On the Market Watch: Gap's Marketing Strategies for Accessible Style

Brought to you by IBM. The CMO of one of the world's most familiar clothing retailers paves the future of the brand by looking at the company's past.

In the On the Market Watch four-part series, we interview industry leaders about how technology and business are evolving the way companies use marketing and social media. This post is brought to you by our partner, IBM.

We were recently caught by surprise by a statement from Seth Farbman, global Chief Marketing Officer for Gap, one of the world’s most recognizable apparel companies. Describing his first 15 months with the company, Farbman said, “My focus has been to look back in order to look forward.” GOOD couldn’t wait to hear what other wisdom the former Worldwide Managing Director of Ogilvy & Mather and President of OgilvyEarth might have to impart. Here, we talk with Farbman about the changing role of marketing, the benefits of tradition, and the importance of the individual.

GOOD: In the On the Market Watch series, we’ve focused on how the role of CMO has changed. In your opinion, how does it need to continue to evolve?

FARBMAN: My experience across multiple companies has shown me the single most important thing is the company’s culture and its purpose behind its product, transactions, and relationships. 'Why do I exist? Why am I different? What can I do as a person within an organization that has an impact and that’s meaningful?' In the past, those functions have sat in human resources or were considered corporate social responsibility. More and more it’s falling to the role of CMO.

GOOD: Since joining Gap, what have you determined needs to be done to strengthen the company’s culture?

FARBMAN: We’re fortunate in the sense that we’re still a young company at 42 years old. When I came onboard, I recognized the DNA of the brand is still valuable. We just haven’t recognized it as being so valuable. That’s what happens when you get too close to something, too used to something.

We still have real recognition and passion for our founders and the belief systems put in place when we were launched—that good style should be accessible by everyone, not just the elite or fashionistas. The brand was also built on the belief in the power of the individual. All these things are not only relevant today, but absolutely critical in creating differentiation.

My focus has been to remind people of this foundation, to get them to reassess the core tenants of brand and business and to get them excited again about standing for those.

GOOD: How does Gap personalize relationships on a broad range?

FARBMAN: By creating sense of the purpose of what the company is and being able to get our designers and development teams to create products that reflect core values.

Second is to define the brand externally by not just having a point of view, but standing up for it. In a recent campaign for the reintroduction of T-shirts, we included a same sex couple among the ads we created. We did it not because it was new, interesting or provocative, but because it reflected our values. Simply by doing that, it sent a message to our existing customer and employee base that we stand by our values of inclusiveness and optimism. We got a very positive response for that, but no response would have been fine, too.

What we’re just starting to do now is engaging with our frontline sales staff so they know that instead of selling just a T-shirt to a customer, they’re selling a T-shirt that comes from a company that has long believed in self-expression and the power of individuals. We’re using more video, manifesto-like language and two-way communications by creating a feedback loop through Salesforce Chatter (a platform that’s created a social network of Gap employees), so we’re much more transparent and engaged.

GOOD: Do you also have people are specifically there to deal with customer service issues in a very one-on-one way or is that too time consuming?

FARBMAN: We’ve made some investments in listening and having more open communications through social [media], so we’re really clear on what’s working and what isn’t. We’re also thinking of our employees as customers. We watch employee sales very carefully. We know we got it right when new products hit the stores and we see a spike in the employee sales.

GOOD: What portfolio benefits is Gap offering to meet customer needs?

FARBMAN: For us, we recognize that iconic brands need to be relevant to culture. One of the ways you remain relevant is through partnerships. We’ve done a few things in last year to develop some meaningful partnerships that build our brand through association with like-minded brands. About six or eight weeks ago we launched a kids line through Gap Kids that was a partnership with Diane Von Furstenberg. It was the first time DVF had ever done something with another brand like that. The optimism of both brands came together in creating something new and proved to be very successful.

We’ve also embraced partnerships with online communities like Cool Hunting or Refinery 29 and WhoWhatWear. Rather than simply buying ad space on their site and trying to sell our brand and our product, we created something called, a platform that allows the editors and curators of these sites to style our product the way they think is appropriate for their community. We give communities the tools and access to engage with our brand. It’s an ongoing strategy of ours to make sure we’re remaining very relevant and use the term “collaboration” literally.

Image (cc) via Flickr user Eleonore H.