Digital Conference

Gap CMO Explains Why 'Digital Is Dead'

Farbman's Focus Is on Brand Purpose and Returning to Its Roots

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Digital is dead, declared Seth Farbman, Gap's global chief marketing officer.

Seth Farbman, CMO of GAP, speaks to the crowd at the Ad Age Digital Conference Tuesday morning in New York.
Seth Farbman, CMO of GAP, speaks to the crowd at the Ad Age Digital Conference Tuesday morning in New York. Credit: Patrick Butler
He made the bold statement for Ad Age's Digital Conference, explaining that the idea of "digital" ceases to be relevant when brands stop thinking about technology for the sake of technology and simply think about their purpose.

Mr. Farbman joined Gap just over a year ago from Ogilvy & Mather where he had been worldwide managing director. In his first days on the job he came up with two mission statements to return the 42-year-old brand to relevance. The first was "return to the roots," and the second was "go digital."

"We're in quite an analog business," Mr. Farbman said. "We're just getting used to the idea that bricks and mortar and e-commerce can be friends, not enemies. We are a company within an industry that has lagged, so the big proclamation was go digital."

As it turned out, finding Gap's roots and finding Gap's digital voice were inextricably linked. Mr. Farbman said he often thinks about "What Would Don and Doris Do" or #wwddd, referencing Gap's founders, Donald and Doris Fisher. Returning to the founders' core values of optimism, democracy and individualism led Gap's to programs with sites such as Styld.by and Threadless.com, as well as Chatter, an internal social network geared toward the salesforce.

With Styld.by, Mr. Farbman says Gap's has let go of its "carefully constructed advertising imagery" in order to create deeper engagement with consumers expressing their individuality and telling their stories. He says the average consumer spends three-and-a-half minutes to four minutes browsing, pinning and -- yes -- buying looks.

On Threadless.com, Gap's sends challenges to the community of designers. The latest challenge, a nod to Gap's new brand platform and brightly colored spring looks, posed the question, "What does it mean to be bright?" Designers create T-shirts expressing their responses, which are then voted on. The designs can be purchased at Threadless.com but also in Gap stores.

"It's an expression of our values through a product we sell," Mr. Farbman said.

Meanwhile, Chatter acts as Gap's internal social network, connecting some 3,000 employees who work in the stores every day. The effort was born of the realization that employees have valuable insights and only come together once annually. Mr. Farbman said it has had an immediate impact on morale and merchandising.

"The employee feels like they're the engine of the company and what they say matters. Their understanding of the customer has value," Mr. Farbman said. "And for those us with C's in our title, it allows us to expand our store visits to thousands a day."

It also provides merchants with an early read on the types of products that are selling well. One additional metric of hot products is the employee discount, Mr. Farbman added. When there is a spike in employees using their 50% off discount, merchants know they have a hit.

Still, despite Gap's recent embrace of digital programs, Mr. Farbman stressed that brands shouldn't think of digital as something they must do to stay relevant. "Why is digital dead?" he asked. "Because if we couldn't have done it in 1969 or 1970 or 1971, if it wouldn't have met the filters of #wwddd, then it's just a tool, just technology, just digital for digital's sake."

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