Logo Design Love

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Lessons for next time: Where Gap went wrong

Written by Sydney-based designer, Clinton Duncan.

What an exciting life the new Gap logo led. It snuck up on us, as if to pleasantly surprise us. Next, it got to experience the heady cut and thrust if the online design world via blogs and Twitter, where it gained multiple personalities and impersonators. It went viral, virtually became a meme, shot to fame, was widely reported on, made it to mainstream media and then, all of a sudden, it died. Snuffed out, not by a newer, younger model – but the old model it was meant to replace.

So, where to start with this debacle? Basically this boils down to three clear failures. A failure in sourcing the right consultant, a launch failure, and a failure of belief. While significant, these three failures were only the fuel, and the Internets simply brought the matches. Plenty of them. Branding programs are never perfect, and even the most imperfect births can still lead to strong, healthy brands. Following are three examples of brands that got one of the three parts wrong, yet still survived. Whether they are successful brands or not, well you can be the judge on that one…

The right tool(s) for job

Nitro London (now Sapient Nitro) created a new logo for the corporate, non-consumer facing, Kraft Foods Group, and, let’s be honest, the results speak for themselves. Now I’m not one to rip too hard on advertising agencies creating brands, my own opinion is many branding agencies would do well to get a little more actual communications experience. But this one was a shocker. Armin Vit tore it to pieces quite thoroughly on Brand New, so I’ll leave it to him.

No, you’re not seeing things. Yes, that’s the second, newer, Kraft logo. Now, one has to wonder, how it dawned that their new logo wasn’t working, and how they hadn’t noticed it earlier. But indeed, after five months, Kraft did come to the same conclusion any half-decent designer would come to in 5/100ths of a second. Their new logo wasn’t finished, and needed another round of design development. Unfortunately it still didn’t cross that critical Gap from ‘bad’ to ‘good’. Wrong tool for the job.

First impressions matter

Launching a brand isn’t simple, but it isn’t rocket science either. It basically comes in two varieties — the hard launch, where you refresh as many conceivable touch points as possible at once to create a day zero for the new brand. Or the soft launch, where you slowly replace elements on an as needed basis — a low cost approach that replaces the most important, or the cheapest, items first, then gradually rolls out the new branding over time as existing items run out, or as budget permits.

Sounds pretty simple, right? Well the first step in both these approaches is a press release or conference to announce the change, and that’s where the City of Melbourne almost screwed up their entire rebrand, handled by the Sydney office of Landor Associates (disclosure, my wife, Ivana Martinovic, worked on, but not directed, this rebrand, but I’ve never actually liked it, and consider it a clone of the NYC brand by Wolf Ollins).

The Lord Mayor of Melbourne, during a press conference announcing the rebrand, almost fatally derailed it. First, he showed up in a bad mood, rather an odd way to launch a new brand. Second, he engaged in a pathetic pissing contest with a journalist, citing Jackson Pollock as an example of ‘well you couldn’t do it’ in justifying the new logo. As the old saying goes, never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel (or measure page views by the million). Lastly, he arrogantly explained the Sydney office of Landor was selected because ‘no one in Melbourne was capable of doing the job’ — factually incorrect, as there are many capable brand agencies in Melbourne, and political suicide, as the mainstream media love nothing more than a parochial, ‘my kid could do that and you won’t believe how much they spent’ story about government waste.

If you don’t believe it, why expect us to?

The next example is one of the most transformative rebrands of recent times, and also another Landor job. Whilst the above project for Melbourne I rather dislike, the rebranding of BP will surely go down as one of the classics of big corporate branding. The only problem is the CEO wasn’t up to the lofty standards of the brand, and one could argue that is why he isn’t the CEO anymore.

Quite ahead of the greenwashing curve, BP launched their new ‘beyond petroleum’ brand positioning in 2001, cleverly launched by co-ordinating a repaint of it’s tanker trucks across 6 continents on the same day. Landor are a serious branding agency, and for such a high visibility branding project you’d imagine the global networks best minds were put to work. Thus my first two criteria for successful rebranding were met — the right consultants, and a good launch.

