Cotton Candy @ The Amusement Park –
Every great brand has a soul…a reason to exist. And naturally, over the course of its lifetime, every great brand encounters challenges and lessons to be learned that offer insight into what makes it, truly “it!” Something undeniably unique. An icon. Not merely a copycat.
To remain relevant and unique in the eyes of a fickle public, every great brand needs to evolve without changing the essence of who it is or what it stands for. In short, it must sell itself without selling its soul.
There are moments when a brand loses its way. But the great ones quickly regain their bearings even though they’re blessed with great leaders and plagued by misguided ones. In the midst of these epic battles, courage and progressiveness will assume the throne while pretentiousness is exiled.
At one time, JCPenney was considered a great brand. But that was many moons, many Christmases, and many CEOs ago. Back when “The Golden Rule” was more than an archaic platitude of empty promises, but a way of doing business at an actual store filled the quality products procured for people who lived in the heart of America, America’s benevolent and hardworking middle class: the backbone of America.
Well, in 1997, J.C.Penney’s so-called Promised Land was broken when the brand became a victim of economic glaucoma. For years, the brand stewards stumbled around, groping for anything that could help prop up the brand and keep it from falling flat on its face. They changed their methods and they changed their marketing approach, chasing after trends, slipping into indecisive quicksand and committing one blunder after another. Until suddenly, someone realized they had wandered so far off course, they’d need a GPS to find their way back home…to their roots.
As new channels of communication opened up, the brand message was lost.
Recognizing that their vision was weak and their market share was vulnerable, Brian Sheehan lured them into his cleverly disguised Madison Avenue trap with the promise of “Lovemarks,” a 19thcentury approach (Remember Pears Soap? “Good Morning. Have you used Pears’ Soap?) masquerading as a 21stcentury paradigm shift, an elixir that would summon and enrapture the masses like Homer’s Sirens.
It goes without saying that people respect and value products they connect with. Ad icons like Bill Bernbach, Jerry Della Femina, Keith Reinhard, Phil Dusenberry and Hal Riney, just to name of few, all clearly understood and applied this basic truth to build great agencies and great campaigns eons ago.
Unfortunately, the only lasting impression “Lovemarks” left was a hickey on JCPenney’s bottom line. There was no love lost between Sheehan and the JCPenney brain trust because, ironically enough, after a drawn out courtship, there was no love gained between the brand and its customers.
That wasn’t the only shotgun approach that backfired. There was a slew of well intentioned, yet seriously misguided campaigns like “Doing it right!” As opposed to what, doing it wrong? Or how about “It’s all inside,” which doesn’t promote any fashion perspective other than the fact that you won’t find it at an outdoor flea market. Then they glommed on to “Every Day Matters.” Again, “Hello!” Where’s the fashion perspective? The point of difference? Seriously, did they think this was some kind of revelation? That every day didn’t matter to Middle America prior to this marketing edict?
Cool and trendy ruled the day, not the “golden rule” which was the foundation of the brand and the name emblazoned over the storefront that James Cash Penney opened for business along the muddy, horse-traveled streets of Kemmerer, Wyoming.
Admittedly, Ron Johnson’s “everyday low prices” approach had merit. Unfortunately, it was engaged at warp speed. So, instead of creating a close emotional connection with its loyal customer base, the two parties wound up light-years apart. Or as Alan Questrom, the head honcho at JCPenney during happier times, was quick to point out it took 20 years to change Bloomingdales pricing strategy. Seventeen months seemed a tad aggressive for JCPenney.
When William Howell, another former CEO who understood the brand and refused to drink the Kool-Aid, made the decision to drop hard goods in the mid-80s and focus on fashion and home goods, JCPenney earned the label as America’s Largest Fashion Department Store with over 1,700 stores. By being fashion focused, Howell was able to draw more repeat business.
Today, Mark Ullman the new ex-CEO—Can you say “Ground Hog Day?—is obviously more in tune with JCPenney’s heritage and long-time customers. You know, the ones who never bought into Johnson’s twisted logic of “change for the sake of change.”
Nevertheless, Ullman’s latest branding effort is a real “Winter Scratch-Your-Head and Wonder…land” of mixed messages, styles, deals and low budget graphics, with holiday cheer being decidedly absent. Like it or not, advertising is a direct reflection of the brand. If you dress a brand in cheap, ill-fitted clothing, guess what? That will be the public’s perception. Bargain basement prices and great values are not synonymous. The latter implies quality craftsmanship.
The current work is less focused than Mr. Magoo and as economically challenged as Popeye’s Wimpy, except on Tuesday. The “Holiday Carolers” spot did provide a glimmer of hope despite its poor execution.
As it stands today, JCPenney isn’t exactly a stone’s throw away from claiming its rightful place as a great brand like Neiman Marcus unless Drew Brees is the one doing the throwing. Time is running out. The fans are headed for the exits in droves. And no one on the JCPenney sideline appears to have a game plan. So I’ll offer one up before the retail team finds itself facing “sudden death.”
First, it may be too late! But the first play I’d call is pretty obvious: spin-off JCPenney’s most successful private brands like Arizona Jeans, St. John’s Bay, Stafford and Worthington etc. and market them as independent brands in stand-alone stores with a much smaller foot print: the size of an Eddie Bauer shop or Baby Gap. That way, they can focus their energy on developing each brand personality and cater to the needs and desires of that specific demographic.
Second, given that JCPenney isn’t a unique concept or lay claim to a unique product offering as is the case with Nordstrom’s or Neiman Marcus, I’d pass on the outdated, oversized anchor store concept and opt to run with the basics like underwear, jewelry, bedding and other home department, all huddled under one roof and name: JCPenney. Only they’d be restricted in size and organized much like a Bed Bath and Beyond.
Following the lead of other global icons, namely, General Motors, Unilever, Coca-Cola and Nestle, the JCPenney name would serve as the corporate identity for each brand spin-off and the scaled-down department store, empowering each entity with the ability to leverage the heritage, value and quality long associated with Middle America.
JCPenney’s survival is predicated on a progressive approach that emotionally connects with their core customer. Like a trusted friend, it must be honest and dependable. The image they project should leave the distinct impression that they genuinely care about their customers and employees.
Can JCPenney recapture their old form? Their true identity? No question about it. And for proof, one need look no further than the company archives and their first 88 years in business when the leaders of this great American institution followed James Cash Penney’s tenets to a “T”.
1. To serve the public, as nearly as we can, to its complete satisfaction.
2. To expect for the service we render a fair remuneration and not all the profit the traffic will bear.
3. To do all in our power to pack the customer’s dollar full of value, quality, and satisfaction.
4. To continue to train our associates and ourselves so that the service we give will be more and more intelligently performed.
5. To improve constantly the human factor in our business.
6. To reward men and women in our organization though participation in what the business produces.
7. To test our every policy, method, and act in this wise: ‘Does it square with what is right and just?’
Times certainly have changed. But the blueprint for success hasn’t. Now it’s time for JCPenney open its eyes, bear its soul and claim what is rightfully theirs: the hearts of Middle America. Only then, will they be worthy of their heritage.
For everyone’s sake, I sure hope they make it.