Old Navy, the clothing brand known for its accessible, modern fashion essentials, is a retail powerhouse, earning more than twice than the combined profits of its fellow Gap Inc. labels, which include the corporation’s namesake, Banana Republic and sportswear line Athleta. But the U.S. market for affordable apparel is now more crowded—and fashion-forward—than when Old Navy debuted in the 1990s, with overseas rivals like H&M, Uniqlo and Zara having established themselves on these shores. To stay competitive, Gap Inc. hired Stefan Larsson—then an executive at H&M—as Old Navy’s global brand president three years ago, and charged him with reestablishing the label. One big component of the company’s cultural change: rethinking the Old Navy brand identity.
An effective brand identity defines and codifies the appearance of a given thing—whether that thing is a hospital, a political campaign or, in this case, a clothing label. Branding professionals create a comprehensive and cohesive visual system that takes every aspect of an organization, cause or product into account. No detail is too small. Typefaces, store displays, color schemes—if a branding team has done its job, all of it should cohere and, whether taken together or as individual elements, communicate the essential character of the given thing.
Sean Lopano (MPS 2012 Branding) is a brand identity designer who has worked as a consultant and designer with such firms as VSA Partners, Prophet Brand Strategy and Mother New York, branding everything from Oakley sunglasses to Hershey’s chocolate. In 2014, he accepted a position to help lead the rebranding of Old Navy and relocated to San Francisco, where Gap Inc. is headquartered.
I recently spoke with Sean about his work with Old Navy.
HI SEAN. CONGRATULATIONS ON THIS NEW ASSIGNMENT. WHERE DO YOU, AS A BRANDING PROFESSIONAL, FIT WITHIN OLD NAVY'S CORPORATE HIERARCHY?
I’m a senior designer in the marketing department, working on brand and identity—particularly the visual identity. I work with a creative director, an art director and a team of 20-plus designers, copywriters, project managers, and print and technical production teams. I currently have two designers who help me with all things brand-identity related.
THIS PAST MAY, THE NEW YORK TIMES PUBLISHED AN ARTICLE ON THE CHALLENGES FACING OLD NAVY, AND IT SAID THAT WHILE OLD NAVY REMAINS SUCCESFUL, THE BRAND IMPRESSION HAS NOT ALWAYS BEEN ONE OF FASHION-FORWARD CLOTHING. SOME BRAND REINVENTIONS ARE APPROACHED WITH A WRECKING BALL, BUT YOUR TEAM SEEMS TO HAVE SEEN THIS CHALLENGE MORE AS A RENOVATION.
That’s a great way of defining this entire process. Whatever challenges it’s faced, Old Navy has kept a dedicated following. A wrecking-ball approach would have been overkill and risked us losing our loyal customer base.
From the beginning, this rebrand engaged many different internal groups, from store design to real estate, international expansion and, most importantly, product. Our effort began with a commitment to creating better products. We are in the product business, after all, and without great product, the visual identity doesn’t have much to stand on. That was followed by a new way of communicating our values and goals—namely, to produce accessible yet fashionable clothes for the whole family—visually. I was asked to help with the communications part.
THE NEW IDENTITY SYSTEM HAS AS ITS CORNERSTONE A REVISED LOGO THAT INCLUDES THE OLD NAVY NAME WITHIN A BLUE ELLIPSE. WERE YOU CHIEFLY RESPONSIBLE FOR THIS NEW VERSION? WHAT DID YOU BELIEVE WERE THE WEAKNESSES OF THE OLD DESIGN?
Yes, this was one of my first projects: revise the existing logo and design the brand’s new monogram. As the second-largest clothing retailer in North America, Old Navy’s mark really had a lot of value, in terms of consumer recognition. However, we were running into legibility issues, digital and pixelation issues as well as a few troublesome letters that just seemed “off”—primarily the L. Our goals were increased legibility at almost any size and a more structured and refined set of letters within the logo that work better with, and are more similar to, our typography systems for things like store signage, care labels, advertisements and web pages. To most of our customers, the change is minute. But for us, internally, it’s quite different. I suppose brand identity designers are nerdy that way.
WHEN A BRAND IDENTITY DEBUTS, THE PUBLIC IS SELDOM AWARE OF THE PROCESS THAT LED TO THE RESULT. CAN YOU TALK A LITTLE ABOUT THE BACKGROUND WORK THAT WENT INTO THIS PROJECT?
