Marketing Lessons on Listening, Courtesy Gap's Logo Fiasco

In the Time of Twitter, Facebook and Instant Response, There's No Excuse to Be Surprised by Backlash

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Bob Garfield
Bob Garfield
Two bizarre events played out last week, each taking the instigator completely by surprise.

The second-most obtuse victim of unforeseen consequences was the guy who, in trying to lure a cable-sports pin-up girl to his hotel room, sent her MMS images of his genitalia to close the deal. Hoping to attract one unique visitor, he wound up generating millions of them. Like a quarterback sacked from the blind side, the poor schmuck just never saw that coming.

But at least he can blame the mini-bar. For failing to recognize the blindingly obvious, he's got nothing on Gap, which a week ago excitedly unveiled a new logo only to watch in befuddlement and horror as the complaints started pouring in. Or tweeting in. (Among the kinder comments: "The Chilean miners are gonna FREAK when they see the new Gap logo!") Management promptly killed the expensive update and set out restoring the old version.

"At Gap brand, our customers have always come first," apologized Marka Hansen, president of Gap Brand, North America. "We've been listening to and watching all of the comments this past week. We heard them say over and over again they are passionate about our blue box logo, and they want it back. So we've made the decision to do just that -- we will bring it back across all channels."

Now they're listening. Hmm. It's an iconic brand with many millions of customers, most of who have bought in to the brand on the basis of its style. Wouldn't the time for listening have been before unilaterally replacing the very symbol of whatever Gap style is? Icons, by their very nature, are familiar and comfortable and reassuring and cherished. They confer respect and even sentiment. They are the vaults for brand equity. So tinkering with them, much less changing them wholesale, has always been a risky undertaking.

That's because the value of the equity derives directly from the customers' emotional investment in the brand. The more iconic the brand, the greater is that value. We aren't merely customers of Volvo and eBay and Tropicana orange juice and Gap; we see ourselves as owners. Sure, this is one of the great lessons of the digital age -- remember that Gap was Twittered into submission -- but in fact it was ever thus.

Think about my favorite subject: the New Coke. Twenty-five years ago, Coca-Cola North America tested a new, sweeter formula and found in blind taste tests that the new version was vastly preferred by samplers border to border and coast to coast. So the New Coke was rolled out nationwide and, without benefit of Twitter or Facebook or any internet at all, consumers revolted. Because management had asked the wrong question. Instead of "Which flavor do you prefer, Cup A or Cup B?" they should have asked, "Do you want us screwing with the flavor of Coke?" Resounding answer: hell, no.

The days of unilateralism probably should have ended there, but no such luck. Today, now that the internet and social media give voice to the many stakeholders of brands and every other institution, acting independently of your stakeholders is unforgivable. To be surprised by backlash is malpractice.

Look, a hammer thinks everything is a nail. Go into a cardiologist with pains under your ribcage, he'll run an EKG. Go to a gastroenterologist, you'll get an endoscopy. Surgeons will tell you "I only cut when absolutely necessary," then prescribe a heart-and-lungectomy. Likewise, those of us obsessed with Listenomics tend to look at every piece of marketing news through the lens of stakeholder relationships.

But for crying out loud. Nowadays we all have safety nets woven of endless threads of digital interconnectivity. Assuming you're sober, you have to be blind and clumsy and probably pretty clueless to fall into the gap.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Bob Garfield, now a consultant, has reported on advertising, marketing and media for 28 years.
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