by James Mahoney, Creative director/writer at Razor’s Edge Communications

What does a 42-year-old military offensive have to do with branding and social media? Quite a bit, as it happens. Consider four seemingly unrelated situations:

First, clothing purveyor Gap experienced an alleged misadventure recently when it unveiled a "new logo" on its website, only to reinstate the old logo a week later in the face of withering online vilification.

Second, Tropicana experienced a real misadventure when the company jettisoned its venerable and valuable "straw in an orange" for a new look and identity. That disastrous move was reversed in the face of actual withering response: a precipitous sales drop that validated the hue and cry.

Third, a few years ago, The Wall Street Journal revamped its look and feel. As change like this always does, this generated initial resistance in the readership, who had to recalibrate their familiarity with the paper. But the change was durable and the transition period short. Since then, the WSJ has continued to successfully tinker with the design and content.

Fourth, history students, and those of us old enough, will be familiar with the 1968 Tet Offensive of the Vietnam War. For others, here’s a brief description: At a critical moment in that war, the North Vietnamese launched simultaneous attacks across South Vietnam during the normal New Year’s armistice. While the offensive was a resounding and crippling military defeat for North Vietnam*, it was perceived as a convincing victory for them by the American public, whose only points of reference were frightening scenes of bloody combat in near-realtime on our living room TVs, and commentary in the media.

So, what’s the connection? All four were abrupt events that dislocated a status quo. All four involved branding and media, social and otherwise. Two were successful; two weren’t.

Let me take a moment here to reassure my fellow veterans that I’m not equating commerce and warfare. They most definitely are not the same. But some of the underlying currents are comparable. One of the objectives of the Tet Offensive was to influence American public opinion, according to the commander of the North Vietnamese army*. That is marketing.

What they also have in common is that they generated heated commentary. In the case of the WSJ, the voices of dissent faded quickly and with no lasting effect. In the cases of the Tet Offensive and Tropicana, the voices of dissent, reinforced by sustained and effective protest action, prevailed.

In contrast, in the case of the Gap, it took only the immediate and strident dissent of a tiny chorus to trigger a retreat. That’s a critical distinction between Gap and the other examples here. And it’s a cautionary tale.

Elizabeth Fuller of The Christian Science Monitor reported here that within two days of the announcement, "more than a thousand negative comments" had been posted on Gap’s Facebook page versus 400 "likes." My guess is that many of the detractors most likely weren’t even Gap customers.

Interestingly, some observers suspect that Gap never intended to stick with the new logo; that it was either a cheap way to test the waters or that it was a marketing maneuver to generate some buzz. That’s a subject for another time, so let’s assume that Gap’s intention to change the logo was genuine.

So how does Gap’s reaction compare to the others?

Tropicana waited until it had convincing evidence—the sales drop combined with the negative reactions—that the change was detrimental to the company. Gap reacted to immediate, from-the-hip internet postings.

The Wall Street Journal weathered the initial adverse response, and more important, understood that some negativity was inevitable and that they needed to keep it in perspective with the overall response. Gap was disproportionately influenced by comparatively few voices, even taking into consideration that some number of silent voices were represented by each vocal one.

The Tet Offensive was a stunning military reversal for its planners, but they stuck to the equivalent of their strategic marketing campaign in spite of that. Gap reversed itself at the first sign of resistance.

On one other level, Gap’s experience and that of the Tet-Offensive planners are alike, though on different sides of the equation: A short, aggressive campaign to influence public opinion succeeded in changing the commitment of the "governing authority." The U.S. government had no effective counter to the spike in domestic anti-war sentiment caused by the Tet Offensive, and so, the dissent continued to grow. Conversely, Gap had an effective counter—persevere with their plan—but immediately surrendered the initiative and allowed a vocal minority to derail its campaign before it ever had a chance to pick up steam.

Putting aside the question of whether Gap was ever serious about the new logo, the cautionary tale in the company’s experience is this: Dissent and brick-throwing are inevitable in any new situation. Those who feel strongly, one way or the other, will start or join the chorus. But just as it’s a mistake to stubbornly maintain a losing course, it’s also a mistake to prematurely conclude that the Greek chorus’s initial reaction will survive the transition period, or that the railings of a relative few represent the majority.

Though the outcomes of the four situations were very different, Tropicana, The Wall Street Journal and North Vietnam understood this. Gap, apparently, doesn’t.

