Gap Back on TV

Alexa Ray Joel and George Harrison’s son, Dhani Harrison, appear in spots.

When Gap Inc. returned to television advertising Monday, it was singing familiar tunes.

This story first appeared in the September 17, 2013 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Billy Joel’s daughter, Alexa Ray Joel, and George Harrison’s son, Dhani Harrison, appear in the new commercials, which bring to an end the retailer’s almost four-year hiatus from TV, performing songs written by their fathers. Joel does her version of “Just the Way You Are,” winner of a Grammy in 1979, while playing on the type of piano that was used to record the original song and wearing her father’s ring. Harrison revisits “For You Blue,” a song that was on The Beatles’ 1970 album “Let It Be.”

Seth Farbman, Gap’s global chief marketing officer, explained that the retailer wanted to highlight musicians, hallmarks of past spots, in its reappearance on TV and vetted hundreds before settling on Joel and Harrison. “We noticed there were quite a few contemporary artists who met Gap’s idea of authenticity and optimism, but who also had these deeper stories, relationships with their parents and their own journeys to discovering who they are. Those two rose to the top quickly. We reached out to them and described the idea. It’s not just about wanting them to cover their fathers’ songs. It is about sharing yourself through relationships with your parents. We have always been a cross-generational brand,” he said.

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Directed by Danny Clinch, better known as a photographer who has captured the likes of Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen and Tupac Shakur, the stripped-down commercials, part of Gap’s Back to Blue fall campaign centered on denim and chambray, were shot in a single take and spotlight the rock progeny with instruments, clothes, chairs and little else. “We are not taking 15 edits and cutting them all together to create something perfect. In fact, you are sharing and, in some ways, exposing the true person, imperfections and all. The single shot sends the subtle signal that this is real. It is not a commercial as much as dropping into something meaningful,” said Farbman.

Gap is trying television again as it is finding its business footing. In fiscal year 2012, Gap’s net sales increased nearly 8 percent to $15.65 billion and net income rose 36 percent to $1.135 billion. “We really wanted to make a very clear statement that we knew who we were as a brand, that we had rediscovered our roots and our purpose,” said Farbman. Last year, Gap spent $653 million on advertising, a figure that should go up with television back in the retailer’s ad mix, although Gap has stressed its careful approach to the medium.

In its second-quarter conference call, Gap’s executive vice president and chief financial officer Sabrina Simmons noted Gap has moved away from blanket national TV advertising. “It’s going to be much, much more focused and surgical on our top markets and buying spot TV, which I think, these days especially, it’s just much, much more efficient than that old national network. So, that’s how we’re keeping the dollars well in hand and we think it’s a solid investment,” she said.

With its TV ad spending, Farbman pointed out that Gap is zeroing in on important television events like the premiere of “Modern Family” on ABC, the NFL on Fox and the American Music Awards on ABC. That strategy complements Gap’s continued commitment to digital marketing as Farbman suggested that running its ads during significant television events can help drive conversations on social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter.

Gap bet on that interaction by launching its television commercials on Twitter at 11:30 a.m. EST on Monday before they hit the TV airwaves in the evening. In addition, Gap is using Twitter’s targeted ad technology to widen the reach of its commercials by connecting with people tweeting about television shows that Gap is advertising against. “Twitter gives us real-time information about what people are interested in and what is culturally relevant. We can share our content, whether it is part of a TV spot, whether it is quotes from Dhani or Alexa, we can share that real time to be part of that conversation,” said Farbman.