Fast forward to 2010, and the disconnect between bp’s talk, and their walk, finally caught up with them, and half the Gulf of Mexico, for that matter. A litany of corporate decisions and behavior in contradiction with beyond sloppy safety standards, drilling ever deeper and in ever more unstable political regimes all contradicted the beyond petroleum positioning, but it took something as high profile and visible as The Gulf spill to hammer it home.

The damage was brutal, BP’s share price halved, a US President took aim, fake twitter profiles, boycotts and protests on what seemed like every corner. Their CEO resigned, and their brand was damaged, many said irreparably. But consider this — the strength of the brand they’d built perhaps saved BP — in a similar situation, any other company might have fallen prey to takeover, but BP’s share price never quite dipped low enough to make the economics work — brand value at work?

Enter the Internets, the screaming, swearing, bitching Internets

Things moves fast on the Internet, crazy fast. My own response to the Gap logo was less than eight hours after the website was updated, Brand New covered it within 24 hours, Gap responded on Facebook within 48 hours, the three fake Twitter accounts for @gaplogo, @newgaplogo and @oldgaplogo all had 5k+ followers within that time as well. At 72 hours, the head of brand was defending the move on mainstream press, and by 96 hours, it was all over — new logo taken back, Apple-Z!

Gap dropped the ball on all three of these criteria. Firstly, they gave the job to their longtime advertising ‘creative directors’ Laird + Partners, an ad agency who’ve done the Gap work for a long time. Recent campaign work by Laird made extensive use of Helvetica, and clearly the depth of thinking was “we like all this new advertising, lets update the logo to match.”

Lesson one
Ad agencies (and particularly fashion focused agencies) are great at creating campaigns with a 1-2 year horizon, but a brand should live for decades, not seasons. Good branding consultants take this long-term view, and create a brand for today, and tomorrow.

By silently updating their website with the new logo, and nothing else, they almost apologetically launched the new logo — they didn’t even bother changing their Facebook profile picture. It telegraphed to their customers that they weren’t that serious about the relaunch, and it wasn’t supported by any communications to out it in context, and make sense of why.

Lesson two
A new brand, even if it’s just a new logo, requires a launch strategy that considers the possibility of a bad initial reaction. Oliver Reichenstein from iA wrote an excellent post describing how negative reactions to a rebrand are often the desired response.

Gap’s launch of the new logo left much to be desired. On the day it appeared, a search of their site, the news section, the corporate site and its media releases returned nothing. Nada. Zip. Thus Gap gave themselves no way of creating a context within which a response could be framed. Disastrously, initial reactions, with nothing but an errant logo on the site, focused on ‘is this a joke?’. Thus the narrative was set — the new logo has come out of nowhere, it’s laughable, surely it’s a joke, it’s clearly a terrible logo.

Lesson three
If your new logo is pissing the design community off, the worst thing, and I repeat, the absolute worst thing you can do, is to ask those same designers to help you fix your mistake. For free. People might disagree with you, but if you explain yourself, and stick to your guns, people might not agree. They may dislike you, but at least they will respect you.

It was at this point the new Gap logo became doomed. A bad logo created by an inappropriate consultant, a terrible launch with no apparent plan or forethought, and a demonstrated lack of belief as evidenced by the back-pedalling.

But consider this — perhaps the decision to undo the logo, was not in fact about saving face by the people at Gap, and not about protecting the brand. The rollout hadn’t happened yet, it was just the first, admittedly lazy and ill-considered, step in taking the new logo to market. The vast amount of chatter and discussion was inside baseball within the design, advertising and marketing industries. An Advertising Age survey found an overwhelming majority of consumers, 80%, completely unaware of the change.

