think a brand can act boldly and decisively. I think they have to. But they shouldn't act naively. You suggest it's arrogance, but I disagree. My closet says they've done market testing already.

I dislike the notion that brands are created by consumers. You said negotiated and I think that's fair. But sitting across the negotiating table should be someone with vision and conviction and the means to express those in the face of an upset rabble.

BrandCowboy said...

I buy most of what you're saying wholeheartedly, and I think the point about conviction is smart and true. In way, that was a big irritant here. Your closet says they've been 'market testing', but I wonder if that really just signals the lack of conviction about their brand that landed them where they are now. I don't know... based on the naive reaction of the president, I'm a little less generous with benefit of the doubt than you are. To me, being oblivious is a kind of arrogance.

Your suggestion that they should have acted boldly is one that I agree with. Had the design been appropriate and good, it would probably have turned out best had they said, "Here's our fantastic new logo. Here's why we changed it. We love it." I'm still not sure a new logo would have been a good move, but they would certainly have got away with it.

Thanks for the thoughtful contribution. I really appreciate it.