* In an interview in 1995, published in The Wall Street Journal, Bui Tin, a former colonel who served on the General Staff in the North Vietnamese army, said that "Tet was designed to influence American public opinion. We would attack poorly defended parts of South Vietnam cities…" He then described how the Tet Offensive in 1968 was a devastating military defeat. It took the North Vietnamese three years to recover—"Our losses were staggering and a complete surprise…" He went on to quote Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, commander of the North Vietnamese army: "Tet was a military defeat, though we gained the planned political advantage."

  • The ability to share information and opinion ever more rapidly, coupled with society’s increasing impatience, has made the “half life” of commerce shorter and shorter as well.
    Where the market used to have time to correct itself, nowadays it can rise or fall within minutes as buyers and sellers scramble in mad reaction to transmitted data. Did anyone see the recent “60 MInutes” show about high-frequency trading, showing how the NYSE sells server space so that robots can handle trades milliseconds faster?
    Similarly, “breaking news” coverage — typically nothing more than a series of talking heads speculating about what’s going on, in lieu of actual reportage — often generates knee-jerk reactions based on incomplete information and rumormongering.
    Our tendency to rush to judgment — and to be the first to do so — sometimes has short-term benefits, but the long-term costs can be enormous. This makes it harder for those in our profession to propose thoughtful, long-term strategic approaches to brand building.
    On the other hand, maybe it’s of benefit to us, as more and more organizations react in herky-jerky fashion to prevailing sentiment. Start compiling lists and logos — “InstaBrand: names and logos wile-u-wate” might be just around the corner!

  • Michelle, thanks for your insights and sharing your perspective. I’m still left wondering how one knows whether to pull the plug or stay the course when it comes to branding decisions. In other words, as James points out, Tropicana waited too long to reverse course, but Gap may have jumped the gun in retreating — would the Gap logo change really have ended up as bad as the Tropicana packaging debacle?

  • The GAP brouhaha reeked of guerrilla marketing to me. It just seemed like a faux controversy generated to draw attention to the brand. Who really knows, but using the existing/equity logo online while “introducing” the new one via social media stunk of self-promotion. I’d think a company of that stature would have had all systems in place — store signage, website, etc. — and would have made a big splash about a new logo. As for soliciting input, surely they have an active market research group who would have done its due diligence (focus groups, controlled questionnaires, interviews and all that) and not just posted the concept online for random opining.
    As for knowing when/how to pull the plug, I don’t know. Maybe it all starts when a change is considered in the first place. Has anyone published anything about the Tropicana (or New Coke!) debacles that analyzes the causes/effects? Was there someone at either company who pushed a pet idea against the grain of market research? Was there a flaw in research methodology? What was the problem in either case — declining sales? new market entrants? — and who decided that a new logo was the solution? Did they consider a possible negative reaction to the change and did they have a Plan B in place for that?
    More questions than answers, alas … but a very interesting discussion!

  • James Mahoney

    “When to pull the plug” is an interesting question, Steve, and, of course, there’s no pat answer.
    But generally, I don’t think a week is enough time to evaluate whether or not to remain committed to a rebrand. All you can get in that time is a spike of commentary from the madding crowd. And as Michelle points out, today those spikes rise faster, higher, and more densely than ever. In my opinion, at least the early responses also reflect less considered thinking than in the days before the instant-send button.
    Every genuine rebranding project believes that it will be well-received and successful. Why else would anyone invest the time, effort and budget to bring them to the point of public release? Although those involved may acknowledge the possibility that it won’t fly, I don’t think any of them seriously considers that to be more than a remote possibility. So those folks are taken aback when the initial reaction includes more strident opposition than they expected.
    The answer, I think, is to resist the impulse to respond as rapidly as the detractors did, and, instead, wait until you can put the initial response into a larger perspective. How long that takes varies depending on the situation, but the decisive moment will be when you think you can reasonably project the likelihood of achieving a critical mass of acceptance. And you must accept that even when you do reach that critical mass, some number of people will remain unalterably opposed to the change.
    (Case in point: I heard someone say just the other day that though he prefers Pepsi to Coke, he has not drunk a Pepsi since the rebrand because he hates the new look so much. Now THAT’S opposition!)
    Incidentally, I don’t think Tropicana waited too long to reverse course. They did so after the precipitous drop in sales provided empirical evidence that the new branding was a mistake. Prior to that, all they had was opinion. So in my estimation, they gave the new look a decent shot at working, and pulled the plug only when they had multiple vectors (opinion and consumer behavior) to indicate that reversing course was the best business decision.