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Gap’s new campaign is centred around a half-dozen brief online videos that profile the design team behind the company’s 1969 line of jeans. (Gap Inc./Gap Inc.)
Gap’s new campaign is centred around a half-dozen brief online videos that profile the design team behind the company’s 1969 line of jeans. (Gap Inc./Gap Inc.)

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Gap tries on a younger, hipper image Add to ...

Can a 42-year-old company worth $7-billion be as cool as a start-up?

Gap, the casual wear company which has been stuck in a mid-life crisis for most of the past decade, is rolling out a new ad campaign this month that, like many individuals stuck in mid-life crises, tries for renewal by embracing what the cool kids are doing. Which, these days, means launching a start-up company.

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Start-ups are inherently cool. They are scrappy, creative and experimental, headed by single-minded visionaries. They have great stories of hardship and success baked into their DNA. And, not coincidentally, with the right mix of strategy and luck they can make billionaires out of their employees.

Gap is none of these things, of course: it is a retailing wallflower that enjoyed a prime place in commercial and popular culture back in the nineties. (On Thursday, its North American division released sales results for July that showed a drop of 6 per cent in same-store sales over the previous July.) Which is one reason it opened a pair of studios in the past year, one in New York’s Tribeca neighbourhood, the other in downtown Los Angeles, to rediscover its creative roots.

“I think for many people the brand started to feel very corporate,” acknowledges Seth Farbman, a former executive at the ad agency Ogilvy & Mather who became chief global marketing officer of Gap last February in a shakeup that saw other marketers depart. (Gap is a division of Gap Inc., which comprises a number of brands including Banana Republic and Old Navy.)

The new campaign, the first from its new agency, New York-based Ogilvy, hopes to counter that impression, through both its medium and its message. First, the medium: There will be no television commercials, doing away with a pillar of Gap’s brand-building. And – adopting a popular tactic that has been embraced by scores of marketers, from car companies to fast-food restaurants – there will be only real people, rather than the endless parade of celebrities and artists that has characterized the company’s advertising for years.

And the message? Gap would like its customers to know that, far from being a faceless corporation that turns out a steady stream of barely distinguishable jeans and khakis and comfy fall sweaters, it is driven by creative people with offbeat haircuts who work in airy lofts and bring their dogs to the office.

The campaign is centred around a half-dozen brief online videos that profile the design team behind the company’s 1969 line of jeans. Last August, the crew of about 30 – designers, merchants, and technical specialists – moved into a former cigar factory on West Pico Boulevard in downtown Los Angeles. The videos – on Facebook, YouTube, and elsewhere – tell their story, consciously trafficking in gritty imagery that contrasts with the usual airbrushed perfection of nearby Hollywood (and old Gap ads).

“It’s about creating an environment that feels and behaves much more entrepreneurial, much more like a startup, and that’s really critical,” says Mr. Farbman, speaking of both the L.A. office and the new global creative centre in New York, where he is based, which brings marketing, fashion PR, fabric research and development, and other functions under one roof. “At the core, we are about creativity, about design.”

In the videos, as members of the L.A. design team talk about their passion for denim, the camera takes in their vibrant surroundings – the street art, peeling paint, graffiti, exposed brick – and the tools of their handiwork, from the stitching machines to the dyes to the fabric presses. “All the research shows people want to know where product comes from, who’s made it, what’s the story behind it, and they make their decisions based on more than a transactional set of choices,” Mr. Farbman says.

(While downtown L.A. is described by one person in a campaign video as “the last stronghold of denim,” no one mentions that the bulk of Gap’s denim production is actually based offshore.)

The company is aiming the campaign at the millennial generation, twentysomethings who may have grown up wearing Baby Gap or Gap Kids apparel but may not have shopped in the stores for themselves. It hopes that making the brand cool among millennials will also help it appeal to those in their 30s and 40s who wore the clothes through the company’s heyday but have drifted away since then.

“I’ll use myself as an example,” explains Mr. Farbman. “I’m in my early 40s. I’m not looking to other people my same age for cues on what is relevant, what is style, what’s happening in culture; you automatically start to look at the emerging generation. It’s just the way you engage as consumers, and as people.”

With that new target in mind, the company needed to embrace a new way of getting its message out. “When you focus on this generation in particular, you have to change the way to communicate. Nobody, especially millennials, likes to be talked at. They like to be talked with, have a conversation.”

“We’ve been a bit slower to recognize how storytelling, that generation, and digital media can really help us connect again,” he acknowledges. “So there’s a very intentional shift to more digital, to using shareable, interesting, relevant, journalistic-type content.”

The company isn’t totally eschewing mass media: It has bought space in a number of magazines’ key September issues, including InStyle, Glamour, GQ, Vogue, and People’s Style Watch magazine, splashing out for an eight-page “gatefold” layout – that is, a standalone ad that unfolds into a four-page spread in the middle. “We want to tell a deeper story,” explains Mr. Farbman. “Essentially, it is a print version of the stories you may have seen in the [online videos]”

It certainly needs to tell a new story, one that moves the focus away from years of well-chronicled missteps. Most recently, Gap was humiliated last fall when it introduced a new logo – its first in more than 20 years – only to withdraw it six days later amid a withering storm of ridicule on social media.

“In a very strange way that was a bit of a gift, probably a painful one, but a bit of a gift because I think there became this recognition that people really did care,” Mr. Farbman says. “I think in hindsight it was a helpful triggering mechanism, because it did indicate a deeper level of engagement than maybe we had given ourselves credit for.”

Now all the company needs to do is convert that engagement to revenue.

Follow on Twitter: @simonhoupt

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