The Gap at GAP

by Steve McKee

The Gap at GAPGap’s top designer, Patrick Robinson, may never go into a 7-11 again, having gone from promising hire in ’07 to out of a job in ‘11. As The Wall Street Journal’s Elizabeth Holmes recently reported, “[Robinson’s] departure after four years of lackluster results was yet another sign of Gap Inc.’s failure to breathe new life into its namesake brand, which peaked in the mid-1990s.”

That’s true. Gap’s same store sales have declined for 14 of the past 16 quarters, including a 1 percent decline in the first quarter of this year. As a result, Pam Wallack, head of Gap’s global creative center, decided to shake things up at the top of the company’s design ranks.

Whether or not the change is warranted I can’t say (I’m not exactly a fashion-forward guy), but methinks Gap may be overlooking something. I’m not sure the company brass realizes just how powerful advertising can be—or in Gap’s case, how powerful its advertising once was.

In When Growth Stalls I recount how Gap became the nation’s largest specialty retailer in the 1990s, growing from under $500 million in revenue in 1983 to over $11 billion at the end of the century. The brand’s cultural impact reached its peak in 1998 with the release of “Khakis Swing”, a commercial in which a group of buff, beautiful young people swing-danced in their Gap Khakis to Louis Prima’s “Jump, Jive an’ Wail.” Adweek called the spot “hyperkinetic,” a colorful adjective that also described the impact it had in the marketplace. Gap was the hippest brand in retail, and the company was anointed 1998’s “Marketer of the Year” by Advertising Age.

But in 1999, Gap ran into trouble. Lisa Prisco, the creative director behind its famous campaigns, moved on, and same store sales began their long and steady decline. Could it really have been advertising that made the difference?

Sure. The WSJ’s Holms says that the shake-up at Gap “underscores how difficult it can be for a retailer to set itself apart with jeans, T-shirts and other staples that can be found everywhere.” Precisely. It’s not as if Gap sells anything truly unique. When Gap’s commercials were cool, they made Gap cool, which made Gap’s clothing cool, which made those who shop there cool. It was advertising that differentiated the brand.

When was the last time you were wowed by a Gap commercial? I thought so. Gap needs to take care of its design needs, to be sure, but the company would do well to recapture its old marketing mojo. If Gap’s advertising could once again knock people’s socks off, it may make them want to buy new ones—and the slacks and shirts that go with them.


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Steve McKeeSteve McKee is a BusinessWeek.com columnist, marketing consultant, and author of “When Growth Stalls: How it Happens, Why You’re Stuck, and What To Do About It.” Learn more about him at www.WhenGrowthStalls.com and at http://twitter.com/stevemckee.

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