Fashion for Kids and Teens

Campaign Trail: GapKids meets anticipated back-to-school season with ad on individualism

Campaign Trail is our analysis of some of the best and worst new creative efforts from the marketing world. View past columns in the archives here.

Retailers are revving up for what’s turning out to be a highly anticipated back-to-school season. For its part, Gap is approaching the annual shopping period with a kids’ campaign centered on individuality, spotlighting a classroom of Memphis fifth graders and their teacher, who went viral online for his personalized handshakes.

“Individuals” launched this week for GapKids with a fresh video ad depicting the class and David Jamison, nicknamed “The Dope Educator,” performing their handshakes at school and lining up in the halls. The soundtrack is set to daily mantras from Jamison’s class, like “Who are we? We are the Rockets!” and “The Rockets are respectful and responsible, optimistic, collegiate [and] knowledgeable.” Beyond its core video, the campaign includes ads on digital, social, streaming TV and out-of-home through mid-August.

Building on several efforts tied to themes of unity, GapKids’ new campaign is the latest effort to underpin the company’s year-old philosophy of “modern American optimism.”

This time, the retailer is doing so by zooming in on a single Tennessee class and its teacher, in line with Gap’s ethos of honoring change makers across generations, according to CMO Mary Alderete.

“The whole concept is about celebrating the power of their individuality and how this next generation can achieve their potential,” she said.

A noticeably different back-to-school

For the next three weeks, the campaign’s main goal is to position GapKids as a destination for shopping and drum up awareness ahead of a back-to-school season that is highly anticipated following a year of virtual schooling in some regions. This school year likely won’t be without controversy again, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this month recommending students and teachers wear masks indoors.

New creative assets will run on linear and digital TV, Gap’s owned online platforms and all U.S. store windows, as well as a Times Square billboard through Aug. 19. Alderete’s team shot the ad in late May, letting the kids style their own looks from GapKids’ fall apparel collection. This week, Gap hosted a pep rally at the school, debuting the finalized spot and unveiling a mural of images from the shoot — doubling as an OOH Gap ad near the building’s entrance. The brand also donated school uniforms and branded sweatshirts to the students and $510,000 to Historically Black Colleges and Universities in a program called “Closing the Gap” to fund 21 fashion students.

The fall campaign, developed internally with Creative Director Len Peltier and shot by award-winning photographer Melodie McDaniel, extends Gap’s focus on putting values-led messaging at the forefront of its marketing.

Last year’s fall effort was notably different than most back-to-school campaigns, with the majority of kids not returning to school in-person. That campaign’s timing also aligned with what was set to be a contentious election season, leading GapKids to debut “Be the Future” in August 2020 and elevate voices of young leaders. The creative centered around themes of unity, advocacy, community and voter education, supported by partnerships with When We All Vote and Rock the Vote, as well as voting-themed apparel.

“It’s not about getting political as much as it’s about being inspired by unity and bringing everyone together. Bridging generations and cultures is quintessential Gap,” Alderete said.

“Today’s youth is not waiting to grow up to make a difference in the world.”

This year, the brand is instead leaning into the heightened anticipation of a long-awaited return to school, while advancing diversity initiatives that have been a prime focus for years. GapKids’ back-to-school messaging closely aligns with a spring campaign geared for the company’s adult line. “Generation Good” in February tapped creators and activists — like Dr. Woo and Aurora James — working toward a more positive, inclusive future. Linking the two campaigns together around one thematic platform may help to convey Gap’s message longer-term.

“If we’re about celebrating the potential of an individual and being your true self, we thought, ‘How could we bring that idea to kids and empower them to be that next generation of change makers and culture shapers?'” Alderete said. “Today’s youth is not waiting to grow up to make a difference in the world.”

What’s old is new again

Together, the back-to-school push and an adult-focused campaign slated for September come at an opportune time for Gap (Alderete did not disclose details on the fall campaign).

The brand has seen significant chatter online since January, when a TikTok influencer posted a video while wearing a vintage Gap hoodie in brown, a style that hasn’t been manufactured in over a decade. Days later, brown sweatshirts bearing the block-letter logo started hitting resale sites for north of $300. The topic #gaphoodie on TikTok now has more than 6.8 million views. Gap noticed the momentum, sent shirts to a handful of TikTok creators and is now producing a fresh batch of brown hoodies for sale this fall, according to Alderete. The company is also using TikTok to crowdsource its next color.

A full marketing calendar this summer and fall may lay the groundwork for stronger sales in the year’s second half. Gap reported $4 billion in net sales in the first quarter of 2021, an 89% increase compared with 2020 and 8% lift when compared with 2019 pre-COVID levels, and attributed its sales growth partially to the marketing investments it made during the past several quarters. Gap is scheduled to report earnings again on Aug. 26.

Beyond this fall, the company’s creative campaigns — across its brands for kids, teens and adults — will continue to advance representation, inclusion and optimism, according to Alderete.

“We want the platform for the brand to be consistent, and it’s really about celebrating the potential of each generation. It’s about the potential of being one’s true self,” she said.