22Feb

The Story of GAP Rebranding Process

One of the biggest catastrophes in the history of company rebranding took place in late 2010 when GAP, a casual and low priced clothing retailer, decided to change their logo.

Just weeks before the start of the busy 2010 Christmas season, GAP decided that their market presence needed to be upgraded. After consulting long and hard with their advertising and marketing firm, the cherished logo that they had been sporting for over twenty years disappeared from the front page of their website.

It was replaced by a new logo consisting of a plain white background with a single word – Gap – in a bold, unassuming sans serif font. The only other detail in this new piece was a small blue box behind the last letter, jutting out precariously from the ‘p’ like a splinter of broken bone. The blue box featured a slight diagonal fade from a lighter blue to a darker blue. Within days, like a quiet cancer and with no heralding trumpet blasts or fanfare, the old GAP logo was out and the new GAP logo had replaced it – permanently, or so it seemed.


But the quiet didn’t last. It started with a tiny buzzing noise around the peripherals of the online GAP scene and soon entire sections of the worldwide web were humming with activity. It was clear across the board that people didn’t like the new GAP logo. Many resented it. Some even hated it.

GAP responded positively. They loved their new logo, they claimed, but were also open to others’ ideas about it. GAP claimed that their new logo was only the first stage in a giant crowdsourcing experiment to help them re-invent themselves for the new century. GAP executives opened a contest in which average design wannabes could enter their designs to compete against the hated new logo. Cutting edge doodles flooded in by the thousands. It seemed that almost everyone wanted a piece of the new GAP pie.

Contestants scrawled the legendary three letters in hundreds of different fonts, serif and sans serif, capital letters and lower case, print and cursive. The blue was integrated in a thousand different ways and in a thousand different shades of itself. Among other visual word plays, many budding designers attempted in case after case to successfully integrate an actual gap in the word ‘GAP.’ There were parodies of other famous logos, overlapping letters, fancy, crumbling fonts, and a hundred different grays on blues. But none of these were ever chosen.

Although on the surface this seemed like a great idea – exploit the passionate reaction and get the public involved – there was a fierce outcry among the professional design community. People who get paid for doing quality work hate it when that work is undermined by the exploitation of talented amateurs trying to break into the business. By eliciting free design work from the general public, GAP infuriated a large part of the professional design community. Though it looked innocent enough at first glance, at the heart of crowd sourcing, many professional designers insisted, was a deep disrespect for the professional community that was being snubbed.

On October 12, 2010, just six days after the unveiling of the new logo, GAP returned to the original “blue box” logo, its tail between its legs.

What Went Wrong?

What was it about the new GAP logo that landed it on the scrap heap next to Pepsi Blue and New Coke? Was it the timing, the presentation, or just the logo itself? Is the surging mob of Internet gripers just too stuck in their ways, or is there actually something fundamentally wrong with the former new GAP logo? Here are a few ideas of things that may have contributed to its downfall.

The font. Although the Helvetica can’t be blamed all on its own – many other logos have used this plain typeface with success. Some designers swear by it. Possibly, however, the contrast between the thin and tall, regal tones of the old GAP font and the short and stout, cut and dried character of the new one created such a discrepancy in peoples’ heads that it could not be welcomed.

The silent switch. Again, however, the lack of fanfare in the release of the new logo can’t be blamed all on its own. Even though replacing the old logo with the new one sans any kind of public announcement seemed to show a lack of solidarity between the company and its new look, many stealth re-branding campaigns have successfully taken root. Even the furious backpedaling and confused PR re-interpreting of the maneuver can’t take the full blame. GAP’s floundering was a reaction to the initial public dislike, and even if the steps they took to remedy the situation only made it worse, there was a lot more to the problem.

The blue box. And, no, the blue box can’t be blamed all on its own, even if it was definitely out of place. The box, as an eye-catching image, caused viewers to overlook the typeface superimposed over it. Its sharp corners and their intersection with the smooth, curvaceous letters caused viewers to shirk away from it – an instinctive reaction to a prickly threat. On top of that, the box’s color completely destroyed the point of the contrast between the black font and the white background. However, even though the blue box can certainly carry a good amount of the blame, the thinking behind it is clear. Executives wanted to connect a part of the old logo to the new one. This they did in a modern way by placing a blue square in a forward-thinking spot. They didn’t expect it to look tacky, although it ended up doing just that.

