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Reigniting Gap as a Global Cultural Brand

BoF meets Chief Marketing Officer Alegra O’Hare to hear how Gap’s heritage of inclusivity and authenticity are the driving forces behind both its company culture and her new vision for the brand.
Alegra O'Hare, Chief Marketing Officer at Gap | Source: Courtesy
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NEW YORK, United States — Alegra O'Hare joined Gap earlier this year after 12 years at Adidas, during which time she headed marketing for its Originals and Style verticals. In 2017, she took home a Cannes Lion Grand Prix for the "Original is Never Finished" campaign. Prior to this, O'Hare worked at VF Corporation for seven years as the marketing manager for denim brands Lee and Wrangler.

Drawing on over two decades of experience as a creative leader, O'Hare has been tasked with re-energising the image of Gap, one of America's most culturally significant brands, while evolving its creative processes and culture internally. Her first major campaign, "It's Our Denim Now," lensed by 24-year-old Tyler Mitchell, who shot Beyoncé Knowles for US Vogue's September issue in 2018, celebrates the brand's legacy of inclusivity while championing diverse beauty ideals. As one of the highest-ranking female executives at Gap, O'Hare also sees an opportunity to empower other women in the company, while continuing to innovate on its marketing practices.

BoF sits down with O’Hare to discuss how she’s approached her first six months in the job and the direction in which she’s taking both her team and the brand.

What was your initial experience of the company culture at Gap?

Very warm. Whether it’s within the company or externally, there is this proximity consumers feel to the brand. Everyone has some sort of memory of Gap, and I think it’s a real strength that the collective memory of the brand within the company is strong.

Consumers nowadays are looking for what’s real. We’re bombarded with lots of news, so with a brand like Gap that has always been authentic, there’s a huge opportunity to be that vehicle to connect to consumers in a very real way.

What motivated you to join the company?

It leads into my North Star — turning Gap into a cultural brand again. I could see this evolution from it being a US retail brand to a global cultural brand — that’s the opportunity, to reconnect it with consumers and to really leverage its heritage. I think it goes back to my own personal feeling of optimism and positivity, and seeing the value in bringing people and cultures together. I’m half-Italian and half-American, and I’ve lived half of my life in the US and half my life in Western Europe. Gap is all about about inclusivity and diversity, and that aligns with my own beliefs.

Gap marketing team employees | Source: Courtesy

Now, I want to push the envelope of the brand and have it really stand for something. From a marketing point of view and senior leadership point of view, that’s what we’re really crafting —we're bringing to life what the brand stands for and what its purpose really is.

How do you maintain authenticity across highly diverse and distinct global content sharing channels and platforms?

I think listening is a key component — if you’re not capable of listening, you can get into a lot of trouble. There are very important, strong cultural nuances that you have to take into account as you deploy your marketing and communications across all countries. China is different from Western Europe; South America from the United States. You can have a global purpose and a global brand voice and identity, but then you have to understand how that translates into those specific markets. We have to work with local cultural nuances; you cannot think one size fits all.

You also need to leverage the experts in the market. You cannot think, looking out from wherever your company’s global headquarters are located, that you know what really connects all consumers and what content will cut through the different markets. Since I started six months ago, we have changed the marketing operating model that Gap has followed for years. I want to make sure that the deliverables are specific to the channels for which they serve a purpose, whether that’s social, digital or retail channels.

What opportunities are there for Gap employees to foster their creativity?

I had never been in a company before where there are quite so many open conversations around creativity, and we’re trying to push the boundaries with that going forward.

Something that I tell employees all the time is to own your development. There’s a list of internal tools that we have for development — it’s pretty endless at Gap — but it’s about keeping employee development at the forefront of our daily conversations and not putting it on the back burner. This is a guiding principle that really gets the development of team members on the agenda.

How do you personally enable your team to grow and develop?

I think, as leaders, you have to be yourself. I like to liberate the talents in the organisation and allow them to be creative and allow them to really have a point of view and to have ideas. I also think it’s really important that leaders champion the values that they stand for. For me personally, everybody knows that I’m a very transparent person. I like honesty and getting to the bottom of issues by having conversations about them, taking a decision and moving forward.

We're not going to innovate or grow if we don't change and if we don't take risks.

Your teams and employees want to feel human connectivity, empathy and understanding, and to know that perfection is never going to happen. There are no bad ideas and I tell my team, “We’re not going to innovate or grow if we don’t change and if we don’t take risks,” so that means making mistakes. As long as we learn from those mistakes, we can grow and innovate in an even stronger way.

Gap does a great job of providing our employees with resources so they can really own their career development, and the tools for their managers to support them in their journey. All employees have to have regular developmental conversations with their managers to discuss their goals, where they’re getting stuck and share successes. Also, managers have access to the ‘great boss programme and leadership essentials’, a nine-month programme for new managers to get the skills and experiences they need to successfully lead others.

What kind of talent do you look for in potential employees?

Besides the classic characteristics of creativity, collaboration and confidence, I always look for a quality that distinguishes someone. It starts with a mindset. I think positivity is an underestimated quality of talent. You receive a lot of resumes of people who have done glorious things, but at the end of the day, you’re looking for passion and positivity.

Diversity is also really important, getting people from different backgrounds and experiences that perhaps haven’t had that linear trajectory. It’s not just about how good you are in marketing, or if you graduated from that school — sometimes, it’s more about those more difficult moments in life and having overcome them. I think that shows real strength of character.

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This is a sponsored feature paid for by Gap as part of a BoF Careers partnership. Click here to discover more information about career opportunities at Gap and marketing roles available in Alegra’s team.

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