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Retro Branding in Gap's Nineties Re-issue Collection

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In the recent years fashion trends that were deemed as outdated and horrible made comebacks. From denim to big tennis shoes, a lot of trends resurfaced, and new fashion collections began to incorporate designs inspired by products that fashion brands already released on the market twenty to thirty years earlier. Tommy Hilfiger released nineties inspired jackets and it is not unusual to see people in fishnet tights or sporting a fanny pack. One very recent example for this resurfacing of old fashion trends is the limited Nineties archive re-issue collection by Gap. Launched in early 2017, it featured a lot of washed out denim, classic designs for t-shirts and hoodies, and had an overall grunge look to it. The designs are subtle and do not look like much but are retro, referencing a time when the brand made more money off their products and was more relevant in the industry. A campaign video called Generation Gap and directed by Kevin Calero featured the offspring of models that wore the respective designs back in the nineties. Naomi Campbell also makes an appearance in the same attire she wore in a 1992 commercial. The campaign is not extraordinarily surprising nineties fashion is making a big comeback after all but it is curious how Gap references back to and relies on its ads from the nineties. The aim of this paper is to analyze how despite the reproduction of old designs, Gap’s campaign is appropriate for the present while remaining awareness of the past, and how Gap emphasizes the brand’s stability and authenticity. First, in this paper we will look at definitions for the term retro and distinguish it from nostalgia. Then, we will touch upon the marketing strategies retro branding and brand heritage that are both also concerned with brand authenticity. On this foundation, this paper will then analyze on how Gap implemented these marketing strategies in their re-issue collection and how they coordinate the brand’s past with the present based on the aspects of the fashion designs and the references of the campaign video to prior campaigns. Lastly, the paper will shortly brush upon how Gap uses nostalgia to market their collection.

Theoretical Background

The terms retro and nostalgia are often used interchangeably in literature and everyday use. For instance, Guffey defines retro as consider[ing] the recent past with an unsentimental nostalgia (Retro. The Culture of Revival 11) that begins with Modernism (cf. ibid. 25). Nostalgia though is not objective but a form of perception that is based on affect (Sielke 15). These affective memories carry emotional components that idealize the past rather than reflecting on it objectively which allows irony, thus giving the term retro in Guffey’s definition a highly blurry quality. Reynolds (xxx-xxxi) defines retro in four points, namely that retro is set in the time frame of living memory, it is a reproduction of old styles, concerns popular culture, and does not idealize the past but looks at it ironically. For this paper we will define retro as an ironic re-evaluation of objects of the recent past, that is living memory, that may or may not invoke nostalgia. However, precise reproductions of products lack the updated standards of the present. Take a car for instance. The design may be retro and flattering for present standards, but the outdated technology causes the car to be inefficient and unreliable. To work around this problem, brands make use of a strategy called retro branding or retro marketing. Instead of producing exact replications of a product, brands can opt for retro products that combine the old design with new functions (cf. Brown 365). Brown et al. then refine the definition of retro branding as the revival or relaunch of a product or service brand from a prior historical period, which is usually but not always updated to contemporary standards (20). Furthermore, retro branding may be motivated by several reasons, some of them being of organizational nature: A brand can capitalize on already existing resources and thus the risk of launching the product reduced, the retro product can be a reaction to similar attempts by the competition, and it may be an opportunity to make use of brand heritage (cf. Brown 366-367). Brand heritage plays with the idea that in uncertain times, consumers purchase products that make them feel reassured, thus opting for brands that represent stability, familiarity and authenticity (cf. Hakala et al. 448). A brand’s authenticity, Leigh et al. discusses, can be either achieved through product symbolism and/or self-efficacy (cf. 490). When people experience authenticity through product symbolism, they tend to use the products. People who experience authenticity through self-efficacy, however, do so through individual experiences they had with the brand (cf. ibid.). The latter fits the definition of nostalgia. Thus, it seems to be at least one of the reasons why retro branding, which does not concern itself with nostalgia, might evoke nostalgic affects within the consumer. Boccardi et al. argue that the symbiosis of a brand’s heritage and mythopoesis is the key to authenticity (cf. 139). By reinterpreting [a] brand’s historical tradition through a mythopoetic narrative [a brand is] able to transport the past authenticity also in the present (ibid. 139), this concept is related back to retro branding.

