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 10×10 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]

About the author

Steve McCallion, executive creative director at design and innovation consultancy Ziba Design, is a skilled innovation architect and brand strategist. His groundbreaking work includes redefining Umpqua Bank’s role as an anchor for community prosperity, creating Sirius Satellite Radio’s award-winning experience for the "iPod fatigued," and working with real estate developers Gerding Edlen to create more meaningful neighborhoods