As Gap turns 50, CMO Alegra O’Hare reveals her plan to build the brand back to ‘icon’ status
Gap may be allowing itself a moment of congratulatory indulgence to celebrate 50 years in business, but its new chief marketer is wasting no time in stripping away her department’s inefficiencies and rebuilding the brand around its most iconic products.
For someone who has only been in the job seven months, Alegra O’Hare, Gap’s chief marketing officer, has an unenviable to-do list.
She’s arrived at the company just as it is celebrating its 50th anniversary by taking stock of its historic feats: shaping the very nature of casual American style, developing some of the most memorable campaigns of the past century and weathering recession after recession, controversy after controversy.
At the same time, O’Hare has a bigger mission to embark upon: look forward, and push the company forward as well.
Because, in recent years, the flagship Gap brand has struggled in comparison to its younger sister labels.
Gap Inc’s Q1 2019 earnings reported that same store sales at Gap dropped by 10% year-on-year, while Banana Republic and Old Navy, which is preparing to spin off as a separate entity, recorded drops of 3% and 1% respectively.
In March, it was announced Gap would shutter 230 of its namesake stores across the next two years.
So, what happened to the brand born into the vibrancy of 1960s San Francisco, the one that used an ad campaign to raise awareness for AIDS and dressed Sharon Stone for the Oscars?
In the short term, chief executive Art Peck blames the cold weather. But analysts have taken aim at the brand’s apparent apathy to the changing shopper landscape.
Its apparel is “bland” and “undifferentiated”, said GlobalData Retail’s Neil Saunders, while the brand itself is “losing relevancy”, according to retail analyst Janet Kloppenburg.
O’Hare, who joined the company from leading comms at Adidas Originals and Style, is understandably less damning. She believes Gap “probably had gotten a little bit lost along the way” in the last decade, but is also confident it can “turn back into a cultural brand once again”.
In a way, the 50th anniversary came at the right time for O’Hare to lay the groundwork for her turnaround strategy. She had an excuse to trawl through the company’s advertising and product archives to pin down the exact moments to celebrate – the things the brand once did really right, and can do right again.
The tangible result was two celebratory collections – the '1969 Premium' offer and 'Denim Through the Decades'. But more than this, the deep dive proved to O’Hare that Gap is truly known for five of its timeless items: denim, khakis, sweats, T-shirts and its classic logo apparel.
“Gap is one of the few historical cultural style brands I think in the United States and it really stands for its icons – by that I mean the denim, the khakis. the gap logo on sweatshirts,” said O’Hare. “There’s such a great collective memory for the brand that’s especially linked to our icons.
“So that's really what we want to drive – the memory around what we're known for from a casual American point of view, which is really cool and timeless, but at the same time still contemporary. That's what we want to get back to.”
O’Hare is confident in this strategy of paring back to focus on Gap’s “big five”, partially because of her past experience. Her 10-plus years at Adidas taught her that many of fashion retail’s success stories begin with identifying “what you're known for and really focusing on that".
She has additionally instilled a mantra of “stick to the plan” among her team members, in order to avoid getting waylaid by the turning tides of fashion, retail and marketing at large.
“I am a big believer of strategy,” she said. “My team says I'm a broken record ... but I think that it's always a key element for successful brands and businesses. You list all the priorities that you have, and then you stick to them as you move forward.”
Alongside “rebuilding from the icons up”, O’Hare’s brand blueprint involves reorganizing her support network to more efficiently produce creative with cut-through.
To that end, she quickly “tried something new” and hired an agency of record in New York’s Johannes Leonardo – a shop she felt “could really nail the ethos of the brand, but also challenge and raise the standards of things that we're doing”.
The agency, which has landed a number of notable new clients this year, was buoyed (reportedly without a pitch) by Gap’s potential to “bring people together and drive ... values of optimism, inclusivity and individuality”, according to co-founder Leo Premutico.
“More importantly though, this is a question of evolution,” said the creative. “The last thing an iconic brand needs are new people who come along, ignore what has made the brand successful in the past and who think they have all the answers.
“Iconic brands don’t need reckless reinvention – they need a team humble enough to understand their role in setting the right course and confident enough in their ability to make what worked in the past relevant once more.”
The first work out of the gate for Johannes Leonardo aims to capture this philosophy, as well as O’Hare’s observation that consumers wanted the brand to once again “drive a point of difference”.
‘It’s Our Denim Now’ puts Gap’s first “icon” and raison dêtre – denim – in center stage, but augments it with a modern approach to inclusive casting, a hotshot director in Fleur Fortuné and a cool and contemporary soundtrack from Ndidi O.
“I think It's one of the strongest campaigns that we've launched in recent years, and I think it really speaks volumes to how we want to move ahead with the brand and change,” said O’Hare. “We're getting an incredible return on the marketing campaign ... it’s not just visually compelling and different and fresh, it’s also bringing in results that we can monitor and track.”
Outside of her agency hires, O’Hare is currently reorganizing Gap’s marketing model to accommodate shifts to digital-first marketing, omnichannel retail and a “massive” ongoing social media transformation.
“We just have to get faster,” she said. “We're not going to evolve or become a better team or a better brand if we don't experiment, test, learn and we move ahead.
“We have to really challenge ourselves and, as I always say, feel comfortable with the uncomfortable."