Which then calls into question: why the redesign? Was its intention really to serve the Gap brand, or serve those that work on it? These days, lots of people make a lot of money from constantly updating, refreshing, evolving or redesigning brands, on both agency and client side. I’m tempted to wonder — was the real reason Gap rebranded not because it needed to, but because, well, what else would we in the branding industry have to do otherwise?

——

Clinton Duncan is a designer, blogger and general nuisance living in Sydney, Australia. You should follow him on Twitter.

Logo Design Love: A Guide to Creating Iconic Brand Identities, second edition

26 appreciated comments

  1. Adam

    Well written, I agree on all points. A+ Would read again. :)

  2. One of the best articles on branding for some time. But I’m so bored of ‘Gapgate’. No-one died and it wasn’t that bad. The original Gap Logo isn’t a masterpiece. It’s well know through huge exposure, like the Coca Cola logo.

    Time to move on?

  3. This is the last post you’ll get on my sites about the recent Gap story, Lee. Clinton and I are also over it, but we both agreed it’d be worthwhile publishing one final overview, and I enjoyed his writing.

  4. Brilliant insight, thanks for this post.

    ~J

  5. Since GAP didn’t make an announcement about their new logo, and didn’t roll out new brand elements (just swapped a logo out), I think they knew all along what they were doing – getting people riled up… and they knew all along that they’d keep the old logo.

    If that’s true, I think they played the game well. We all now appreciate the old logo that much more.

  6. Well, said.

    Excellent insights and commentary on a classic branding blunder. As they say, ‘That ship has sailed’.

  7. It’s a marketing master stroke. Everyone is talking about Gap, and all it took was one crappy logo. All that talk will surely lead to increased sales, and the original logo wasn’t that crash hot to start with.

    As for the theory that the strong BP branding saved them from financial ruin, lets be real. The fact that people are addicted to oil saved BP from financial ruin.

  8. Good blog Clinton and well said. The thing that bugged me most about the whole Gap fiasco was the lack of conviction by Gap on all fronts – for god’s sake, stand for something!

  9. Hi Clinton,

    Thanks for this post. I think it was well worth writing even if everyone is over Gapgate in general.
    Great lessons to be learned all round not just from a branding point of view but also from a marketing and customer engagement perspective.
    I’d add one more thing to your list of three below.
    “A failure in sourcing the right consultant, a launch failure, and a failure of belief.”
    Gap inc failed to understand and engage with their audience, the people who are actually going to wear the logo matter way more than the committee who concieve the idea in the first place.

    Great article, worth bookmarking and reading again!

  10. well done! Thanks Clinton. I think it’s hard for many to grasp the the “pixel pushing” behind logo creation has much much more visceral impact for people… and enduring and evolving brands are often the best practice while radical moves must be met with substance to back them up.

  11. Very well written article. Loved it as much as your book! I was not at all surprised when Gap retreated to the old design. :)

  12. I’ve really enjoyed reading your updates on the Gap logo. It was covered on Watchdog last night in the UK, which was quite interesting to watch.

    I see the whole thing as an attempt to create a bit of hype about Gap. I believe they had no intention of keeping the new logo, as they didn’t fully believe in it themselves. Like it was said in the article, there seemed to be no build up to the new launch. This doesn’t give me much hope in believing that Gap really liked the new design.

    I agree with Pinball about the BP situation. The truth is we all use fuel in some form or other and therefore can’t just stop using their fuel because of the oil spill. If a BP Station is the closest to where you are and you really need fuel, your not going to risk running out just because you don’t agree with what happened.

    Thanks for a really good read.

  13. Great article.

    I do not agree with you about the Melbourne case being a replica of the NYC branding by Wolf Ollins into the Melbourne identity though…

    I would say there is a noticeable difference between the two.

    However I have not yet seen the entire NYC Wolf Ollins case.

