Bruce Poon Tip is the founder and chief executive of Gap Adventures, the largest adventure travel company in the world. After founding the company backed by credit cards in 1990, he’s grown it to become the largest adventure travel group in the world, with turnover of $150 million.
However, in 2007 Gap clothing sued the company, wanting its URLs and name. The case eventually went to the United States Federal Court, where Gap Adventures won on one count of confusion, but Poon Tip said he didn’t have the energy to keep making appeals – so the company changed its name to G Adventures.
Poon Tip says the rebranding took off without a hitch thanks to a strong company culture built over the previous decade.
So you were sued by Gap. When did all this start?
It had been going on since 2008, but it was in the background.
What was the starting point for all this? How did they approach you?
They originally came to us and wanted our URL. We own Gap.CA, and still own it. We weren’t interested. A company like that is litigious though, and so they launched various lawsuits, getting us to give up the name.
Did they offer you any money for the URL?
Yep. $65. The transaction fee. I went back to them and they offered $150. We had over 1,000 employees using it as an email address by then, so it went down to a pretty big battle between us. It got very serious at the end, it went to Federal Court, and they were charging us with counts of dilution and confusion. It was such a ridiculous waste of resources. They spent tens of millions of dollars, and we spent $5 million just getting to trial.
And so the five-year court process started.
It was the most ridiculous thing. They were trying to convince the court that people were confused with our name, and if you create enough noise then something can happen. Our logo is clearly an acronym, we are the Great Adventure People, and it was never anything but that.
The court ruled in our favour on one count, and theirs on another count. We weren’t forced to change or name at any point, I just went ahead and did it. Appeals could have been 25 years and then more after that. It can go on and on, and on, so I just decided to end it there.
Did you ever think about appealing?
Truly, I didn’t even think about appeals. Both sides just immediately launched appeals, and it’s the most ridiculous thing ever.
I just wanted to stop fighting. And at that point, we had started G Hotels, we have a G Lodge in the Amazon, and all our ships are named G one through six, we’ve started moving that way.
Wait, so you had already thought about changing your name?
Kind of. I’m definitely looking at it through a bright side in many ways, but there were other issues as well.
For instance, during our 20 years as a company, the concept of the “gap year” has grown, and people had started to put us in that category. We had that problem of people associating us with that.
The universe was telling me to do it, really, and it was an ego thing to fight these guys. In Britain, we weren’t even registering at trade shows because we were being swarmed by teenagers. People internally in the office were saying we should rebrand, that we’re growing, and we were getting comments from users like, “This is way better than I thought it would be, I thought you were a gap year company”.
So you quit the appeal, and started focusing on the brand. What was the first thing you did?
We hired a lot of brand experts, did a lot of research, polled our stakeholders, employees, and just asked a lot of questions about our name. I bought all these URLs, and it cost me a fortune.
I bought Great Adventures from Mattel, I bought Go Adventures, and that cost a lot as well. I had all of them lined up, and paid hundreds of thousands for all of them.
But when the research came back, G Adventures wasn’t even on the list.
So why choose it?
Because I felt like it. The name that actually came out of the research was “Go Adventures”. We owned that URL and were ready to go, and I had about six or seven thousand people responding to these surveys.
But I started looking through that research and saw comments that people thought it was boring. People had thought of our brand as being aggressive, avant garde, that was our brand equity. But the name didn’t match that.
Go Adventures tested very highly as a good change from Gap Adventures, because we could use the G name, but G Adventures didn’t even mean anything to anyone.
There’s a bit of flexibility in just using a letter. So I did some research, and then at the last minute, made the decision. People told me not to do it, but I just said, “Sorry, I’m changing my mind”.
How did you feel people would respond?
I don’t believe people know what they want, that is until you put it in front of them. The fact we were using opinions was a mistake, because people don’t understand what they want until we give it to them. This is the same reason I’m against focus groups.
Innovation is a big part of our differentiation. How many names can you think of with a “go” in the title? In Canada we have plenty, we have all of them. And even though I had the URL and I had the trademark, I didn’t want to do it. It didn’t reflect our innovation. It’s an easy name, harmless and inoffensive. And I think that name pigeon holes us as a travel company.
Our brand is about transcending the product, and engaging them with lifestyle choices about our brand and business culture.
Was it a hard thing to tell your staff?
The thing is, I’ve been saying to our people for a decade now that our culture is our brand. We promote our culture with our brand, and that’s how we’re able to travel around the world and sell out venues about travel. I’ve said in front of people for a decade that our culture matters most, so whatever our name is shouldn’t matter.
So how did they take it?
There was gasping. We did it at our future of tourism event in Toronto, and 1,200 people were there. We just did the presentation, and the whole audience gasped. But who cares?
Did you hear from Gap at any point after this?
They offered a lot of money to me to change our name after that case, and I refused it. Then we changed our name anyway.
I don’t want that kind of blood money. We’re very successful, I’m very happy with my business, and I don’t take that for granted.
You would have had a marketing push after this to get the name out there, right?
We did quite a bit. It was a massive story for a long time. But I’m known for being aggressive.
And after about 30 days of that, it changed, every single person started referring to us as G Adventures, and I think it’s the sign of the times that we can do that. Everyone we’ve had contact with is attached to us. We have 400,000 people we email newsletters to, we have 250,000 people following us on Twitter. We didn’t have that five years ago.
You know, I don’t think I’ve read a single negative comment.
How did your leadership team respond?
They knew what was coming. We had to decide on a single name… but I think for some it was too big to fathom. They wanted direction, and at some point I thought they would have wanted to stand up, but they were more like, “we’re behind you”.
It’s good they’re supportive of you.
Yeah, but they have to be.
None of them wanted to be G Adventures. They said Go Adventures was safe. But as soon as you say the word “safe” to me, it’s like a red rag to a bull.