May 24, 2024

Advertising: Gap Seeks to Freshen Itself as a ‘People’s Brand’

Yes, and remember the Clinton presidency?

It may be an exaggeration that the Gap division of Gap Inc. has had no outstanding marketing since the 1990s. But Gap has been struggling for years to figure out how to attract younger consumers as well as win back those who have stopped shopping there.

On Thursday, Gap Inc. said that sales last month for the Gap division at North American stores open at least a year — a crucial measure known as same-store sales — fell 9 percent compared with March 2010. By contrast, many other retailers posted strong March results that exceeded the estimates of analysts.

Revenue for the Gap division last year totaled $5.8 billion — better than $5.6 billion in 2009, but still behind 2008 ($5.9 billion) and 2007 ($6.2 billion). Gap Inc. spent $70.5 million to advertise the Gap brand last year, according to the Kantar Media unit of WPP.

The most recent efforts to narrow the chasm between previous and present results have been wide-ranging. They included changing the agency that produces Gap ads; naming a new president for North American operations; moving the responsibilities for creative tasks like marketing and design to New York from San Francisco; and hiring, for the first time, a chief global marketing officer for the Gap brand.


What made those shifts, announced in February, more intriguing was that the new marketing executive, Seth Farbman, was coming from the new ad agency, Ogilvy Mather Worldwide in New York. Though he has not previously been a retail executive, Mr. Farbman, who is 44, has been a marketer, working for companies like ATT Wireless.

Mr. Farbman, in an interview, recalled that he has retail experience — at a Gap, no less.

“My first real job was at Gap, at the King of Prussia Mall” in suburban Philadelphia, he said. “It was a summer, holiday job in the late ’80s. I folded sweaters, badly.”

Mr. Farbman had most recently been a worldwide managing director at Ogilvy, handling accounts like Time Warner Cable and establishing OgilvyEarth, the agency’s sustainability-marketing practice.

“Seth is a star,” said John Seifert, chairman for the North American operations of Ogilvy, who hired Mr. Farbman in 2005. “He’s a thinker and a doer, and you are not always able to have those together.”

Hiring Ogilvy as the new creative agency for the Gap brand, replacing Laird Partners, “wasn’t contingent at all” on Ogilvy’s agreeing to let Mr. Farbman leave to join Gap, Mr. Seifert said. The search by Gap for a new agency preceded the decision that Gap would hire someone to serve as a worldwide marketing executive, he added.

“In the end,” Mr. Seifert said, he and Miles Young, chief executive of Ogilvy, “judged that we could accept losing Seth for a mission, an opportunity, of this scale.”

“Here was a client that had to drive a change agenda,” he added, “and I knew I needed a partner there to work with me in a new way.”

Mr. Seifert, in a separate interview, compared where the Gap brand stands today to the parlous state of I.B.M. in 1994, when it surprised Madison Avenue by consolidating its worldwide account at Ogilvy.

“When we were talking to I.B.M., nobody thought I.B.M. should stay alive,” he said.

As for Gap, the retailer has “sort of lost its story and lost its focus on what made it different and special,” Mr. Seifert said, and a turnaround is “a big challenge” because “this is a ruthless category to compete in; consumers are demanding on pricing, variety.”

“There’s a value story at Gap waiting to come out,” he added, “and we want to help bring it out.”

Mr. Farbman discussed what he described as his “opportunity to take the brand and bring it back, or move it forward.”

“If you go back to ‘Khakis swing,’ which everyone remembers fondly,” Mr. Farbman said, referring to the television campaign from 1998, “it was fun.”

But “when khakis are no longer the one big thing, what do you do?” he asked rhetorically, particularly when “this is not a world of ‘one big thing’ anymore.”

What Gap needs to do is “set a clear point of view for the brand,” Mr. Farbman said, and soon.

“This is not a five-year turnaround strategy,” he declared. “This is a right-now.”

As “a people’s brand,” Mr. Farbman said, the attributes on which Gap’s marketing could be focused include fun, optimism and value for money.

The Gap division also needs to start “talking to our customers again, talking about where they live instead of where we think they’ve been,” Mr. Farbman said.

“The first step is to explain why Gap is relevant for today,” he added, because “this is not a world where you can allow people to guess what you’re for and against.”


Still, the right marketing moves will not work without the right merchandise in Gap stores.

“We have always been able to, at our best, come out with a product that’s stylish, has quality and integrates for the customer all the confusing things that are happening in the fashion world,” Mr. Farbman said, citing the 1969 line of premium jeans as a recent success story.

“We’re looking toward fall when everything comes together: product, the stores, marketing, operations, creating a clear sign things are different,” he added. In the meantime, changes are being tested at 10 stores.

Mr. Farbman is already doing his part. For the interview, he wore a Gap sweater, shirt, pants and socks — “head to toe,” he explained, “except for the shoes.”

“The last 20 years of my life has been a master plan to get back to Gap,” he said, laughing, “to get the discount.”

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