  14. I’m a little confused. (happens easily though)

    I’ve heard lots about this GAP thing, but all of it here on this blog. I don’t even know what this blunder looked like. I’m not a big GAP customer, in fact I don’t think I have ever bought anything from them, but until this happened, I hadn’t thought about GAP at all, but now? well I have still only seen the original logo, but now someone who ignores most of their ads, and is in a different market sector (but I could still be a target) has been thinking about them. If only they’d left the logo on their site a bit longer, I would probably even be going to visit their site.

    As far as conversions go, I bet it’s worked pretty well as a marketing campaign.

  15. Great article, but you’re making a lot of assumptions about what actually happened. All we know of are the press releases from Gap / Marka and some Facebook updates.

    Call me a cynic but the whole thing could have been ‘staged’ as a PR / marketing exercise to engage people who hadn’t mentioned the brand in some time.

    I’m not supporting the design, handling or outcome, merely stating that there aren’t enough facts yet as to what actually occurred.

    You have to feel sorry for Laird & Partners in all this too – surely who have come out the worst.

    Mat

  16. Hi all,

    Thanks for the kind words, and yes I too am fatigued of Gap (I have such a short attention span online) but I felt it worthwhile to write a sober, rigorous review to at least examine the episode in an objective light, and perhaps offer some positive and constructive thoughts for future reference.

    Mat Dolphin, thanks for commenting, I know you guys have been quite vocal on the issue, calling for a bit of perspective and sobriety amongst the bloodletting. I too feel sorry for Laird+Partners, but I also feel that work is work, and that we all take critique on the chin every day, and this situation is no different.

    Cheers,

    Clinton

  17. Very well written article!
    To me it seems like an unconventional marketing… or at least very (un)fortunate “mistake”. They sure got people talk about it A LOT more than if they would change the logo with a better one.

    Thanks Clinton!

  18. Jenn

    Fabulous, well thought out and written blog. Thanks for sharing your insight. Great points that a lot of folks can learn from.

    Jenn

  19. Bravo!

    Lesson three
    If your new logo is pissing the design community off, the worst thing, and I repeat, the absolute worst thing you can do, is to ask those same designers to help you fix your mistake. For free. People might disagree with you, but if you explain yourself, and stick to your guns, people might not agree. They may dislike you, but at least they will respect you.

  20. Great post. I completely agree. But… do you think the same logo could have benn a sucess if it had benn launched properly?

  21. “I do not agree with you about the Melbourne case being a replica of the NYC branding by Wolf Ollins into the Melbourne identity though…”

    Indeed. I don’t know if Clinton is familiar with Melbourne’s Federation square, but clearing it is the inspiration behind the logo. Not NYC.

  22. CLEARLY it is… typo, sorry.

  23. I agree with what many people are saying on here, this was a stroke of marketing genius by Gap! This must have been one of the most talked about subjects across forums worldwide in the last two weeks, and if anything, this has done one of two things, both of which will benefit Gap to the fullest.
    Either:
    1) this was stage one of the launch of a new brand! Imagine the interest now when they roll out their ‘real’ new look next week!
    or
    2) they’ve got people talking about Gap once again. They had gone quiet recently and this only served to get people back on the site. It’d be interesting to see their online sales figures in the last two weeks.

    If I’m wrong, and this was a real attempt at a rebrand, then I’m extremely shocked at how badly the whole thing was handled! But I really don’t believe that to be the case.

    I’m off to buy a pair of chino’s ;-)

  24. Chris, you’ll see the new/old logo here:

    Gap Climbs Back into the Box

    Clinton, and everyone who left comments, thanks again.

  25. Really good post. Cant believe the Mayor of Melbourne was quoted as saying ‘no one in Melbourne was capable of doing the job’ press conference and the launch of the logo!

  26. Wow. This seems way dated. Think I was posting about this as a PR stunt targeted at hipsters myself here a quite a while ago. I’m pretty behind the curve with this stuff, so this smacks a bit if “ancient history” in today’s churn and burn lifecycle. Not that there aren’t good insights here.


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