The Falling Gap …

My first job in this industry, a little more than 10 years ago, was at the Gap. During my first week, I was asked to attend a meeting – apparently a regular ongoing affair – in the art gallery in the main Gap Inc. building in San Francisco where the CEO, Millard “Mickey” Drexler, was to speak to us. Mickey entered the gallery, went in front of where we were seated dressed in a white button shirt and khakis and set a can of Coca Cola he was drinking on the pedestal. “There is only one Coke,” he said. Generally from what I remember, he talked about how the look of the can, while there have been slight modifications and tweaks, has remained remarkably consistent throughout the years and has held true to its core unlike its competitor, which had gone off to dilute its image with a gazillion versions of itself. That’s what he said the Gap as company was trying to achieve in its brand. And apparently, it worked, as he had transformed a small record and T-shirt store selling Levi’s into a global vertical retail apparel behemoth.

Well, since that time, Coca-Cola has begun offering multiple versions and attempted ill-fated experiments in New Coke, and the Gap has just unveiled a new logo. People far smarter than I have built businesses and brands expanding, changing, and reinventing themselves with great success, from toothpaste to soft drinks. Tell me how does a brand continue to stay relevant, decide to change or hold to its guns to navigate through the ebb and flow of thriving prosperity and waning relevance?

It reminds us that imagery is the easiest and therefore most impactful reflection of a brand. But I believe it’s not where brands lose their way. While the starting point of branding may be imagery, it needs to extend throughout the business. Complacency in its value offering is the ultimate culprit, not the imagery. For the Gap, perhaps a better focus on ensuring their product remained relevant and their retail experience more inviting would have been more prudent than continuing to rely on existing formulas. Their product and stores got stale. And when they tried to adjust, they over-reacted by trying to offer anything they thought would appeal to the public – trying to be everything to everyone. They lost their way.

I am saying nothing new to everyone here on Imprint. But decisions like the recently unveiled new logo for the Gap remind us that the most obvious vehicle of change may not be the best one. Perhaps they should have asked Madonna for her secret …

2 thoughts on “The Falling Gap …

  1. Paul

    So much thanks for the comments. It’s spot on. Ironically, it seems coke unwittingly had through the years created in its customer what pepsi sought with the next generation. Well it worked on me because I go with Pepsi… Apparel brands are this way – or they should be inherently – because clothing serves as the “packaging” of a person’s image.

    I see in the subsequent post on the Gap about the need for set up i.e. the Gap forgot to “outfit” it’s new logo before sending it into the world naked to be laughed at and ridiculed. The Gap probably would have benefitted by linking the logo to something the wearer of their clothes would connect with or aspire to. From a man who literally started selling ties, we have a brand whose success is inherently linked to creating a whole aspirational identity – Ralph Lauren – with a logo of a man swinging a polo mallet while riding a horse…

    Your comments are spot on and really enjoyed the link. Gracias.

  2. Damien Newman

    Very interesting post Paul- thank you for sharing that about the then CEO Mickey Drexler. It made me think of something I just read about John Sculley talking about his time at Pepsi and how they competed with Coke. I’ve copied some of that in here – the rest of the interview (very Mac + Steve Jobs focused) here:

    From the Interview:
    One of the things that fascinated him: I described to him that there’s not much difference between a Pepsi and a Coke, but we were outsold 9 to 1. Our job was to convince people that Pepsi was a big enough decision that they ought to pay attention to it, and eventually switch. We decided that we had to treat Pepsi like a necktie. In that era people cared what necktie they wore. The necktie said: “Here’s how I want you to see me.” So we have to make Pepsi like a nice necktie. When you are holding a Pepsi in your hand, its says, “Here’s how I want you to see me.”

    We did some research and we discovered that when people were going to serve soft drinks to a friend in their home, if they had Coca Cola in the fridge, they would go out to the kitchen, open the fridge, take out the Coke bottle, bring it out, put it on the table and pour a glass in front of their guests.
    If it was a Pepsi, they would go out in to the kitchen, take it out of the fridge, open it, and pour it in a glass in the kitchen, and only bring the glass out. The point was people were embarrassed to have someone know that they were serving Pepsi. Maybe they would think it was Coke because Coke had a better perception. It was a better necktie. Steve was fascinated by that.

    We talked a lot about how perception leads reality and how if you are going to create a reality you have to be able to create the perception. We did it with something called the  Pepsi generation.

    I had learned through a lecture that  Dr. Margaret Mead had given, an anthropologist in the 60’s, that the most important fact for marketers was going to be the emergence of an affluent middle class — what we call the  Baby Boomers, who are now turning 60. They were the first people to have discretionary income. They could go out and spend money for things other than what they had to have.

    When we created Pepsi generation it was created with them in mind. It was always focusing on the user of the drink, never the drink.

    Coke always focused on the drink. We focused on the person using it. We showed people riding dirt bikes, waterskiing, or kite flying, hang gliding — doing different things. And at the end of it there would always be a Pepsi as a reward. This all happened when color television was first coming in. We were the first company to do lifestyle marketing. The first and the longest-running lifestyle campaign was — and still is — Pepsi.

    We did it was just as color television was coming in and when large-screen TVs were coming in, like 19-inch screens. We didn’t go to people who made TV commercials because they were making commercials for little tiny black-and-white screens. We went out to Hollywood and got the best movie directors and said we want you to make 60-second movies for us. They were lifestyle movies. The whole thing was to create the perception that Pepsi was number one because you couldn’t be number one unless you thought like number one. You had to appear like number one.