The recent uproar surrounding the introduction – and then demise – of Gap’s new logo has sparked vibrant discussion on the merits and risks of crowd-sourcing…or more specifically listening to customers and critics.

A few weeks ago, Gap introduced a new logo on their Facebook page with nary a peep of warning or consultation. The initial reaction among observers was swift and fairly uniform – harsh criticism. The Gap folks tried to address the situation with a belated invitation for consumer input – call it reactive crowd-sourcing – which only fanned the flames of critics and confused observers. Think of it as bad buzz. Subsequent updates by Gap positioned the new logo as a broader brand update, and provided more background on the rationale and strategy. But in a fascinating twist, a survey several days after the initial buzz confirmed that few consumers were aware of the new brand or related online polemic. Gap ultimately announced they heard the feedback and scrapped the new logo design; it appears they have learned their lesson and will tread carefully in future brand changes. (For another example of a rebranding effort gone wrong – witness the debacle by Tropicana, which surprised consumers with a new packaging look that was harshly criticized – and eventually scrapped.)

There are several lessons communication and marketing pros can take from this story:

  • If you are truly committed to listen to online consumers or fans – have a crowd-sourcing plan and a system to back it up. Confirm how you will gather feedback and what you will do with it before opening the doors to input and ideas. Define rules of the game to manage expectations and legal/copyright issues. Most important, be prepared to respond and take action based on what you hear.
  • Make listening and monitoring of relevant sites a constant activity rather than an ad-hoc, reactive event. That will provide solid context for dissecting the scope and potential impact of any feedback.
  • Consider getting input before you make any changes to products or brands. That makes the process more credible and relevant for consumers.
  • Know who/where your fans and customers are…and make sure you are always listening to them. There was interesting debate around the Gap issue about whether the logo uproar was truly a broad, grass-roots reaction from fans and customers or just a brush fire from a small but vocal group of malcontents in the design community.
  • Have a brand strategy – and stick to it. Yes…consumers own the brand, since their perceptions are ultimately the reality and determine brand equity. And many passionate fans feel they have personal ownership of favored products or brands. But no brand can survive without careful management by inside folks who are trying to blend identity, marketing, products and PR to drive the business.

I’ve heard a few executives and peers whisper that the Gap episode provides further evidence that social media is risky and perhaps even counterproductive. I disagree. The problem here wasn’t with social media – though listening and dialogue has exploded with the advent of new technology – but with faulty strategy and planning. The famous Coke Classic fiasco happened years ago without the prominent presence of Facebook or blogs. The issue now is that criticism can spread much wider and faster than years ago…which puts more onus on active monitoring, smart planning and ongoing dialogue with customers. An excellent article in AdAge focusing on social media “screw-ups” (which goes beyond crowd-sourcing) suggests that such missteps are inevitable – despite increasing efforts by companies to listen and learn – due to the rapid pace of evolution in communication technology.

On a final note, I enjoyed this video post by my friend Paul Walker at the PulsePoint Group on crowd-sourcing projects that worked well…and why they did. It reminds us of the potential benefits of crowd-sourcing – including consumer/employee engagement, lower cost, innovation and speed-to-market – which to my mind greatly outweigh the risks. Check it out.