Gap Is Spotlighting Yesterday’s Classics in Hopes of Driving Tomorrow’s Sales

CMO Alegra O’Hare explains the preppy clothing brand's strategy of "reclaiming the icons we're known for."

Teenage male wearing a red gap hoodie taking a picture with an old camera
The Gap is betting on nostalgia in its latest ad, starring the iconic Gap-branded red hoodie.
GAP

When the Gap gave consumers an early look at its 2019 holiday campaign late last month, it was clear the direction and tone of the brand’s advertising have shifted under new CMO Alegra O’Hare.

The inaugural spot—part of the new “Gift the Thought” campaign via agency Johannes Leonardo—was an unexpected tear-jerker, a misty, minute-long sojourn though the coming of age of an adorkable kid and the red Gap logo hoodie his (single) mom had given him.

The intent here, clearly, is to show how Gap—a brand that’s been around for half a century—doesn’t just make quality, affordable civvies, but that sometimes its stuff actually becomes a member of the family. As fresh and unexpected as Gap’s new marketing approach might be, there’s also a ring of familiarity to it—at least for those of us old enough to remember the distant year of 1993.

That summer, 26 years ago, Gap rolled out one of the most memorable campaigns in its history. Dubbed “Who Wore Khakis?” the effort featured resplendent grayscale portraits of the 20th century’s foremost cultural figures (among them Jack Kerouac, Miles Davis, Margaret Bourke White and Ernest Hemingway) doing their thing in khakis. It hardly mattered that the trousers in the ads hadn’t been made by Gap; the idea was to imprint Gap’s brand identity on a classic garment, and to imbue the brand name with a sense of timelessness, style and relevance.

And according to CMO O’Hare, much the same thing is going on in the current campaign, albeit in a subtler way. Simply put, Gap is laying claim to the classics of the closet.

“You’ll see a pattern,” O’Hare told Adweek earlier this week at our annual Brandweek summit in Palm Springs, Calif. “It started with denim and then the logo hoodie. [We’re] reclaiming all the icons we’re known for.”

The denim component she’s referring to was the August 2019 campaign “It’s Our Denim Now.” It’s the first led by O’Hare since coming to the Gap from Adidas in February, with a mission to celebrate “Gap’s heritage as a denim leader,” according to a company release. The campaign included a limited-time capsule collection called Denim Though the Decades that resurrected and updated classic jean styles going back to the 1970s.

And so, much like it laid claim to khakis in 1993 and jeans this past summer, Gap is now reminding consumers that it also makes the quintessential cotton hoodie—the one that you washed a thousand times, used as a belt, let your girlfriend wear, took to college, and so on.

“It triggers a collective memory of a hoodie that’s been in the closet forever,” O’Hare said.

One significant difference between today and 26 years ago, of course, is the corporate health of Gap itself. In the early 1990s, Gap was still enjoying its boom years. Six months after the “Who Wore Khakis?” campaign’s launch in August 1993, Gap’s lower-priced sister concept Old Navy made its debut to much acclaim. By the second quarter of 1994, Gap’s earnings had risen nearly 55%.

But as the new century dawned, Gap was unable to hold its own against the onslaught of fast-fashion competitors like H&M and Zara. And in the ensuing years, younger consumers (and not a few analysts) have tended to regard Gap’s designs as “meh” at best. In February, Gap announced plans to split into two publicly traded companies, allowing the Old Navy brand to stand alone. Meanwhile, headquarters said it plans to close 230 Gap stores over the next two years.

And just this week, Gap Inc. CEO Art Peck resigned after 15 years with the company. Robert J. Fisher, Gap’s chairman of the board and part of the founding family behind the company, is stepping into the role on an interim basis.

Time will tell if calling dibs on classics like jeans and hoodies will work as well for the Gap this time around as doing the same thing with khakis three decades ago. But as the holiday season approaches, a feel-good spot with a kid, his mom and a favorite sweatshirt seems a reasonable place to start.

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