I can’t speak to the initial work, as much of it was done before I joined the company. But we worked with an incredible brand consultant, Julia Leach, formerly of Kate Spade. Julia and I had met prior to Old Navy; it was a wonderful coincidence. She and her team were hired
to redirect the brand strategy. I was brought in to work with Julia and our art and creative directors, to take the strategy and research and develop the visual-identity system.
From a competitive standpoint, our goals were clear. The influx of high-design-meets-low-cost fashion brands has exploded globally and, more recently, in the U.S., which previously was Old Navy’s stronghold. We needed to re-present ourselves as the leader in affordable fashion. The bar was set from that point on to exceed our competitors’ position in all markets.
HOW MUCH OF THE WORK WAS DONE IN-HOUSE?
All of it. Our agencies collaborate with us to produce TV ads and social media, but the brand and its identity were created internally. I’m quite proud of that—and am excited to see this happening more and more. I’m becoming a fan of the internal model over the agency model. There’s so much collaboration and teamwork, and a such a sense of pride companywide when changes come from within.
CAN YOU EXPLAIN HOW YOU CHOSE THE TYPOGRAPHY? IT SEEMS WELL ROOTED IN BASIC DESIGN PRINCIPLES, NOT INFLUENCED BY TRENDY TYPEFACES OR BRAND-SPECIFIC TYPE DESIGN.
The original concept for Old Navy was “American heritage with a modern clarity.” In our rebrand, we stuck to typefaces clearly inspired by or characteristic of this as well. We wanted to have two primary, extremely versatile typefaces that scanned as unmistakably American in origin. We chose Gotham and Eames Century Modern. While both are great workhorses, they denote premium quality and have a bit of a fashion edge. Usually, no one in fashion would go near things like Eames Century Modern—they typically use more traditional, European serif faces. Then we wanted to add a more playful typeface that allowed for some decoration and one that didn’t have to work quite as hard for us: Normande. We tried very hard to avoid the fashion cliché of either Helvetica Neue Ultralight and Didot or Gotham and Didot . . . or Bodoni, for that matter. All of this was then tailored so that our seasonal campaigns and programs could use additional typefaces, if need be. However, in the last year we haven’t broken from our two primary faces and have had some really successful seasonal campaigns.
OVERALL, I DETECT A SAUCY, FRENCH FLAVOR IN THE NEW IDENTITY. IS THAT INTENTIONAL?
Interestingly, the Old Navy name came from the name of the founders’ favorite café in Paris. Donald and Doris Fisher, the founders of Gap Inc., loved this place and ultimately named the brand after it.
WAS THE DESIGN TESTED WITH OLD NAVY CUSTOMERS PRIOR TO ITS RELEASE?
For the visual identity as a whole, it was not. I’ve had negative experiences with consumer testing in the past. There’s a definitely a right and wrong way to go about that for design—letting consumer testing lead the design of something tends to lead to trouble, while asking consumers to respond to a series of designs, to get an idea of potential reactions, is more helpful. In the fast-moving retail business, everything is done with the understanding that it can and will be modified as time goes on. It’s just the nature of the industry. The brand has to evolve and we try to do it in the most strategic and sustainable way, as opposed to a reactionary way.
WILL THIS BRAND IDENTITY BE ADAPTED FOR PARTICULAR SEASONS? HOW DO YOU ANTICIPATE THE DESIGN SYSTEM EVOLVING?
Our approach was always rooted in adaptability, flexibility and a subservience, almost, to the seasonal products and campaigns. While the brand’s identity should always be strong, it often has to sit behind what’s happening seasonally. Successful seasonal products and promotions are the key to this business, so they have to lead our marketing and communications.
WILL YOU BE WORKING ON OTHER GAP BRANDS?
I would certainly like to. We’ll see what’s in store—no pun intended.
FINALLY, WAS THERE ANYTHING THAT YOU LEARNED FROM THIS EXPERIENCE? I am coming to realize that design is often the easy part, and it’s the part I love the most. I’d love to put amazing music on and draw beautiful and effective work all day. But this process has been about a journey—for our internal teams and collaborators as well as our customers. Taking people along on that journey has been the greatest challenge. It’s something that is seldom taught in school. A change in the logo is such a small piece of the journey. Getting people to come along and believe in the brand is the most important piece of the puzzle. For me, that was the most challenging. ∞