Be With the Lions

Posted on October 13, 2010 by 6 Comments

The trick to taming a lion is to confuse it. Circus lion-tamers point the underside of chairs at their lions, giving them too many points to swipe at. Unable to decide on which leg to paw, the lion halts its attack. The trainer can then guide the lion to its happy place, typically by offering it a grand reward. Let’s call this approach “old school.”

The “new school” approach is to work WITH the lions instead of trying to tame them. The goal is to build lasting relationships with the lions. To be successful, the new-school lion “listener” needs to:

  • Study the group and discern the leadership
  • Live within the group to fully understand the nuances
  • Offer safe havens where the group can visit, without prodding or corralling

The Gap has learned that the old school no longer works.

The new logo designed by Laird & Partners, which I actually liked, was not sabotaged by its poor reception, even though it appears that way through the data. At the time of my writing this, there are tons of digital conversations about the logo. We did a quick search using Sysomos and found:

  • 1,457 blog post mentions
  • 51,027 tweet mentions
  • 364 traditional media mentions

Most of these mentions are negative, but show the fanatical support the Gap has for its brand. Looking at the Gap’s Facebook page there are over 1,000 more comments from eager brand fans seeking to add their voices to the dialogue. (Harness this power!)


The new Gap logo failed because it lacked a full “Social/Digital” plan to life-cycle the launch within the new-school frame. Our social era puts everything out in the open, transparently. These lions, the Gap’s audiences, are out in the open too. They looked at the old bait and saw past it, into the savannah, and knew there was better prey amidst the grasses. Instead of fully understanding this relationship the Gap initially panicked (which you don’t want to do around lions), and offered to “crowd-source” the logo. It’s impossible to tame lions in the wild, but taming lions is no longer the goal. That’s old school; it’s all new school now.

The Gap can still salvage this campaign, even flourish from the results. Social is a process, not a road marker; it’s evolving and is open to ongoing participation. Here are a few symptoms, solutions, and opportunities.

  • Own your brand’s digital footprint. When the Gap chose to announce the new logo on HuffPo they relinquished the power of their brand to HuffPo. I still think it’s a good strategy to engage with bloggers and media outlets, but there were earlier opportunities to reach out to thought leaders and highly influential digital trailblazers who could have helped amplify the goals while keeping the Gap’s brand strong. I expect the Gap to have had a well-maintained blog in place, potentially a virtual newsroom where they can offer bloggers, fans and fanatics useful bits of digital gems to foster conversation. Sure, a Facebook landing page is a good idea, but what’s missing is the ongoing conversations with their audience. Another solution could be a Gap-branded digital “home,” a mini-site to land on, to linger at, a place to share ideas with each other. The Twitter account is also too broadcast-heavy with low engagement. Overall, the Gap needs to invest more time speaking WITH their audience in order to own their digital footprint.
  • Ramp up slowly, in the open. The Gap could have integrated their audience into the new logo rollout. They could have made the process transparent, open to dialogue, and responsive to feedback. This is not “crowd-sourcing,” it’s engagement. Define the hierarchy of your audience, and pinpoint the strategy to include the grassroots leadership. Then allow the news to grow organically, monitor the response, and then remain in tune and agile enough to roll and react as needed. It’s hard to catch a big wave; start with a smaller wave and build up your response as the wave builds. It’s even harder to herd cats, especially big cats like lions. Instead, walk with them, see where they go, and build a course of action once you can define the trajectory. And above all, don’t surprise them.

I hope the Gap doesn’t batten down the hatches and go reclusive. I think they need to do the opposite, now, and with vigor. They need to be with the lions. They are ripe to harness the power of social.

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Kevin on October 13, 2010

Insightful post, but the new Gap logo failed because it didn’t represent the brand, had no accociation with the identity of the Gap customer, and was bad design. No amount of social media will fix a bad product.

In fact I’d argue that Gap did many of the things you suggest. The logo first started appearing last Winter in campaigns and promotions. The only suprise was the fact that this was announced as the logo.

I question the validity of announcing a logo. When companies start focusing on the logo as a busienss product, it distracts from maybe adding something not so 1998 to your product line.

Tyler Sticka on October 13, 2010

While I completely agree that Gap could have leveraged social media more effectively in launching the rebrand and subsequently tempering the resultant fallout, I disagree with the assertion that the “logo failed because it lacked a full ‘Social/Digital’ plan to life-cycle the launch”.

Let’s be clear; this is a really terrible logo. Even Brand New, which has a history of defending similarly blasphemous work for its originality (even when they end up causing seizures), dismissed the redesign: “I’m not one to critique something by saying it looks as if it were done in Microsoft Word but this one is just too unsophisticated to warrant anything more than that.”

As bad as it is, this is an uproar that gained its momentum from the design community, not from consumers, 80% of which weren’t even aware the logo had changed. In fact, Gap’s delay in announcing the new design may have diluted much of the initial scoffing, which was frequently weighted with caveats along the lines of “Gap hasn’t made an official announcement yet, so this may not even be real.”

Could they have improved how they handled the situation? Of course. Attempting to tame an angry mob of designers with the prospect of crowdsourcing was a predictably surefire way to get eaten alive. But the most sophisticated social marketing strategy in the world wouldn’t have made this transition successful. It would have treated a symptom, not the cause.

