SAN FRANCISCO — Rapper and actor LL Cool J makes the point in 30 seconds. In an original rhyme, he says that while "everyone else wants to be your personal stylist," Gap jeans are about making your own style.
The simple but catchy commercial is one of six recent television spots with celebrities strutting their stuff in Gap's "easy fit" jeans. The commercials, huge outdoor paintings, including one on Sunset Boulevard staring down from a wall near the Mondrian Hotel, as well as a "casual Friday" stunt last week at the New York Stock Exchange, where Gap outfitted traders in its khaki pants, are all part of an aggressive image-building campaign by the San Francisco-based manufacturer and retailer.
Gap, which has been filling out American wardrobes since founder Donald Fisher opened his first blue jeans shop in 1969, has been working for more than a year to energize a brand that analysts and company executives say has a lot of potential but lacked focus in certain areas.
"Gap has reinvented itself so many times that there are bound to be short periods where all of a sudden you look and say maybe we need to tune this differently," said Michael McCadden, the brand's senior vice president for marketing.
The image make-over extends to the stores' displays. It has fine-tuned its approach to menswear, so that men who hate to shop can get in and out quickly. Clothing displays are color-coordinated so men can see how they might put a wardrobe together. Gap is experimenting with men's-only stores and has improved its selection of jeans, T-shirts, sweaters and Windbreakers to reclaim its turf from competitors Nautica, Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger.
"Before I thought it was a women's store, but my friends told me they have some cool stuff for guys," said 16-year-old Ben Rodny of Massachusetts, who ventured into a Gap this summer for the first time and returned again to buy a $34 pair of wide-leg jeans.
In both adults' and children's clothes, Gap is placing renewed emphasis on core items such as khakis and jeans. Having been criticized for not having a sufficient range of sizes in its stores, the corporation has strengthened inventory for key franchise items. And, for the first time in years, Gap aggressively pursued back-to-school shoppers this summer with special sales and promotions.
"Gap never considered themselves a back-to-school store, and it came back to haunt them," said Peter Schaeffer, a senior retail analyst with Dillon, Read & Co. in New York.
A division of the $5.3-billion Gap Inc., which also owns Banana Republic and Old Navy, Gap currently has 983 adult stores, 536 GapKids and BabyGap stores, and expects to add an additional 140 stores this year. In its quest to become as ubiquitous as Coca-Cola, Gap has also expanded into home accessories and personal-care items, such as nail polish. Existing stores are being spruced up to make sure Gap's corporate look with white walls, blond wood and chrome fixtures is consistent. The new displays and floor-to-ceiling shelves with jeans were designed to make it easier to find styles and sizes.
"The message is that we've figured it out for you. We're going to make this as easy as it can be," McCadden said.
Thanks in part to rebuilding at the corporation's flagship Gap division, sales for Gap Inc. stores open at least a year--a key measure of a retailer's health--rose 5% in 1996 after three years of flat sales. First-quarter sales were off this year as the company rid itself of unpopular items, but in a sign that the new strategies are working, August figures showed a 16% increase in comparable sales.
Several years ago, Gap managed to make khakis seem sexy with print ads that showed celebrities wearing the light cotton pants. In its new television spots, television, film and music stars Bill Macy, Eric Mabius, David Arquette, Lukas Haas, Peter Berg, Junior Brown and Tanya Rae Brown are decked out in jeans performing a special talent. In a blast from the past, each commercial ends with Gap's longtime jingle "Fall Into the Gap."
"That whole campaign of easy-fit jeans really springs off a 28-year history at Gap of personal style," McCadden said. "What we're doing right now is simply taking what's been a core equity and carrying it to new mediums." In addition to the celebrity ads, the company has two GapKids commercials and radio versions of the LL Cool J and Junior Brown spots.
"The way we've edited those spots, they cut through very quickly, you don't need to see it eight or 10 times to get it . . . " McCadden said. The ads are created in-house.
McCadden says Gap decided to highlight jeans as the product that best symbolized the brand. While LL Cool J and some of the other hot young stars were selected to help draw in the twentysomething crowd, Gap also brought in Macy, who co-starred in the movie "Fargo," to appeal to older customers. Bringing back the jingle was also a calculated move.
"It subtly says to someone, 'This brand has a great history. You've trusted this brand for a long time,' " McCadden said.
Gap won't say how much the ads cost, but the corporate ad budget has been raised from 1.2% of sales to 2.2%, or about $140 million this year, Chief Financial Officer Warren Hashagen said.
The return to mass media after several years is being viewed as a smart move by some analysts. Unlike past television campaigns, which aired for short periods, the company plans to keep this one going.
"The Gap is of a size and scale where traditional television advertising can yield the kinds of awareness improvement that they would probably like to see," said Hank Wilson, a consumer goods analyst for Hambrecht & Quist in San Francisco. "It's not enough just to do the merchandising and have the right clothes. They have to focus on connecting with their customers on a more emotional level."