Getting Gap Back on Track

Brands struggling to gain market share and the attention of new customers often look to "reinvent" themselves as if that is some kind of panacea. Seth Farbman prefers a more purposeful approach. When he was named Gap's first global chief marketing officer nearly two years ago to help the iconic American brand regain relevance in a rapidly changing specialty apparel environment, Farbman immediately focused on the core assets of the company and the beliefs of the founders who wanted to create a store with a heart.

"My fundamental belief is that you cannot change, or should not change, the core of your brand," says Farbman, who previously served as worldwide managing director at Ogilvy & Mather. "The moment you start operating outside of your intention, outside of your strength or purpose, you get off track. And in today's digital world, that gets found out very quickly. So, you can't really reinvent yourself. What you can do, and what I think we've done, is simply get better."

Farbman, a featured speaker at the 2013 ANA Brand Masters Conference, April 17-19, in Palm Beach, Fla., discusses the evolution of Gap's marketing organization, how the brand is engaging millennials, the importance of trusting employees, and more.

Q. In what ways have you evolved the marketing organization to help the brand get its mojo back?

A. I came in as part of a very publicly stated transition in the company. Marketing was one of the things we were changing because at that time, the brand had not been gaining traction. We wanted to take full advantage of our new global opportunity. So I was placed in New York, for a couple of reasons. First, it signaled our intention to be truly global because, symbolically, New York is kind of the world's city. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, we wanted marketing and design — our product development — in the same office, in the same city, with the same inspirations.

That closeness has helped us better understand the tenets of the brand, the reason for existing. The brand had been a leader for so many years, and we weren't going to be satisfied being a follower. To get real clarity on what we believed in, we needed marketing and design to work much more closely together. That has served us exceptionally well.

In this industry, design is usually the lead discipline, and marketing's role is to make it look good. That's the traditional model. But in this day and age, you can argue that, in many cases, marketing is the primary differentiator for brands. So, the idea that marketing should seamlessly be paired with design right from the start was fairly new. In our case, it was important because of our brand tenets — a belief in optimism, accessability, democracy, and in building up the individual. This needs to come through not just in our messages, but in our approach to product development. Ultimately, we need to deliver a reliably high-quality product that doesn't overwhelm the individuality and personality of our customers, but instead supports them. If you don't get that right, then the brand can't deliver on any aspect.

Q. You recognized early on the need to focus your marketing efforts on the millennial generation. Has your global marketing platform evolved to gain relevance with this audience?

A. Yes, absolutely. Of course you don't get it all squared away the first time, but you strive to get better and better with each evolution/revolution. That's just the way good marketing should work. One of our founders, Don Fisher, talked constantly about serving the needs of the youth culture. That was an important part of the launch of Gap in 1969, and it's still an important part of the brand's evolution time after time.

When you look at the size of the millennial generation — and it varies around the world — you can see similar growth patterns and similar sensibilities to previous generations, but this segment was underpenetrated by Gap. When we went back and looked at our DNA, we recognized that all those beliefs I mentioned earlier — power of the individual, accessibility, democracy, etc. — were not only still in vogue, but also the very tenets of this generation, globally. So we looked at the belief system of our best millennial customers around the world, and we recognized that, in fact, we had shared beliefs and aspirations. It was the perfect alignment.

The world is rapidly changing. We have a point of view about the world in general, what our customer's role is, what our role might be, and to deliver content through that lens. At times it's product, at times it's promotional, at times it's sharing the stories of our customers. One thing that gave me great promise when I started here was that even if people weren't shopping the brand the way we wanted them to, they still were engaging and believing in the brand. It's given us the confidence that if we try to be the best Gap we can be, people will respond and root for us.

Q. You were quoted at a recent industry conference as saying, "Digital is dead." Was that comment taken out of context?

A. I just figured I'd wake people up. As a former journalist, I'm a story teller. I actually believe that marketers are as much historians and psychologists as they are extractors of value. Understanding customers' beliefs and actions gives us the confidence to be better marketers, and to deliver content that our customers want. I just felt that at that particular conference, there was too much focus on the next Pinterest, the next app. I think we started to lose sight of the "why." The point I was trying to make is that if you don't understand what you're in service for, then you can very easily get lost in the digital world and get overly excited about a platform, without thinking about what you want to achieve.

To give you an example, we are one of the top brands on Pinterest. We very carefully chose Pinterest not because it's the latest digital channel, but because it allows people to share images that are inspiring and meaningful, that have a lot of their own personal energy and passion behind them. To us, if we can find a platform that allows our customers to share in that way, then that's meaningful to our brand. You need to know what story you want to tell, and you need to make sure that story is authentic and real. Do all your homework because when you start to engage in the digital world, you cannot expect your customers to understand what you mean, unless your intention and purpose are really clear.

Q. Employees play a key role in how you market the brand. In what ways are you gleaning insights from them and, in the process, making them feel valued?

A. When we launch a new product or new campaign, we look very carefully at our employees' reactions. Especially since we offer an employee discount, if we're not seeing them deeply buy into a collection or a product idea, then we're probably not delivering as strongly as we should be. Conversely, when we see sales spike, we know we've hit it because our employees have confidence in the product, they're wearing the product, and they're talking about it. A couple of years ago, we rolled out to our front-line employees a very simple social business tool called Chatter. Any time they heard about a product issue or had a customer request, they were able to share that information quickly through Chatter. It gives us such great insight into how the product and brand are being received, and it gives our employees a way to help shape future product development and future marketing messages.

We changed the way we started to speak to employees. Instead of just delivering binders of information necessary in retail spaces, we brought iPads into our store environment. Our employees get a feel for the marketing, a feel for the product, and a feel for the inspiration. We've also done a better job of talking about our beliefs instead of our strategies, talking about our passions instead of our plans. We're a company that has gone through a lot of transition over the years. Just trusting our employees, being open and transparent, and giving them a sense of our shared belief system has been very helpful. They still love the brand. Everyone believes that the brand deserves our best, wants to capture that leadership position, and is willing to do what it takes. And that's a very rare thing.

Q. What important lessons did you bring to Gap from Ogilvy & Mather that continue to guide you today?

A. Ogilvy and Mather was my only advertising agency experience, but it was very valuable on a number of fronts. I got to look across so many different businesses. While every company feels like its issues are somewhat unique, you start to see commonalities in how to run a business. That provided me with perspective when I came to Gap. At Ogilvy, I was also able to connect my personal belief system, such as the fundamental belief that the role of advertising needn't only be about extracting transactional value and selling something. You can also serve as a trust mark for people to share experiences, to share their points of view. If you do that, you have customers for life.

Customers should be part of your vision, and a corporation should be a beacon for improvement, for hope, for transformation, for greater community, and for security for people everywhere. That's not just fantasy; it's the role of the new corporation. I gained that confidence in what a corporation could be, in what a brand could be at Ogilvy. And my experience there allowed me to build an idea around purpose-driven marketing through the lens of sustainability that I otherwise would never have gotten.

Ken Beaulieu is director of marketing and communications for the Association of National Advertisers.
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