Listening to customers can be bad business
By Lucy Kellaway
Published: October 17 2010 15:51 | Last updated: October 17 2010 15:51
Last week, for the first time ever, the mob on Twitter and Facebook forced the management of a big company into defeat. This victory of democracy over autocracy was scored over something people feel strongly about: whether three letters belong inside or outside a box.
For the past 20 years, the letters G-A-P have resided in a dark blue square, but two weeks ago the management of the clothing company announced that the letters had escaped and that a smaller blue square would henceforth sit above the P. All hell then broke loose. Thousands of people protested online and, a week later, Gap backed down. The big box was going to stay.
The new Gap logo was not obviously an improvement on the old one. And the sight of management listening to customers and accepting humiliation in order to satisfy them seemed like a good thing.
Yet what happened was not really good at all. It isn’t progress when a company panics and surrenders when faced by an armchair army of protesters. It is feeble.
Compare Gap’s experience to that of PwC, which changed its logo two weeks earlier. The new PwC look is an even uglier version of the new Gap effort, with the letters in italicised lower case, and not one, but a whole jumble, of little boxes scattered over the C. This logo was launched old-style, with corporate fanfare and a statement of customary idiocy from senior management, followed by customary sniping from journalists and from a couple of tweeters (people don’t care as much about accountants as about jeans) and that was that.
“We think our new brand expression visually distinguishes PwC in the same way that the quality and expertise of our people differentiates the experience of working with PwC,” said the firm’s chairman. Which is, of course, absolute, total tosh. Three little letters and some squares cannot say anything about quality or expertise at all.
But then logos are a fluffy subject; I have never heard anyone say anything that wasn’t daft about the thinking behind any change. This is because there never is any thinking, save the idea that it’s time to do something different.
PwC’s management evidently judged that time had come, and knows that any fuss will quickly die down. One day people may even become fond of the nasty new look – to the extent to which it is possible to be fond of the logo of an accountancy firm, that is.
Now back to Gap.
Once Marka Hansen, the company’s president for North America, got wind of the scale of the protest, she wrote a piece on The Huffington Post defending the “contemporary and current” new logo. Her post is a marvel for students of corporate language, with its “living and breathing”, its “alignings”, and its “journeys”. But mainly it is remarkable for its disingenuousness. Ms Hansen was surely feeling shock and awe at how badly her new logo had gone down, but claimed to be delighted that everyone felt so “passionate” about it.
The chummy message that she simultaneously posted on the company’s Facebook page was even more frightening for its attempt to get down with the kidz and talk the right chirpy language through gritted teeth: “Thanks for everyone’s input on the new logo! We know this logo created a lot of buzz and we’re thrilled to see passionate debates unfolding! We love our version, but we’d like to see other ideas. Stay tuned for details in the next few days on this crowd sourcing project.”
But even this didn’t work. The mob continued to show its passion by saying it hated the new design and, last Monday, she gave up.
This time the tone was more like when Princess Diana had died. Ms Hansen spoke of the “outpouring of passion from customers” on the company’s old logo and solemnly announced that the letters would stay in the box after all.
She should not have capitulated. By letting tweeters see the whites of her eyes, she has done other companies a disservice. Now that the mob has got its way on this, it is going to be harder for other companies to insist on their management’s right to manage.
Listening to customers is one thing, when they are voting with their wallets. But company logos should not be designed democratically on Twitter. If managers allow themselves to be frightened of the tweeting mob, they will become emasculated, change will be even harder than it ever was, and the status quo will always prevail.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2010.