Ivan Wicksteed, Old Navy's chief marketing officer, is doing two new things with the retailer's back-to-school campaign: He's tapped Nickelodeon stars to recalibrate the brand's messaging toward children and he's starting a long-term reduction of its reliance on television.
The campaign, "Multiply Your Style," incorporates Jennette McCurdy and Ariana Grande, the stars of Nickelodeon's Sam & Cat show, to promote the Gap-owned chain's $10-and-under sale this month via the network, in separate television ads and through a fashion show on Saturday. It's a shift from Old Navy's heavy use of nostalgia to appeal mostly to mothers in the past year with commercials starring celebrities of yesteryear from Beverly Hills, 90210 to the Backstreet Boys.
"Rather than the adult perspective of talking down to kids, it is empowering kids to take control of their own destiny and talking to them one-on-one," Wicksteed said to BuzzFeed in his first media interview since joining Old Navy in April from Cole Haan. "The tween power is on the rise, and it's getting younger every year, so kids more and more at a younger and younger age are expressing their strong point of view on how they want to show up and how they want to dress themselves."
The growing use of tablets, computers, and the internet means kids are exposed to more at a younger age than say, five years ago, and have more of a say in purchasing decisions, he said.
The campaign is Wicksteed's first since he joined Old Navy, filling a position that was vacant since the summer of 2011. He's bringing to Old Navy the growing philosophy that regular people are a brand's best advertisement, by hosting a runway-style show for kids ages 5 to 13 in Los Angeles on Saturday and asking parents to submit pictures of their kids in back-to-school fashions from stores with the hashtag "MyONStyle." While these aren't revolutionary concepts, they're novel for a brand that's spent much of its marketing budget on iconic television ads in the past decade (remember the "Old Navy, Old Navy, Old Navy performance fleece" jingle?).
"My personal belief is that people are the new media," said Wicksteed, who generated substantial buzz for Cole Haan last year through its "Don't Go Home" campaign, which largely took place on Twitter and other social media platforms. "I believe if you create events and engaging experiences, people will attend those events and write about them on their own social platforms, and that the world we live in today is a much more efficient and effective way of getting that message across."
Wicksteed said Converse, which he worked at before Cole Haan, pioneered the use of such events and experiential marketing, overall.
"Traditional media is becoming more and more expensive and therefore less and less efficient and I would argue that it's becoming less and less effective as well," he said, adding that ad agencies have taken note, as illustrated by the announced merger of Publicis and Omnicom this week. "I definitely am a big believer in nontraditional architecture, so part of my mission here is just to think intelligently about how we spend our money in terms of the media and make us less reliant on traditional TV."
The back-to-school shopping season is the second biggest for consumer spending after the holidays.
Old Navy, Gap's most affordable chain, is also its biggest — the brand made $6.1 billion in annual sales for 2012, exceeding revenue at the namesake brand and raking in more than twice what Banana Republic brought in. Same-store sales, which measures revenue at locations open at least a year as well as online purchases, rose 6% in that period, bouncing back from a 3% decline in 2011, when a mix of marketing missteps and soaring cotton prices hurt Old Navy.
"It would be premature for me to say we're going to walk away from TV completely — I do see that film has a strong role to play within the media mix, but we have been very, very overly reliant on TV, and I'm looking to redress that balance," he said. "Part of that is just looking for other places where film can play out, the digital distribution of film. Another part of the equation is looking at alternative ways of spending the money."
Wicksteed's ideas are in the vein of Gap's recent efforts to connect with customers through music festivals in the past year.
Still, part of that simply means Old Navy's ads will be appearing on digital formats.
"A fairly significant portion of our spend now," he said, "is actually devoted to digital film and digital media and I am completely confident that will continue to increase."