What the Retail Industry Can Learn From Gap’s CMO Stepping Down

The focus should be on democratization and amplification of brands

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The Gap announced Wednesday that chief marketing officer Alegra O’Hare was stepping down in the wake of a bumpy 2019 that also saw the resignation of CEO Art Peck.

At first glance, there may be little to learn from a recently hired CMO leaving when the CEO who hired them departs. These sorts of executive transitions are common, particularly for a struggling company.

A broader observation may be drawn here that’s less about the people involved—or even the role of the CMO—but perhaps more about what the role of a mainstream, large-scale brand competing in a space with newer, smaller brands that have forged unique relationships with consumers is.

Gap is a brand that has struggled to find a firm landing spot throughout the 21st century. (For instance, a quick Google search of “Gap brand missteps” returns a headline from almost every year of the 2010s.) When this many smart, talented people are trying to solve the same problem unsuccessfully, it is almost certain they are asking the wrong question.

Very little of the Gap’s positioning has focused on what the Gap brand should mean to consumers.

The question continually asked seems to be how to reinvigorate the Gap brand. Logo changes, advertising, positioning changes to make it more fashion forward or more classic/iconic and merchandising decisions on which categories to emphasize (most recently, a focus on denim) have all failed to sustainably position Gap’s brand for success and growth.

A better question might be what job Gap could do for its shoppers. The successful parts of the Gap portfolio today (Athleta and Old Navy) have answered that question well and in oddly similar ways. Old Navy’s modern success has its roots in 2008. It struggled in the early 21st century when competing with mass discounters like Target/TJX and fast-fashion retailers like Forever 21 and H&M. In that turnaround they focused on an imaginary shopper: Jenny, a 29-year-old middle-American mom. They concluded that she wanted clothes that were more fashionable but less disposable and heart-palpitation-inducing than fast fashion.

The word that Old Navy’s interim president Tom Wyatt used at the time was that their fashion became “democratic.”

That notion of democratization is also a great description of the Athleta brand, which has essentially democratized the high-end yoga and athleisure proposition developed by independent athletic stores and studios (most notably, Lululemon). Athleta does a terrific job of making relevant attributes of the Lululemon proposition more accessible to a more Jenny-style audience.

So, how does this reflect upon the rebranding of the Gap? So much of the energy in rebranding Gap has focused on what the brand means in the context of the Gap, whether it’s stale or needs to be shaken up or whether it’s classic and needs to be preserved and reinvigorated.

Very little of the Gap’s positioning has focused on what the Gap brand should mean to consumers, which is the democratization of trends expressed in the products Gap knows best. The “It’s Our Denim Now” campaign launched by O’Hare is an engaging watch, but short of showing the consumer that Gap sells denim, it doesn’t really establish why Gap is a superior place to buy that denim versus hundreds of other choices.

Having observed Gap over the last 20 years, it does best when it knows what its role is, which is the democratization and amplification of trend. Democratization tends to work best applied to two concepts: demystification—can the brand take the edges off a trend to make it more emotionally or mentally accessible to a broader audience?—and access—can the brand give consumers the ability to access a trend at a price point far more of them can afford through scale? Amplification then presents this democratized trend to a broader audience ready to receive it.

Hopefully Gap’s next management team can learn the lessons of its own successes at Athleta and Old Navy and define Gap’s job through the process by which key trends are identified, democratized and amplified.

Democratization and amplification will be critical not just for Gap but for any large company figuring out its path forward. These companies all increasingly need to turn small things into big ones, either internally developed products or acquired small businesses. Democratization and amplification may be better descriptors of the work marketing needs to do to accomplish that rather than reach and frequency, which are concepts largely tied up in helping big brands remain big or get bigger.