How Gap Learned a Hard Lesson in Consumer Resistance

Research Explains Why Some Logos Are Met With Pushback -- While Others Are Not

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Michael F. Walsh
Michael F. Walsh
"I Love You Just The Way You Are"

As I read about the Gap-logo debacle, I was reminded of that Billy Joel song from the '70s. Gap introduced a new logo and in less than one week pulled the redesign and returned to their old design.

The Gap experience is not isolated.

In 2003 Apple announced a change to its logo from a monochromatically red color to a brushed silver hue. Within hours of Apple's announcement, there were over 200 signatures on an online petition demanding a return to the old logo treatment. Or consider Sunset Magazine, the venerable U.S. lifestyle publication. After a logo change in 1996, the magazine was deluged with letters of complaint. One reader, in a letter to the editor, complained "changing the logo is like changing Half Dome, the Grand Canyon and Mount Rushmore."

Logos are important.

For instance, Perception Research Services performs more than 400 design and aesthetics studies every year for various clients. These studies show that, aside from product and package design, brand logo is the most dominant feature of brand aesthetics impacting consumer attitudes. In a given year, about one in 50 companies will change its name and logo for a variety of reasons. What's important to note is that not all design changes are met with resistance.

In 2008, Walmart introduced a new logo replacing a logo used for 17 years. In that same year, the Vauxhall division of GM changed its logo when it introduced its new Insignia brand at the British International Motor Show. This year, Holiday Inn introduced a new logo and signage system. None of these redesigns met with consumer resistance. So, why do some redesigns prompt pushback -- even anger -- from consumers and others don't?

It's all boils down to brand commitment. My research on the topic of consumer resistance to change suggests consumers most committed to a brand will have stronger and more negative reactions to redesign efforts. Conversely, weakly committed consumers react positively to such changes.

Although consumers patronize hundreds of brands, they become committed to select subsets of brands. Commitment has been defined as "an enduring desire to maintain a valued relationship." Prior research has shown that highly committed consumers have stronger brand beliefs, smaller evoked sets, greater brand trust, higher resistance to negative brand information, more-frequent purchase behavior and a tendency to pay higher prices.

When consumers who have a valued relationship with a brand are faced with a redesigned logo, those with the strongest level of brand commitment interpret that redesigned logo as altering the meaning and associations they have with a brand. Consumers with weak brand commitment are unlikely to see the brand as an integral part of themselves and have little or no personal relationship with the brand. So, for them, a change in the logo's shape as novel, which will lead them to evaluate the logo more positively.

Ironically, it seems many companies presume that their most precious customers -- those having strong brand commitment -- will be more accommodating to changes. Academic research shows this is likely a mistaken assumption. Rather, it's one that can alienate the core, the most committed of a brand's customers.

A more nuanced approach is needed to ensure that logo redesigns appeal to both high- and low-commitment consumers. One strategy would be to notify consumers prior to a change being made, perhaps finding a way to make the most strongly committed consumers aware of the changes earlier than the broader public. Another way to manage the reactions and expectations of strongly committed consumers could be to actively solicit their input as part of the process -- something which the Gap, at least initially, indicated it might do.

In abandoning the new logo design this week, Marka Hansen, president of the Gap, acknowledged the importance of communication to one's customers. Redesign of brand aesthetics such as a logo is an important prerogative of brand managers. There are many well-justified reasons to change aspects of a brand's aesthetics but successful management of the change process is just as important as the redesign itself -- a lesson Gap had to learn the hard way.

Michael F. Walsh is an assistant professor of marketing at West Virginia University. Prior to his move to academia, Walsh spent more than 20 years in the advertising world.
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