The Real Lesson of the Gap Debacle: Logos Aren't Key Anymore

We should be looking beyond superficial, static graphics and examining the social brand platform, instead.

Gap's recent failed attempt at a logo redesign is only the latest in what seems to be a monthly cycle these days. Looking back over the past couple of years, we see Tropicana, Pepsi, AOL, and even Apple being raked over the coals for similar missteps, and provoking considerable buzz from the design and brand industry.

Unfortunately, these pundits are almost all talking about the wrong thing...especially in the recent Gap debacle. Whether the new logo was designed by a well-intentioned but misguided "logo committee," or an out-of-touch branding firm, the ongoing debate indicates, more than anything, the branding and corporate identity industry's myopia.

Simply put, no one really cares about the logo anymore. Today, people are more interested in what a brand can do for them. Great brands are discovering that logos or advertisements are losing relevance, and instead put their efforts into creating social brand platforms that invite participation and create value in authentic and relevant ways. The real reason the Gap logo failed was that it wasn't backed by any of this; the same goes for Tropicana and the rest.

Social brand platforms require a new way of thinking: a cross between advertising, branding and design. In contrast to static logos and corporate identities where the focus is on control and consistency, social brand platforms have five key characteristics: they're useful, social, living, layered and curated.

Nike+ GPS lets users track their runs and share their progress with fellow joggers

Logos create value for brands, but social brand platforms create value for people. Nike+ helps people run and get healthy. Facebook keeps people in touch with friends and family. Etsy connects cottage industry craftsmen with buyers. Converse has just announced that it's building a recording studio in Brooklyn to help up-and-coming musicians.

Social brand platforms are not experiential marketing gimmicks. They do not exist to promote something else, but rather they are useful in and of themselves. A logo, by contrast, doesn't actually do anything.

Logos are about control and consistency, but social brand platforms focus on defining the context — there are no standards manuals. They invite people to interact with each other in a variety of ways including one-to-one, one-to-many, and many-to-many.

Nike+ lets friends challenge friends, individuals compete with the crowd, and universities compete with other universities. Nike defines the context — letting people track their mileage — that lets people provide the social interaction.

With rare exceptions (notably MTV and Google), logos are static. But social brand platforms are living experiences that take place over time and increase in value as more people participate. The Apple and Android app stores become more valuable as the crowd contributes to these platforms.

Etsy offers a clean, well-curated introduction on its homepage to its collection of handmade goods

Not everyone wants to participate on the same level. Social brand platforms thrive by offering multiple levels of involvement. They recognize that not everyone is a creator. Specifically, they provide room for three types of involvement ? creation, commenting and consuming.

YouTube is often heralded for its user-generated content, but only .1% of YouTube users are creators. The rest are making comments or simply consuming. All three types of involvement are necessary for a sustainable platform.

Finally, great social brand platforms provide enhanced functionality that helps aggregate and amplify user-generated content. Without curation, user-generated content is useless. Etsy provides shoppers with a number of ways to discover hand-made products including by color, location, time, and a 10x10 grid of editors? picks to name a few. Threadless uses a combination of user evaluation and staff recommendation to push the best T-shirt designs to the front.

So, what if Gap didn't redesign its logo? Instead of pouring countless dollars and hours into redesigning a logo (and dealing with the consequences), what if Gap used its resources to create a social brand platform? Like Converse, Gap is a pop culture icon. It was inspired by the idea of "the generation gap" and Don Fisher's difficulty finding a pair of jeans in the size he needed. The first Gap store, on Ocean Avenue in San Francisco, was going to be called "Pants and Discs" and according to the Gap's "reason for being" dated June 12, 1969, Don envisioned that it ?would be loaded with Levi's pants as well as records and tapes — all part of an effort to appeal to the 12-to-25-year-old target customer.

Perhaps Gap could take a page from the company whose jeans once filled its shelves. Levi's spent this past summer running a print workshop in San Francisco ? the first installment in an ongoing series of platforms called Levi's Workshops. Participants are invited to learn a creative skill, for free, with the best work produced going up on the workshop website. With one grand gesture, Levi's hit every aspect of a good social platform: the workshops teach a useful skill, provide context for socialization, offer an ever-changing and deeply layered experience, and Levi's curates the results for public view, to the benefit of their own brand.

The Levi's Workshop in New York featured a photography show curated by Tim Barber, owner of the gallery tiny vices

What would Gap's take on a social platform look like? Don Fisher's original idea of serving the "generation gap" is still relevant today, and could serve as a powerful foundation. What if Gap partnered with Kickstarter to help struggling artists and musicians secure the funding they need to jumpstart their projects? Gap could include matching funds. Users could vote favorites up and down. Filters could be added to let people discover projects of interest. Through The Gap Foundation, Gap has generously given more than $100 million to various nonprofit organizations and causes. Using some of that money to create a social brand platform could be mutually beneficial to the brand and the people who love it.

