Gap Falls Into New Marketing Strategy: If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It

In a move that rocked the retail world last week, iconic clothing retailer Gap announced that it would scrap its new logo — developed just in time for the 2010 holiday season — and continue using its traditional blue-box logo.

After Gap (NYSE:GPS) changed its logo on its retail site last week, it didn’t take long for many of Gap’s 750,000 Facebook fans to let the company know how they really felt about the change. The instantaneous feedback from thousands of loyal customers was overwhelming: they hated it.

“WOW, you actually paid someone to create this crap?? They should be fired!” wrote one fan.

“YOUR NEW LOGO SUCKS!!!!!!!!!!” said another.

Some were more direct: “Garbaaaaage!”

Yet others gave specific reasons why they hated it: “Please, DO NOT change the logo. The one you are proposing now really looks like an insurance company.”

Marka Hansen, President of Gap North America, was quick to issue a company statement to address concerns once the decision was made to return to the original logo.

“Since we rolled out an updated version of our logo last week on our website, we’ve seen an outpouring of comments from customers and the online community in support of the iconic blue box logo,” said Hansen in the statement.

On Facebook, Gap issued a less formal statement via a status update.

“Ok. We’ve heard loud and clear that you don’t like the new logo… We only want what’s best for the brand and our customers…we’re bringing back the Blue Box tonight.”

Of course changing a logo may not sound like a big move for a company whose branding is predominantly seen on tags in the backs of clothing. Not all fans were so horrified by the logo change.

“What's the big deal?” wrote one Facebook follower. “Who cares what the logo looks like? At the end of the day are you wearing the logo or the clothes?”

But the way Gap handled the sudden change — and its subsequent return to the traditional — raised a few eyebrows.

“Modifying an iconic business logo is a tricky business,” said Scott Lathrop, clinical professor of marketing in the Whitman School at Syracuse University.

While firms may want to freshen up their image from time to time, tinkering with a logo that has been a part of customers’ minds and shopping culture for years can backfire, said Lathrop. Companies must keep in mind that while “refreshing” a brand is important, the “personality” of the brand -- the essence of why people liked them in the first place -- should remain relatively enduring and stable.

One such company that does a great job with brand identity is McDonald’s (NYSE:MCD), Lathrop said.

“While McDonalds’ fare may not be haute cuisine, it is predictable and therefore comforting,” he said.  “Familiar hotel logos signal a place of rest and sanctuary. Familiar airline logos conjure up feelings of safety and reliability."

Other companies that have done a great job evolving while still retaining their following are Ivory soap, Hellman’s Mayonnaise, Heinz Ketchup, and Lysol cleaning solution, Lathrop said.

With Lysol, Lathrop said generations of women have passed down their preferences for cleaning supplies to their sons and daughters. Gap is now at the point in its life where moms and dads that wore Gap in their teens are now purchasing Gap items for their kids. In this way, people see the brand similar to a friend that they know and trust.

However, Lathrop said that if people see their brand is aging or the market they were serving is not a growing market, they might want to refresh their band to target a younger audience.

“It’s a careful balance, because you don’t want to be seen as stodgy or old fashioned,” he said.

Today, the public reaction to a branding change -- whether positive or negative -- can go viral within minutes, according to Allan Haley, director of Words and Letters for Monotype Imaging . Monotype owns the font Gap wanted to switch to as part of its new logo, Helvetica, and works on branding projects for the recent Winter Olympics brand identity and the original IKEA brand font.

Haley said companies thinking of altering their brands would be wise to have a strategic plan that rolls out over a period of time that avoids making such a dramatic change all at once.

“The first Shell Oil logo looked like an actual photo of a shell, but they evolved it slightly over time to become more relevant to today’s consumer,” he said. “Font has a great deal to do with a person’s perception of a brand,” said Haley. “It’s much more perilous for corporations to change a typeface or font they use as part of their branding, because people tend to react strongly to those types of changes.”

According to a company statement, Gap seems to acknowledge that any changes moving forward would need to be rolled out using an alternate strategy.

“There may be a time to evolve our logo, but if and when that time comes, we’ll handle it in a different way,” Hansen wrote.

Of course, even though Gap maintains it has learned from the recent experience, some experts suggested that Gap’s logo change was nothing more than a publicity stunt in the first place, and that the company never intended to stick with the change.

“Gap, like many fools before them, thought this would get people who had thought the firm had fallen off the map to notice them again,” said  Richard Laermer, Author of “Punk Marketing,” and "2011: Trendspotting.”

Gap was hoping to “rile folks up,” Laermer said, and planned that the return to the traditional logo would make them look brave or “hip.” The plan fell short, he said. Consumers are tired of hype, and they saw right through it.

But whether or not the whole thing was a stunt or just an honest mistake caught in the nick of time by adoring Facebook fans is irrelevant -- what counts is that the product itself gets a facelift if one is needed, according to Lathrop.

“If you’re trying to update the image of the brand itself, the product you’re offering must reflect that as well,” Lathrop said. “If you update the product’s logo but then leave the product the unchanged, people will be left wondering why the product itself is the same old song and dance.”

Basically, changing a logo, even if it’s a good change, has to be backed up with in-store results the consumer can purchase and enjoy.

But for now, Gap said the only change moving forward this holiday season will be a modest change from their classic navy box to a red one, which the company has done during the holidays over the last several years. And the fans, it seems, agree with that decision.

“Thanks for listening!” Posted one Facebook fan. “As the saying goes, why fix something that ain’t broken in the first place?”