What a funny old week. But to some of us in the branding and design business, the smiling has already faded. And a big question begins to emerge, namely…just who does ultimately manage the brand? Is it the owners or is it the users?
In attempting to address this issue, let me start out with a little background context. As the head of a consumer-focused branding agency, I feel that we are all genuinely fascinated and maybe even a little obsessed about consumers here at Sterling. We play with them, we eat with them, we shop with them, we watch TV with them. We love their new-found power. We adore their savvy and we enjoy much of the feedback that we receive from them.
But the Gap logo incident took us to a new place and in the process, it threatens to create a potentially unfortunate precedent. Let me explain. Over the past 20 years, a number of consumer feedback patterns have been established, some good, some not so good. For example:
–generally, consumers are really good about telling you what they like and don’t like about an existing brand and that’s because they know it.
–conversely, consumers are generally really bad about telling you what you could or should do in the future to make it better…this is not surprising. After all, they’re not marketers.
–generally, consumers are typically negative where change to an existing brand is proposed. And the bigger the change, often the more negative the response. Once again, this is understandable.
But let’s just think about the brand owners for a moment.
They are fighting to grow share, often in saturated categories in a tough marketplace and this can necessitate making frequent strategic and tactical brand changes such as positioning, messaging, media etc to ensure competitive advantage. As part of this activity, brand owners have to constantly ensure that the brand identity, the immediate interface with the consumer, reflects the latest brand strategy across website, advertising, logo etc. The problem is that consumers are not privy to these strategic details and so their evaluation of some of the executional changes (like the logo in the case of Gap) is based on partial facts. And this seems a retrograde step to me.
Question. Do we think that this type of veto power by consumers is either desirable or valuable? True, Gap might have done a better job at communicating to its core customers the rationale for the new logo and they have admitted as much. But this was a creative change to the brand that brought the logo into line with many other marketing elements. Why did consumers not object to those other elements? My point of view here is that, thanks to Apple, we have bred over recent years, a huge group of so-called design ‘experts’ within everyday consumers and the logo is an easy and totally subjective target for consumers to latch onto.
I am also concerned that Gap appeared to cave in too quickly and because the issue is a creative one and therefore subjective, I would have loved to have seen more appetite to fight for, and defend the new work.
Don’t get me wrong, I am all for partnering with consumers to build brands. It is the only way forward and has been for some time. What I am uncomfortable about is the specific role and responsibilities that consumers should have in this process. This consumer ‘uprising’ feels a bit like power without responsibility and I for one would love to veto lots of things where I am not responsible for the outcome. Sounds like fun to me!
On a more serious note, we live in cautious times and it often requires huge combined efforts by companies and agencies to make brave and bold decisions for change. For the foreseeable future, I am just hoping that we don’t go back into our shell, avoid the flying bullets and settle for brand and design solutions that first and foremost don’t upset the consumer. That would be a serious step backwards for our industry.