Jason Moriber on October 13, 2010

Hey Tyler,

Thanks for your comment.

I’m suggesting a campaign that is pre-logo, not a solution to fix the logo. I’m interested in a new frame that is always open, always inclusive, always listening.

I understand your thrust is based on what we know now, and is seen through the prism of design, but I’m asking that you reassign the location of the start-date to a much earlier spot on the calendar. Focus the campaign away from corporate and into the hands of the audience. Plus, I’m asking that you reconsider the total structure of how we design for clients and audiences.

Design, Music…many industrialized creative efforts are seeing their historical foundations crumble through the transparency (portability) of digital. Though this causes me some heart-ache, I’m attempting to find the agile response.

What if design isn’t a static deadline-oriented assignment any longer, but an ongoing relationship? What if corporate identity is forever in flux like the human condition. What then is the right way to design corporate identity in an aggressively shifting landscape?

Yes, the uproar is design-centric, but from my perspective this doesn’t denote a problem with THE design. This points to a problem WITH design itself. It’s not about the logo, it’s about the ever-migrating relationship audiences have with brands. Why should brands stand still while all is moving around them?

My fear is design will be stuck on an iceberg. Reviewing their immediate horizon, designers could assume the landscape hasn’t changed, but in truth the iceberg has shifted 100 miles away, out to sea, and potentially removed from its purpose.

Tyler Sticka on October 13, 2010

Jason, thanks for your response. I’ve actually been involved in open, community-involved identity design projects in the past. From my experience, they’re typically a waste of time and effort, easily outdone by a rich discovery process and good old-fashioned research (as much as it pains a Twitter addict like myself to admit that).

If you want evidence of the potential follies of a community-led design approach, look no further than the Gap alternatives offered up by the community. Many rival Gap’s short-lived redesign in sheer awfulness (a remarkable feat in and of itself) and none surpass the original either in relevance or execution.

The first problem is that consumers rarely know what they want, especially for non-utilitarian, ethereal things such as identities. Henry Ford was famously quoted (or potentially misquoted, though it rings true either way), “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse.” Ad exec George Lois said something similar: “Great ideas can’t be tested; only mediocre ideas can be tested.”

The fact that we’re even discussing whether it would be better for Gap to design a crappy identity without input or reach out to it’s community for some grounding in reality betrays a troubling cluelessness in Gap’s strategic vision no consumer involvement can remedy.

As one of my Twitter followers put it, the social media argument sounds like an excuse “for a simple [problem]: a bad decision to approve a horrible design. Good design = non-issue.”

Jason Moriber on October 13, 2010

We’re speaking in parallel about two related things! Let me try to re-frame…

I’m asking that we scope out even further and reconsider what design means to brands and audiences, especially within a culturally mega-faceted, highly transparent, and increasingly interactive, marketplace. I would say consumers do know what they want, but they’re not consumers anymore; we are all complex hybrids built of too many pieces to tactically record. As individuals, we each know what we want. From an economics perspective we’re bound to a continuing “scarcity imbalance” between our wants and available resources (we want more than we have).

So, imagine you and I parachute into this world, leaving all of our cultural imperatives behind. We see multi-faceted people making daily decisions and actively conversing across pre-conceived and fading boundaries (location, financial, education, etc.). A brand comes to us as says, “We want a new identity that speaks to our entire audience.”

What is the answer? Is it even possible?

My prescription is to answer this question with transparency and integration. We might find we don’t need a new identity. This decision though isn’t made by the corporate board, or by design as we currently define it, it’s made by engaging and listening to the ever-shifting audience.

Let’s say we DO need a logo. We don’t need to crowdsource it to be successful. We need to be transparent and engaged with our audience all the way through the project.

But even more appealing to me is the permanently evolving identity of brands based on conversation and integration. It requires all senses, it requires people, and it requires great creativity and agility to roll with the pendulum tides as they ebb and flow. That’s my “Social.” Know this at the start, work with it, and by all means please don’t try to tame the lions.

Jeremy Meyers on October 13, 2010

A few things here

1) It’s unclear as to the rationale behind GAP even needing to put out a new logo. There’s no transparency behind this side of the conversation, which I’d argue is more interesting than the discussion of whether its good or not.

2) Let’s be clear here. The only people talking about this are social media, marketing and branding folks. It was on their website only very briefly, it’s certainly not in any of their stores. There have been a lot of ‘conspiracy theories’ suggesting that Gap put this out there specifically to attract attention to themselves (which I’m not saying is true, but there certainly does seem to be a lot of conversation around the brand these last few weeks). The question of whether “all publicity is good publicity” is an interesting one, in the old school vs. new school paradigm dichotomy you mention, Jason.

3) A logo is unique in that it is both the most important and least important aspect of a companies presence in people’s hearts and minds. It’s the first interaction many have with the brand, but at the same time, if you have a great logo and a crappy product, the logo ain’t gonna save you.

4) In terms of transparency and dealing with the online snark, of course Gap would have benefited from a slow roll out with context and commentary. But again, let’s be clear. If you went into an actual Gap store and polled the customers as to who would be interested in visiting such a site, you’d get mostly blank stares and price checks.

Don’t confuse volume with influence.

Welcome to the team!

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