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Customers to Gap's New GMO: It Won't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got that Swing

Gap's (GPS) namesake brand desperately needs a makeover. Flagging sales, executive firings, ethical faux pas, and a logo fiasco punctuated a challenging 2010. The chain's monthly comps continue their southward trajectory. Management is betting that Seth Farbman, the company's first chief global marketing officer, can inject the kind of jive juice Gap enjoyed in its "swing" era.

Though he hasn't been in retail since he worked for the Gap as a teenager in a suburban mall, Farbman earned his marketing chops working for the likes of AT&T Wireless and as worldwide managing director at Ogilvy & Mather. So he understands that one of Gap's biggest problems is its identity crisis.

The way we were
Remember those cool TV ads featuring a clutch of swing dancing, khaki-clad hipsters? Back in the 90s, Gap cemented its popularity with a series of toe-tapping TV ads that sparked a resurgence of jive and a rise in same store sales to a whopping 17 percent in 1998. Net sales company-wide that year were just over $9 billion with the Gap brand leading the charge over Banana Republic and Old Navy.

What a difference a decade makes. The company's sticktoitiveness regarding basics diverged, and Gap's trad charm waned as offerings scattered in an attempt to appeal to the nouveau Internet riche. Though casual Friday became casual every day, Gap still stocked plenty of buttoned-up style. No wonder its bubble burst alongside that of the dot-coms.

The recession leveled another blow right when creative director Patrick Robinson introduced 1969 Premium Denim in effort to catch the eye of budget-conscious fashionistas and good old boys alike.

The results have been middling. In 2010 the company's net sales increased 3 percent to $14.7 billion but the Gap brand was down (down!) from 2009 accounting for only $3.80 billion in net sales with comps down 8 percent.

Loss of focus
Even though Gap's threads are well-priced, the assortment -- beyond the various cuts of denim and khakis -- is a confused mélange. Stores attempt to be a one-stop for workwear, underwear, outerwear, eveningwear, belts, bags, shoes, and walls of jeans (whew!). But under all that merchandise, the only thing clear is that Gap execs can't see the forest through the piles of clothes. Recent images of Gap's spring collection -- all soft lighting and blurred edges -- only illustrate the loss of focus. (See the above-right image for an example.)

Farbman needs to get Gap back to a cohesive story that communicates the company's new image in a cool way. "This is not a world of 'one big thing' anymore," he told the NYT. But it is a world that continually references vintage to inform modern.

As such, it might be good to start mining the 70s (no, not disco polyester) for inspiration on marketing this latest nostalgic trend. Urban Outfitter's (URBN) CEO Glen Senk says his chain's customers are just starting to come around to the high-waisted, ultra-flared silhouettes sported by the likes of Jane Fonda, Marisa Berenson, or Ali McGraw. Maybe even a little Mary Tyler Moore circa '71 or '72? "You're gonna make it after all" has a nice ring to it -- especially on the income statement.

Image via Gap

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