Branding and social media lessons from Gap’s logo backlash

18th Oct 2010

What did Gap get wrong - and right - when its new logo led to a firestorm on the social web? And what can other businesses learn from it?

Gap has found itself the latest victim of a social media firestorm over the past two weeks as it was forced to perform a very public u-turn on its new company logo after its launch prompted a wave of discontent from customers.
Replacing its classic logo of 20 years with a revamped version, the clothes retailer found itself the target of an astonishing volley of abuse as thousands of users blasted the new design on Facebook, Twitter and blogs.
Designed by creative agency Laird & Partners, Gap insisted that its new logo was part of “how the brand is evolving” and represented an effort to more closely align it with customers.
But as the deluge continued, Gap chose to take a different tack, and by the end of the week it had announced it was reversing its decision. 
If this smacked of a kneejerk reaction to the ‘power of the crowd’ then you’d be right. Critics were unimpressed with this latest turn of events. "Gap - like any fashion brand - should consider that crowdsourcing initiatives work better when they are based on existing products, not defining the brands' creative direction," says Iain MacMillan, director at social media agency RMM. "For example Burberry's 'Art of the Trench' campaign enjoyed success by crowdsourcing images of customers wearing Burberry trench coats, they did not invite Burberry customers to design a new trench coat!"
But before details of the crowdsourcing project could even be communicated, the plug was pulled on the whole sorry affair. Finally, 10 days after the unveiling of its new logo, Gap finally relented to customer pressure and in a statement released on the Gap website, Mark Hansen, president of Gap Brand North America announced that because its customers always came first, it would reinstate the old logo.
So what went wrong? And what can we learn from Gap's experience?
Where Gap went wrong
"The creation of a logo is never something that should be done in silo," says Stuart Anderson, joint head of corporate branding agency 85FOUR. "If the brand is properly researched and formulated, any logo that is created should fit. Therefore, unless you are repositioning the business, which I don’t think Gap were doing, any logo should appeal to audiences and be a natural extension of the brand.
"There are many examples of companies successfully changing their identity as they go through a brand transition (such as BP!). We can only assume that Gap and their branding agency got carried away in a locked room, lost their way from the core values of the brand and came up for air far too late in the process."
Many brands are fearful of social media, and this latest event will do little to quell their fears. Yet many experts have highlighted that social media could have been embraced earlier in the design process to avoid the backlash.
"Prior to its rebrand, the value of Gap's social capital was good - it had a strong brand that people trusted in. During the rebranding process, Gap didn't invest enough of its social capital in listening to its audience to understand the nature of the relationships people have with the Gap brand. Doing this would have helped Gap have a more open and trusting relationship with its audience during the rebranding process," suggests MacMillan.
"Gap should have invested more time in open dialogue with its audience. This is not to say Gap should have used its customers to literally design the brand's logo. Rather, Gap should have listened to existing conversations about their brand as well as directly engaging its audience using its existing social media channels. Doing this would have helped Gap derive insights that would have proved invaluable during the rebranding process."
Joe Hughes, insight and research manager at Yomego, adds: "Much of Gap’s heartache - and cost - could have been avoided simply by doing some basic research with core customers. It wouldn't have taken much to know the new logo wasn't going to fly. It could even be worth throwing out some early rough drafts of logos onto selected social media sites as potential fakes, or unofficial versions, to see what the reaction is to each. As they're not the final version, any negativity doesn't really reflect badly on the brand, and the brand gets a great chance to listen to feedback that could help drive development of the brand's identity."
But Hughes also believes that a hastily arranged crowdsourcing project could have caused more damage. "The idea of crowdsourcing is that you bring a trusted community of people into the development of ideas, not just after it has all gone wrong. Crowdsourcing, done well, is a long-term commitment. The brands who do crowdsourcing well - Ford, Zappos, Dell, Starbucks, Ikea - have built up communities they can involve in R&D, over a long period of time. This means the brand has a meaningful dialogue with a trusted group of people who genuinely want to be involved with the brand's development.
"Crowdsourcing is a great way of involving fans with the brand. But it should be approached with caution. Questions should be framed carefully, so the crowdsourcing initiative doesn't end up alienating people. If you simply put a new design out to the vote, you'll always upset those whose pick didn't make it through. Be careful what questions you ask, and what you promise fans."
Others have criticised Gap for backtracking, suggesting that it has merely catered for a very vocal minority of its audience. "The worst thing you can do is either bend to 'minority' opinion or try to shout back, there are a grown number of examples of companies that do this badly - Nestle, BP, etc. - and now GAP. A good PR or branding agency would have either included social media in the mix from the start or laid the foundations ready for a backlash," says Anderson.
"At the end of the day Gap should have had the conviction that the logo was right for them, you didn't see the Olympic committee saying 'oh OK we'll change it if you don't like it' when everyone moaned about the 2012 logo. If they believed in it, they should have stood by it, everyone would have found something else to moan about in a couple of days."
To some extent, this argument is borne out by statistics from and AdAge and Ipsos Observer poll over the logo, which found that of 1,000 people questioned, only 17% even knew that Gap had changed its logo. And while 29% claimed a new logo would influence a buying decision, this wouldn't necessarily negatively influence the purchasing decision.
"Gap made the decision to backtrack, but sometimes it's best to stick to your guns and be confident in your decision," says Mark Stuart, head of research at the Chartered Institute of Marketing. "Every time the BBC engages in a brand refresh, for example, there's a very vocal and often negative response. The BBC's current logo was derided when it was launched as resembling children's ABC blocks. Yet, the BBC had confidence in its decision and now the BBC logo looks contemporary, recognisable and is here to stay. It depends on whether you want to be an innovative company that looks forward and is prepared to be bold; or whether you want to focus on tradition and heritage."
What Gap got right
But this isn't merely a cautionary tale. Gap should also be lauded for some of its actions. Monica Shaw at Market Sentinel gives Gap plaudits for the following:
  • Listening to the conversation and paying attention – "Gap knew that the new logo would generate buzz, and had their ear on the conversation as soon as the logo went live," says Shaw. "But they didn't limit their range to their customers – they listened to people speaking on all aspects of the topic. This was especially important when it came to contexts of conversation around design. Although the designers were not necessarily fans of their brand, their voices were strong in the overall conversation. Gap recognised that, and knew it had to appease the designers if they were going to overcome this PR crisis."
  • Participating in the debate – "Press releases will get you nowhere – you need to get in on the debate WHERE it is happening. Gap primarily used its Facebook page, with more than 720,000 fans, to post updates and responses to criticism."
  • Identifying the influencers – "Who are your promoters and detractors? Find out who they are and engage with them as necessary – be personal if you have to, but don't be pushy. By listening, [Gap was] able to address those sore points specifically, which no doubt aided the positive reception of their decision to scrap the new logo."
  • Acting swiftly – "The procrastinator's approach to dealing with crises – ignore it until it goes away – is no longer viable thanks to the internet. As the Gap logo illustrates, a story can spiral out of control within hours, and the sooner you respond, the better you’ll be able to manage it."
Furthermore, Gap admitted its failures, and the statement from Marka Hansen was well worded, hitting on the key issues for its audience. It emphasised that "customers have always come first", stressed that it had been "listening to and watching all of the comments" and conceding that "we did not go about this in the right way... we missed the opportunity to engage with the online community."
It concluded: "There may be a time to evolve our logo, but if and when that time comes, we'll handle it in a different way."
And this penitence has seen it emerge from this whole affair in arguably a better condition than it was prior to the backlash. Market Sentinel has observed that while there was a dip in sentiment following the new logo's release, Gap's return to the original logo has actually raised sentiment on Gap's Facebook page to levels much higher than before the logo change. Market Sentinel concludes that this PR crisis has in fact proven to be a "sentiment booster" for the brand.
This inevitably has led to some suggestions that the whole saga was staged by Gap to raise its profile. And if there's a shred of truth in this, then we can certainly file this under 'things Gap got right'.
"Gap is a huge, multinational company with a vast customer base. While it is important to demonstrate a willingness to listen to your customers, typical 'big brand behaviour' involves a certain confidence and strength of image, not making a complete u-turn in a matter of days over something as crucial as a brand logo, just because of some negative comments online," says Phil Dean, managing director of creative services as marketing services provider Communisis.
"Gap's new logo looked uninspired and thrown together. I find it hard to believe that Gap could make all these fundamental mistakes without good reason. Over the last few days the company has been in every industry publication and had national exposure, as well as generating considerable word-of-mouth as the public campaigns to bring back the old logo. Cadbury's hugely successful Wispa relaunch demonstrated the power of the protest campaign as a brand builder. Let's see if Gap can emulate this success."