We all agree that the redesigned logo was bad, and that the attempt to recover from that by announcing a crowdsourcing logo contest was arguably worse. Crowdsourcing your logo is not a social brand platform—it's more like asking a date what you should wear for dinner. But what was more discouraging was the amount of attention this debate and other logo fiascoes have received within the industry. Rather than chasing H&M or Zara, Gap has an opportunity to create an authentic social brand platform that no one else can offer. Gap reinvented how we shop for jeans. It's time Gap and other consumer companies think differently about branding.

[Top image: The logo work of old-school logo master Stefan Kanchev, via Karol Bednarczyk]

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  • Soren Nielsen

    Yep, you get evaluated on every every expression of your brand; The logo, the products, the in-store expression, the packaging, the website, the blog, the facebook page, the QR marketing campaign, the mobilsite, the App..... The logo is part of this tapestry, more relevant for some brands than others.

    Every new technology yields a number of ways to create value across the brand expression, as you engage them they quickly become measures of your understanding of your customers (and yourself).

    As ways of interacting become multiplied in new and exciting ways, the law of unintended consequence will surely be in full effect for a number of companies.

  • Andre Mora

    All these Apples and Oranges taste delicious!

    Steve should probably begin an experiment in which he starts a company with NO logo, open a few EXPERIENCE stores, launch a SOCIAL site/app and then reports back in a year.

  • MWorrell

    Since when did consumers ever base anything simply on branding and logos? People always became enthusiastic about logos based on the substance behind them. To the uninitiated it may have seemed otherwise, but even a superficial fashion logo had to carry some social value in order to be accepted. A great logo attracts attention to an upstart, or helps fuel loyalty AFTER people are enthusiastic about the product or service. A bad logo is still a liability. Nothing has changed significantly. Name one nationally explosive brand that you can't immediately picture the logo for. There's a swoosh on that Nike app screen, and on everything else. I think logos will become more fluid and dynamic, but any idea that they aren't as important as ever just is not demonstrable.

  • Gary Ludwig

    You make it sound like this is an either/or proposition – as though their is no longer a role for a stable, recognizable iconic reference point for a brand. If that's your premise I couldn't agree less. To say that "no one really cares about the logo anymore" is ridiculous. It's tantamount to saying no one cares if they recognize your name or face. Of course the logo isn't the brand, but don't get all starry eyed: social brand platforms create value for people so those people perceive value in brands. Those platforms aren't created simply because enterprises have suddenly become really, really nice guys. And in the vast majority of cases, the logo is the bank that value is stored in. So again: no either/or. What you refer to – and much, much more – are all part of a continuum that helps build and evolve relevant brands.

  • alexander koene

    nice article, steve. you make a pledge for social brand platforms. I agree, but think we should even go a step further and dare to re-invent fundamentally the branding process. It responded to your article on: http://alexanderkoene.blogspot... would appreciate to hear your thinking, regards, alexander

  • Joost Galjart

    Nice article and couldn't agree more that the branding game is changing. For instance I believe that brands must become more like real Living organisms. Brands which grow, adapt & evolve accordantly to their (brand) environment. Brands that are represented by LivingLogos that life in share brand worlds where we can visit them and really interact with them...... more about LivingLogos & next steps in branding:

  • Camilla Grey

    Steve McCallion raises an interesting question. The fast-moving world we live in today means people are meeting brands across a range of platforms and channels. A real-world brand could never stand on logo alone - colour, smell, sound, feeling and behavior are all integral elements.

    We have written a response to this article on the Moving Brands blog, arguing that logos do still have a vital place in today's moving world.

  • Joseph Schwartz

    Steve, I think that you missed a big point here. I used the Gap debacle as an example in the high school design class I teach - even these teenagers realized what a misstep it was for Gap to do what it did. Now, none of them are Gap customers - the brand has become irrelevant to them. But they are aware enough to recognize good from bad.

    I also used this as an opportunity to point out what you missed here - the debacle over the BP logo and the results of the "crowdsourcing" that redesigned the logo in reflection of that company's botched attempts to garner good will after the Gulf disaster.

    Logos are still relevant, I'm sorry to disagree with you - they are often an entry point for consumers looking into a brand that they haven't been aware of before. Where the real danger lies is that with the availability of graphics software and the ready audience on the internet, companies now face the reality that crowdsourcing can work against them, if they should happen to tick people off. Gap realized this at atomic speed and thus we have the shortest-lived retail logo in history.

    This is only the beginning - logos are here to stay and they may just become weapons of mass insurrection when a company messes up - the polar opposite of the purpose that the logos were created for.

  • Drawmark

    A provocative post to say the least. But a logo is not a brand platform is not an ad campaign is not a corporate sponsorship is not a social media initiative...

    As more and more organizations move toward engaging the public and potential cutomers through their social brand platform, it will become a case of be careful what you wish for. Today they came for your logo, tomorrow they'll come for your social media strategy.

  • David Dawson

    I don't think it was the branding and corporate identity industry's myopia that create such a huge consumer backlash against the new Gap ad, or a drop in sales for Tropicana follow Peter Arnell's redesign. You're setting brand identity versus logo, and mistakenly so. I have to agree with @Nick Hall

  • Nick Hall

    Understanding that a logo is a visual representation of a brand's identity, I think you're incorrect in almost every point you make. Your first paragraph makes my point.