Retro Branding Through Retro Fashion Designs

The collection was not a remake of an entire campaign from the nineties but featured some select iconic designs from throughout that decade. The company took the designs from their archives and recreated them (cf. Gap Launches Limited-Edition 90’s Archive Re-Issue Collection with Generation Gap’ Film). It fits all of Reynolds’ aspects for his definition of retro perfectly: The designs are from the recent past, are a perfect replication of the original products, the design concern artifacts of popular culture and not all designs were chosen to be reproduced but only some selected items that we can look back on and reflect to the past (cf. Retromania xxx-xxxi). Given that the designs were not changed and thus not updated to the standards of the present, it might be arguable that the re-issue collection is not subject of retro branding. Yet, providing that the fashion industry is not so prone to innovation in the sense of cutting edge technology like the car industry for instance, it fits the idea of not always being entirely updated to contemporary standards (cf. Brown et al. 20). Plus, it is maybe the selection of items that is up to present standards and tastes. The whole campaign does not necessarily remind one of the nineties directly and that is because the designs that were selected do not feature prints or colors that are stereotypically associated with that decade. Instead, the campaign mostly featured whites, blacks and blues (Gap, 2017). In that regard the collection was updated to present tastes. Furthermore, the collection does seem to fit the motivations of brands for retro branding (cf. Brown et al. 366-367). First, it must have cost much less to recreate archived designs than to come up with entirely new designs and given that the aesthetic of the nineties is very popular in the fashion industry at the moment, the company must have made profit. Second, Gap went the save route with this collection because the products have been a success in the past and the relaunch was likely to do fine again on the preface that nineties fashion is making a comeback. Third, although it is difficult to say that Gap launched this campaign as a response to one similar campaign by a different company, it is quite obvious that they launched the project because their overall competition started to produce more nineties inspired clothing. Lastly, the campaign is a way of showing the public that Gap is a stable and authentic company that has been around for many years. The company tries to convey authenticity through old designs onto which customers can then project their individual memories (cf. Leigh et al. 491). It is not just about the re-issue but also ‘the stories that come with them’ (Gap Launches Limited-Edition 90’s Archive Re-Issue Collection withGeneration Gap’ Film).

Symbolic References Reinforcing Brand Heritage and Authenticity

The campaign video Generation Gap: 90s Icons Now (Gap, 2017) shows the faces of children of models who had formerly modelled for the same clothes in the nineties. They each wear their parent’s outfit. The one exception is Naomi Campbell who modelled for Gap in 1992 and appears in the video wearing the same outfit in the new campaign that she wore before (cf. Gap Launches Limited-Edition 90’s Archive Re-Issue Collection with Generation Gap’ Film). With this the video plays with symbols for old and new through the example of generations. The old generation is retired, and their related youth takes on the spotlight. It is a transition in the idea of retro branding; new imagery to replace the old one while referencing it. It is through that symbolism that the brand reinterprets its history in the fashion of mythopoesis and creates and transfers its authenticity from the past to the present. Another aspect that brushes upon retro branding is the style of video. Mainly shot in a high resolution with modern equipment, there are some shots that are in a cruder quality, presumably shot with an old camera or added as a filter afterwards (Gap, 2017). The low-quality shots are a reference to the original advertisements back in the nineties. Moreover, the video is shot in black and white for the first fifty seconds. Then it turns polychrome. It is curious, though, why the video is monochrome first. The campaigns in the nineties were already shot in polychrome and polychrome television was not new technology, making the monochrome sequence in the beginning of the 2017 video reference a different past. Nevertheless, both, the low to high resolution shots and the monochrome to polychrome coloring, show how retro elements are updated to the contemporary standard and thus, connect old campaigns to the present through referencing them in their technology. The song the models sing acapella in the video is called All 4 Love and was the Billboard number one hit in 1992 (cf. Gap Launches Limited-Edition 90’s Archive Re-Issue Collection with Generation Gap’ Film). The music and the arrangement of models on a cube-like landscape as well as the camera progressing through that arrangement of models is very similar to a commercial from the nineties featuring the song Mellow Yellow (cf. ibid.). The arrangement, the camera movement and especially the resolution have undergone changes in the new commercial from 2017, but the similarities and references are still there despite the modifications. This is, again, a way how Gap uses retro branding for this campaign and creates a mythopoetic narrative to invoke a sense of brand authenticity within the consumer. Finally, the campaign video touches upon nostalgia as well. Right in the beginning, Naomi Campbell says through a voice over: It was very cool, very easy, but it had a slight edge and it was all about personality [TC 00:09]. She is presumably talking about the nineties and how life was during that decade. Like any other gaze on a different time period, it is warped and idealized (cf. Sielke 13). After all, issues concerning race were still relevant and gained more attention during the nineties because of the Rodney King verdict and the riots that followed but also a growing awareness of terrorism emerged. So, the nineties were not cool and easy, at least from a sociopolitical point of view. Whether there was a higher emphasis on personality during that decade is also debateable and rather unlikely since society is still working toward being more tolerant and accepting of unconventionality. The accuracy of depiction of the past is not important when it comes to nostalgia, though. After all, Nostalgia is an affect that creates its own time-spaces (cf. ibid. 13). It does not try to be accurate. Gap creates an imaginary time-space to make the consumer feel affected by the collection to then make them more inclined to purchase their products.

Retro branding is a marketing strategy the helps brands to emphasize their authenticity and stability. It allows brands to pick up on reoccurring trends in aesthetics and invoke a sense of longevity and authenticity within the consumer. Gap makes use of retro branding to market their nineties archive re-issue collection. The products themselves are pure retro designs that do not show the criterion of an update to present standards to be considered as a form of retro branding. However, the range of designs that have been selected for this collection and the campaign video show past collections and campaigns have been altered and updated to present tastes and thus shows how Gap utilized retro branding. Through retro branding, Gap emphasizes its brand heritage in the campaign video to show the brand’s stability and durability throughout time and in the present. Furthermore, the brand creates a narrative through symbolism in the choice of models, the technology and the music, which in symbiosis with the brand heritage evoke a sense of authenticity. Finally, it is shown that, even though the campaign mostly relied on retro marketing, Gap also made use of nostalgic affect to promote the collection. Retro branding is a great strategy for Gap to remember its own past and cater to re-emerging tastes of aesthetics without the risk of creating entirely new products. It successfully accentuates Gap’s stability, longevity and authenticity.

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