GAP Announces End of Recession
Monday, November 16, 2009
After years of disappointing design, quality and performance, GAP seems tapped into the American cultural pulse once again. The company's holiday advertising campaign announces that the country is "Ready for Holiday Cheer." Like many retailers, GAP is spending more and launching earlier this year, including a major Vanity Fair insert and back cover. Whether these efforts end up translating to sales, of course, remains to be seen. Still, the campaign does more than any other to date to declare a shift in attitude. Consumers will decide for themselves to celebrate in ways "modest" or "all out," but either way, GAP gives permission "to liberate" from the dark clouds of the past 18 months. A holiday declaration of independence -- "This holiday, it's up to us" -- makes the empowerment message abundantly clear: Yes, Virginia, there is an American spirit of hope, even joy, that will not be silenced. The recession is over.
To avoid recessionary messaging entirely, GAP does not push price, though there are discounts available (surely good deals are just the oxygen of any retailing environment now, and thus not a differentiating point at all). Rather, the company returns to the simple, natural, human and iconic images of the past. Trees, snowflakes, stars, peace-signs: these are comforting images of a most familiar story, but rendered in especially modern ways. These are images and stories we can believe in, if only because we have for so long. With GAP, we are back on script, which means the story can start progressing again, after so much recessing.
The story gets even more interesting when we push beyond the meanings of "holiday cheer." The cheering in the ads echoes the pop-phenomenon of Glee's "Cheerios" and the holiday-hip-hop mash-up in the television spot is a shout out to the lovable, underdog glee club itself. Literally, GAP is giving us the cadence to get back on beat and cheer for the home team at its rallying moment.
This is serious shot-in-the-arm stuff (which can be customized to drive viral-consumer outreach at GAP's holiday Cheer Factory). Seen broadly, GAP is doing a great deal of cultural work at once: classic memes, economic commentary, trans-media allusion, new media utility. Taken together, these gestures confirm the rightness of the culture, which is the ritualistic power of any holiday. All the more odd (and ignorant) that the American Family Association is protesting the campaign, calling for a GAP boycott. They clearly don't understand the religious history and power of iconography to unite a culture.
For marketers, this is the type of storytelling that defines great retailing moments - the way Target brought The Velveteen Rabbit to life with its legendary "Love Makes You Real" platform. Most marketers have forgotten about complex storytelling during the past year; a return to story is, in itself, a post-recession move.
Retailers without story leave us little reason to believe or shop:
One might argue that Abercrombie & Fitch's holiday product is essentially the same to GAP's. But there is a complete absence of story. There is product only, no context at all.
J. Crew has the pretense of a story (snapshots!) but talks only about itself. The creatives got a trip to Chile. Want to read about their good luck?
The saddest of the lot, of course, are the sites that have replaced story with price: Sears, Kmart and Target talk only of savings. To be fair, Kmart does offer a "Deal of the Day" where Target offers "Daily Deals." This is what now passes as story at discount, a particularly disappointing move since it was story that originally removed Target from Wal-Mart's low-price war zone.
Rather than doing the cultural work of GAP and confirming our collective potential to cheer again, these sites all confirm the struggle that has exhausted us.
But GAP isn't selling story; this is no academic effort. GAP needs to perform like it never has; it is using story to sell clothes, lest we forget. With the cultural authority (and continuance) of such classic imagery, we might forget the work these ads are to do (surely a sign of great advertising). Make no mistake, these ads do what nearly all brand managers demand: highlight the product (and little else). Smartly, the product is central to the story - this belief system is made real only at the register. GAP makes the connection explicit online: one can "shop our holiday gifts" or "shop our TV spots."
Who doesn't love a good, classic holiday story? With the exception of GAP, it seems the retailers who need it most are neither listening to nor telling one. For them, the recession is likely to continue.