  • Clay Forsberg

    In the real world ... not everyone loves you the same amount. Your relationships in the online world are no different. Not everyone is going to comment on your blogs or reply back to you if you mention them on Twitter. That's just the way it is.

    Just understand that the planets in your online universe are at different distances from the the sun (you). Unlike the real sun, the world does not revolve round you. Having a layered social media structure accommodates whatever level of participation a client or follower wishes to undertake.

  • Alex Hayes

    Excellent article that clearly summarizes the monumental changes taking place in marketing today. I'm referring clients to this so they can better understand what branding means in a social world.

  • Rainer Jacob

    I totally disagree. A logo is not doing much but it is a core expression of stability...don't touch it if introduced it for some time. Gap is fashion...any Modern serif is expressing fashion (Vogue title)...maybe Helvetica Hairline (as seen on Fashion TV) but not the workhorse of typography like Arial. It is boring and the crowd feels it. As an educated Designer you should know it. The old Pepsi wave logo was fine. Change the type make it more modern and the job is done but why on earth come up with such a crap. Never mingle with the logo!
    Social media is nice to have and any company interested in their customers should use it...additionally... but has this something to do with logos? No. Nike shown here as a good they crowdsource their logo-design? What has a logo to do with new interaction on the Internet? Nothing! Gap should hire a brand-design company, charging 20 Mio. Dollars for just tweaking the serifs a little bit for better readability and going from negative blue to positive red (a bit more action). Because I find their "fashion" really Helvetica-like. Boring.

  • Marc Posch

    I so agree with Steve. It makes me cringe sometimes when people approach us asking for "logo design" and it's my job then to educate first what a logo can do and what it doesn't. Same with "branding". For many branding is perceived just as a combination of colors, fonts and a cool icon with a company name attached. I find it essential to shift the conversation towards "brand attributes" first and then build the design accordingly. Social Media is integral today to interact with an audience and for creating awareness. But again, the logo here is just a marker, a placeholder for what the company stands for, not the actual brand.
    Marc Posch

  • Mark Miller

    Really interesting post and whether it's discovering the social element of a brand or unlocking other key aspects that appeal to target markets, the end goal isn't a logo, but to have something useful, social, living, layered and curated, as you put it. A logo can never accomplish all of those things to everybody, but a well-intentioned and well-crafted brand can.

    I think too, the point of necessitating a multifaceted brand appeal that hits at all kinds relevancy (left-brain/right-brain, sociability, etc.) is an absolute must...and where Gap fell short.

    Mark E. Miller
    Emergenetics International

  • Lee

    I agree your article is thought-provoking. But, it seems like more of an argument for utilizing new and creative tactics for establishing/maintaining a brand's relevance with consumers. I don't think you really support the declaration that logos are superficial and no one really cares about them anymore.

    The companies you offer as examples (Nike, Converse, etc.) utilize—and rely heavily upon—well established, highly recognizable, static graphics. That they are also building social brand platforms really has nothing to do with their logos.

    The GAP uproar was caused by (thousands of) consumers who cared—not just by disgruntled graphic designers. Or, to put it another way, if logos are irrelevant, why don't Nike and Converse simply stop using them and move forward with nothing but their names (written in Helvetica of course) and their social brand platforms?

  • Ian Thomas

    Congratulations on a fascinating post Steve. And to think that the views you're expressing would have been considered heretical only 18 months ago!

    I think spreading your idea is going to be a big challenge but I'm happy to join you in the quest. I do worry that there's a generation of marketers leading in-house teams who either need to adapt their thinking to apply the five key characteristic that you describe, or acknowledge that it's time to move on.

    I'm still alarmed, for instance, by the prevalence of marketers who consider the social communications model to be just a variation on the traditional push/mass communication model. In other words, there's a reluctance to accept that brands, like you suggest, are increasingly regarded as platforms for consumer interaction - whether they offer intangible services or physical products - and so the promotional veneer just won't wash much longer with consumers.

    About a year ago, I recall clients looking blankly at me when I suggested that debranding (the equivalent of 'beyond the logo') would be an outcome of the social hiatus and that businesses can no longer assume 'control' of their brand. Signature interaction would be the next evolution of the brand model built upon genuine concern for interaction design that seeks to involve consumers of products or services as participants in the brand story.

    I'd like to think that that's the kind of thing you're driving at with this post. I only wish I'd articulated my view as succinctly and powerfully as you have; it may have encouraged the penny to drop more successfully!

    Thank you very much for sharing. Great post.

  • Blain Rempel

    Very thought-provoking article. While I think there tremendous value in a "social branding platform" mode of thinking, at this point I think that is an emerging approach to branding, although an emerging approach that is accelerating.

    Taking your "nobody cares about a logo anymore" statement a bit further in regards to "We all agree that the redesigned logo was bad"; I think good or bad in this context is irrelevant for the most part. Whether a logo is clever or ugly or creative almost doesn't matter as long as it somehow differentiates itself. The subtle nuances and deeper meaning imbued into many logos is lost on the vast majority of consumers, and lets face reality, without consumers the companies themselves would not care much about a logo either.

    Just my two cents.