Replies (8)

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By fusionbrandkl
18th Oct 2010 06:08

A really good read but I have a couple of comments


1) This wasn't a rebranding, it was a identity change or reengineering of a logo but it was not a rebrand

2) Gap made the fundamental mistake of many brands build during the mass economy and that is that they think they are responsible for building their brand. They are not, consumers make or break brands.

3) Gap has recovered well from the initial barrage of abuse.

4) Profitability is the key success factor of any brand. Gap's share price wobbled but is back to where it was before this happened. Further proof, that a logo or tagline is not a brand. For a modern definition of a brand, please go here

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By Neil Davey
18th Oct 2010 15:34

Thanks for flagging up the erroneous use of 'rebranding' in the standfirst - we've amended the offending sentence to address this.

Thanks again!

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By User deleted
18th Oct 2010 16:19

A really good post.  Thank you for sharing.


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By Sanjay Khanna
19th Oct 2010 00:12

Great post and there are some valuable lessons for brands, although as Neil has pointed out at the end this might just have been a 'staged social media saga'.

Re: the sentiment boost experienced, it looks like at best it has been a short term boost (in this case a day or two only) which might be good, but the key would be to find out if the positive sentiment is reflected after a month or a quarter or more.

Also would be nice to understand the y-axis of the sentiment graph by Marketing sentinel - is it the number of positive/negative comments?? or something else?


Sanjay Khanna

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By patrickdh
19th Oct 2010 21:15

Excellent review and it goes to show that there is a price to eternally represent Iconic American Style; it's to presume that GAP is wanting to make the move away from commoditized Iconic American style labels. The logo stunt is good news but as the exercise has proven, and a good lesson to all marketeers - brands are much more than logos.


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By Neil Davey
20th Oct 2010 12:51

Hi Sanjay,

Many thanks for your comments - here is clarification about the y-axis on the sentiment graph from Market Sentinel:

The Y-axis reflects "overall sentiment" based on our linguistic analysis of the positive and negative sentiment words found on the Gap's Facebook page.  The score assigns weights to these words, where a word like "exquisite" would be weighted more heavily than "nice".  "Overall sentiment" is the difference between the sum of all weighted positive words and the sum of all weighted negative words.  In effect, overall sentiment is not only about the number of positive and negative words, but the strength of those words in common language.  We believe this is more robust than counting up positive and negative words alone.

Thanks Sanjay.

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By jermaine
23rd Oct 2010 12:21

really interesant

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By christ mark
26th Nov 2010 08:27

Thanks for the posts,Its written very informative ,I got many information from these posts.I like it.


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