The Gap’s Gaffe Tastes Like New Coke

I suppose there are two ways to look at The Gap’s logo flip-flop. One view is that the company really listened to their customers and the graphic arts community at large and wasn’t too proud to admit they made a mistake. I’ve seen quite a few articles that take this stand. And this could very well be the case. On the other hand I have two words for you: New Coke.

For those of you too young to remember the New Coke flap, Coca-Cola made a huge deal out of changing their formula. Ostensibly, it was a move to compete with the sweeter, youth-appealing taste of Pepsi. They rolled out a big campaign about the change. The only problem was, people didn’t like it. Huge backlash. So they eventually brought back the old formula as “Coca-Cola Classic” and sales shot up.

Like the logo situation with The Gap, Coca-Cola was both praised and vilified at the time. Personally, I believe that the folks at The Coca-Cola Company were too savvy to get the formula change to wrong and planned the whole switch-a-roo thing. If that makes me a conspiracy theorist, so be it.

Speaking about the conspiracy theories, Donald Keough, Coca-Cola’s president and chief operating officer at the time of the controversy, is quoted as saying, “We’re not that dumb, and we’re not that smart.” Clearly, I believe they were that dumb and that smart.

Similarly, I am convinced that The Gap did very much the same thing with their logo. I have no proof, mind you. But I believe that they planned the whole thing. And I think it was a stroke of insidious, disingenuous genius. How else would the major networks have mentioned The Gap on the air if not for the logo gaffe? And the coverage I saw was pretty positive. There was a hint of “how could they allow this to happen,” but it was all but drowned out by “… but they showed that they are listening.”

The bottom line for me is this: there was no compelling reason to actually change the iconic logo. But there was a reason to create a marketing-driven ruse about changing the logo. Often the most plausible explanation is the one that is true. And I think the marketing ploy is the most plausible explanation.

By the way, the “new” logo was horrible. But I thought the same thing about the Seattle’s Best logo. And I guess that one stuck. So maybe I’m just wrong.

I’d be interested in what you think. I could be convinced that this was unplanned. Please. Try me.



Filed under Advertising & Marketing, Branding, Graphic Design, Marketing myths, The Gap

6 responses to “The Gap’s Gaffe Tastes Like New Coke

  1. As a rule I don’t believe in conspiracies when basic stupidity explains the results, because stupidity is in such huge supply. But I look at the new logo and can’t see how anybody could make the case for it.

    Except a consulting firm brought in to “review” the identity.

    In any case, they did get a LOT of free play on both national and local media outlets.

  2. Christy

    I’m confused about why people care so much about what the Gap’s logo looks like. If it were actually stitched on their shirts in a visible way, like Brooks Brothers’ golden fleece or Ralph Lauren’s polo player, it’d be one thing… I’m astounded that so much reaction came out of what the store sign looks like and maybe what the tags inside the clothes look like – or what the bags look like.

    At least with New Coke, people had a reason to have an opinion, and people’s opinions had legitimate reasons to affect sales. One way or another, the change in Coca-cola’s formula was going to have an impact on the product sales because pretty much everyone who drinks a beverage tastes it and has an opinion of that taste. The impact was pretty much guaranteed. There was a gamble, to be sure, about which way the market would go, but one knew it was going to go somewhere. I can buy into your conspiracy theory or not – both paths make sense to me. They made a change that would undoubtedly make a splash, the change had an impact, and they based their next move on what that impact was. It was logical, regardless of what their actual preconceived ideas of the strategy’s direction were.

    On the contrary, with this Gap logo thing, I don’t think any understated logo change is nearly that much of a definite in terms of whether it would make a big impact or not. Would people not buy clothes from the Gap if they didn’t like the tag inside the shirts? Hmmm… I am not an advertising guru, nor do I play one on television, but to me, the media play (both social and professional) that the Gap got out of this move seems far more like dumb luck than genius.

    • Interesting perspective, Christy. I don’t claim to know what everyone is thinking. However it appears that much of the initial backlash came from the graphic design community. The criticism of what a poor effort the new logo was made it to social media circles very quickly. Then the public at-large picked up on it. Since The Gap is such and iconic brand and its logo has been recognizable for so long, people with no graphic design background became interested as well. The Gap is, after all, The US’ largest specialty clothing retailer. As with many brands, people feel a sense of ownership. Even if the tag isn’t on the garments, it’s a mark they identify with and take comfort in its familiarity.
      You’re certainly right in that Coke had the issue of taste to deal with. But there was an underlying sense that Coca-Cola changed the very thing that made the drink “Coke” to be more like their rival Pepsi. That would be like the Redskins putting a big star on their uniforms to compete with the Cowboys. And like The Gap fiasco, people felt betrayed by the brand they were loyal to and powerless to do anything but complain. In both cases, the company at least appeared to listen to their customers, hence endearing themselves even further.
      Your last point about whether people would not buy clothes from The Gap because of a logo change makes me really think I’m right about their motives. With sales down in a struggling economy, what is cheaper PR than creating this ruse? Especially if they never planned to really change the logo in the first place. They get tons of free publicity and (in their plan) look like heroes for listening to their customers. It was cheap, easy and destined for maximum impact. And they would have gotten away with it to if not for you meddling kids…

  3. Peter Milburn

    Having worked in and for large media companies and brands, it makes no sense to seriously think this was done on purpose.

    Big corporate rebrandings involve hundreds or people and no marketing manager I know would propose a bad logo for the sake of PR.

    You can be sure many designs were considered and this one was considered the best internally. It might have been a compromise but that’s how decisions are made. I can almost guarantee you they felt they needed a more “modern” logo i.e sans font.

    • Thanks for your feedback, Peter. I don’t doubt that the scenario you lay out here is completely feasible. However, these days the same marketing managers are considering (and using) crowdsourcing as a marketing tactic. So though they may not have considered a “for show” exercise like this in the past, it seems more likely than ever that they might resort to that now as possibilities expand.

  4. Pingback: Groupon: Stunt or Stupidity? | The Tap, Tap, Tap

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