Share of Life

Digital innovation helps GAP take quantum leap in Japan

Written by
Marwa Khalife
Digital innovation helps GAP take quantum leap in Japan

A curious and thought-provoking discussion on how retail brands can integrate themselves into the consumer’s everyday life through meaningful interactions. Sebastian Jespersen, CEO at Vertic moderates a conversation between Matthew Corin, general manager at GAP, Inc. in Japan and James McQuivey, VP and Principal Analyst at Forrester.


Speakers Bios:

Sebastian: Matthew how do you see the digital maturation of the Japanese consumer, especially since when COVID-19 hit in March ?

Matthew: During my past year in Japan as GM for GAP Japan, I have realized that the retail industry here has been far behind the rest of the world. When the pandemic hit, we saw some interesting statistics. For example, 50% of the population has ordered something online - and not only apparel, but even groceries - for the first time in their lives. The pandemic had completely changed how we behave online, and how we connect with our customers. We've started converting a lot of our stores into distribution centers because the demand online was growing at such a rate and a lot of inventory was sitting in physical spaces.

I turned to Sebastian precisely because of his thinking on a particular topic about relationships between customers and companies, or as he calls it the share of life doctrine.
– James McQuivey

Sebastian: How has GAP responded to the COVID-19 crisis in terms of further connecting with the Japanese consumer?

Matthew: We have been implementing a local digital strategy, upgrading our digital touch points with local content, starting with social media. We have leveraged our retail sales associates as models on our local digital properties to create familiarity with the Japanese consumer and to enforce authenticity. Our digital  relationship and connection with the customer is really important for us, as it is encouraging Japanese consumers to associate themselves with the Gap brand, and not only think of us as a foreign American brand.

The question is how much of the environment that we are creating around someone to support them in their life, can become digital over time – a digital environment  influenced by the wisdom of humanity and not digital for the sake of exploitation.
–James McQuivey

Sebastian: How do you see the GAP brand being integrated into the everyday life of the customer?

Matthew: We have a three pillar strategy for how to enhance the relationship between the GAP brand and the Japanese consumer. First, we have implemented a customer-centric strategy that is dictating everything we do. The second is culture, merging the values of Gap as an American brand with the Japanese culture. Third is community – inserting Gap authentically into local Japanese communities. That approach is really getting us, proverbially speaking, outside of our own four walls.

James: Many retailers have created a strategy that is integrating the online and offline experience, yet this strategy is centered around products and does not allow for many consumers to entangle with the brand. They only have 1 or 2 store visits a year where they buy the product. What apparel brands should realize is that the products they thought are ‘low frequency’ purchases can still have high affiliation. The choice of what clothing you wear on your body speaks to who you are. It is intimate. Apparel companies should think of it as a privilege that customers are choosing their products to express themselves. So, even if apparel is a low frequency product and customers only shop 1 or 2 times a year with you, it still has high affiliation because it is personal. Apparel brands should entangle with consumers on an emotional level, not a product one, and connect with them through their personality and shared values.

Sebastian: James, you often talk about the importance of hope. In these difficult COVID-19 times where everything is changing, how can a brand like GAP play a role in bringing meaningfulness for its customers?

James: I think that Gap’s ‘comfortable together’ tagline is a solid foundation to build from. People want comfort and people want to be connected. They are two of the four foundational motivation drivers in life. It provides comfort in a time of discomfort, and is something that people ‘hope’ for. Hope is a biologically constructed thing and Gap is saying that, whatever you're hoping for right now, they are going to try to offer it. I think that the psychology of hope is shown when Gap goes to people saying that they recognize what people are hoping for want to help them get what you're hoping for, which is very different than telling people that they have a pair of pants that cost a certain amount.

The choice of what clothing you wear on your body speaks to who you are. It is intimate. Apparel companies should think of it as a privilege that customers are choosing their products to express themselves. So, even if apparel is a low frequency product and customers only shop 1 or 2 times a year with you, it still has high affiliation because it is personal.
–James McQuivey

Sebastian: Can you create brand affiliation via eCommerce?

Matthew: On a global level Gap is working to create the right balance between global and local.  On product pages where you click a style, such as the shirt that I'm wearing, it would immediately take you into one or two images of a model, typically an American model. But if you're a Japanese consumer, there's no relevance. So a lot of the imagery that we're now doing - we call them store snaps -, are where sales associates are wearing the clothes and doing different styling. That merging of local styling is crucial for our long-term success, because otherwise we are just a static image that people just can't connect to. We've had incredible results because people are now starting to believe that our brand is relevant to their everyday lives. That's happened through digital.

We need to start thinking about the digital space as we would a store and to connect more with the consumer, as we connect with them in the physical space.
– Matthew Corin  

James: I think that's wonderful as an example of good marketing. What I'm also hearing on top of that, is that it's also introducing the ’people element’. These are not actual models. These are people. I'm really interested in who we are surrounding the customer with so that they feel like they're part of ‘us’. They recognize the individual that works at a store and see them wearing those clothes, and suddenly they are not just connected to the clothes, they are connected to the store associate and people like her. Prior to COVID, you would have argued that can only happen in the store, but now that we have the pandemic, you're recognizing it can also happen in digital if we use digital in the right way. Sometimes companies don't recognize that about digital. They just think it's an efficient way to deliver a lot of messages at people, as opposed to invitations, to become encircled by what we as a company are trying to offer.

Sometimes companies don't recognize that about digital. Many are purely using digital to efficiently deliver a lot of messages at people, as opposed to invitations, to become encircled by what we as a company are trying to offer.
– James McQuivey

Sebastian: How do you see digital and physical stores coming together to create an overarching brand experience?

Matthew: eCommerce is becoming increasingly important in creating a connection and an ongoing relationship that is equally as important to those that are built in stores, if not more so. I think that because of that digital connection, we're now seeing more traffic into our stores than before, because consumers are starting their journey digitally and, when they sensed they shared our ethos or they felt a connection, they then take their journey into the physical space. That has been a beautiful thing that we want to explore further because we want to make sure that the omni-experience is fulfilling, whether you are going online or whether you're in a store.

Something that we're uncovering - which is against what we had historically thought about buying online –  is that all brands should not use the online platform as the ultimate expression of the brain. You can’t show limitless amounts of things in the digital space. If a consumer is looking for a new woven shirt, they don't want to go through 30 pages of shirts. There is a need to start thinking about the digital space as we would a store. We must move away from the digital experience being just a transaction, instead looking to connect more with the consumer, just as we would connect with them in the physical space

eCommerce is an essential part of servicing the customer, but many brands treat it as a separate transactional engine. For the whole experience to take off, brands also have to create an emotional experience.
– Sebastian Jespersen

James: I think that online platforms such as eCommerce are critical tools to build a community around brand and amplify the physical connection. This means taking something that is a low frequency experience and with the right digital tools make it a higher frequency one.

Marketers should try to strike the right balance between global assets and local experience. For example, a lot of Japanese just think of us as a foreign brand. They don't associate themselves at all with our products. So, what better way for people to recognize themselves than by showing a Japanese sales associate or manager dressed in our clothes living and breathing the Gap spirit.
– Matthew Corin  

Written by

Marwa Khalife

VP, Digital Growth

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