So, if none of these factors can be blamed entirely for the GAP logo catastrophe, what did cause its downfall? We believe it was probably a little of all of the above.

What Did GAP Learn?

Trying to stay current is a good thing. Updating your company’s presence, image, and, yes, even logo to keep in step with the times is a great thing. But one of the biggest lessons to be learned from the sad GAP saga is that there are no shortcuts to re-branding.

A delicate matter in itself, re-branding must be handled in a delicate way. Updating the essence of the company, the products and the service, must always come first before updating the company’s image. When you change your packaging before changing what’s inside the package, this can often be seen and rejected by the public as a deceitful move. Once you have re-invented yourself from the inside out and people begin to notice on their own that you are a whole new you, that’s the time to start thinking about changing your logo.

GAP is now back to its original logo, and we hope the re-branding will continue, starting with their product positioning this time. For now they have taken the safer path – the beaten one – and are simmering down, hoping to weather the storm. Maybe, eventually, they will attempt a logo change again and, if not too drastic and coupled with solid inner change, it might actually work. We doubt, however, that this will happen for a very long time.

What Can Other Companies Learn?

There is a terrible trend among today’s brands that is leaning toward the total stripping down of those things that distinguish the brands as entities – their unique history and distinction – and replacing them with polished, bare, abstract excuses for advertising campaigns. This was certainly the case with the GAP logo catastrophe.

Instead of the stately, king-like font and regal blue background, we were given just one more primitive scratch in the dust – a logo that could represent any old company with very little tweaking. No longer does the logo communicate those heartfelt feeling that we used to associate with it – Christmas shopping bags, faded denims, and low priced, quality casual wear. Instead it grumbles out its proclamation of one more generic company with nothing remarkable to its name. Don’t let that happen to your brand.

What Are Designers Saying?

The general consensus seems to be that the new logo is cheap, generic, and tacky. Although opinions are divided on the use of the Helvetica font, designers agree almost across the board that the little blue square is a monstrosity.

They can find almost nothing to like about the blue box. Its size is completely out of place and matches nothing about the new logo. The gradient fill is a basement bargain distraction. On top of that it is conflictive, random, creepy, and lacks soul. The blue square in the logo essentially seals its fate as the herald to a switch from a company that was once a warm, friendly icon to a faceless, meaningless corporate conglomerate.

What Can Designers Learn?

If the point of having a brand is to convey a personality, letting the public decide what that personality is swiftly and effectively defeats that purpose. Whether you are throwing your company’s logo to the wolves of spec work or simply trying to update your image to what seems to you to be a more modern theme, listen to what the success of the brand is telling you in the first place. Updating is rarely about about-facing. More commonly it is about embracing the essentials that make the company what it is and then giving it a more current twist.

When re-branding or re-inventing a company, as is done so often in this new age, it is important for designers to remember that each company has a past and that each past matters to many of the company’s customers. Throwing out the past to the degree that GAP attempted will at best only alienate its base of clientele and at worst permanently disfigure the company’s image.

Your intuition screams it loud and clear and many designers have reiterated it throughout this fiasco – the public doesn’t like changes that are too drastic. Whether it’s a sudden snowstorm, a communist regime, or a flash flood of overnight inflation, radical change brings radical rebellion. With the internet now making everyone an expert on everything, major company changes need to be carefully planned out to the tiniest detail – and it is subtle, forward-looking changes that will avoid inciting the angry Facebook mob.

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    18 Responses to “The Story of GAP Rebranding Process”

    1. Mickey Dee says:

      Branding IS a process. And it can be predictable. 9 Important Branding Lessons here: http://www.how-to-branding.com/Branding-Lessons.html

    2. 偵探社 says:

      Good idea. Can be considered a learned thing, ok.

    3. Jon Whitbeck says:

      Fascinating article.

      Having worked at the Gap while in college, I had a deeper connection with the company beyond just liking their clothes. I have a marketing degree, and have always been interested in Gap’s brand identity and positioning.

      A friend actually mentioned the “ugly” new Gap logo, but it was gone from Gap’s website by the time he tried to show it to me. We had to Google it to find an image of it.

      Thanks for the thoughtful post!

    4. Jew Mark says:

      Nice story and great time too

    5. This was an interesting look into a specific study of re-branding. It helped me understand the process better! Thank you.

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