jc penney failure

jc penney logoI’m typically not one to root for something to fail, but I will make exceptions.

Ever since the “rebranding” of JC Penney JCP back in February, I’ve boycotted the store and waited for the day that their marketing stupidity would result in marketing failure. That day was yesterday.

From the super annoying teaser spots back in January (Nooooooo!) to the vapid campaign that was heavy on style but lacking any substantive advertising strategy, the whole endeavor by JC Penney to abandon their heritage was sad.

The advertising campaign bothered me the most. Newspaper inserts were wasted empty brand building pieces sitting next to other stores’ inserts chock full of merchandise. JCP featured no products. The campaign delivered no message. JCP waded right into the culture wars with a spokesperson who many people find objectionable. The media placement and scheduling was infuriating to viewers. The creative was not original. It was like watching an advertising student recreate an ad from The GAP or Old Navy as a class project.

(Lack of substance is an issue with alot of advertising today. More ad people need to read this book.)

But advertising is temporal. If a campaign doesn’t work, you can shove it under the rug and start fresh with the next one. JC Penney’s bigger problem is they have irreparably damaged their two most valuable assets: their customer base and their brand.

They may not be sexy, but the 35-65 female demo buys most things in department stores. They have disposable income. They purchase clothes and other items for the kids and the rest of the family. This type of base customer was the loyal customer base of JC Penney. And JCP left them to chase after a younger woman.

The JC Penney brand was not broken, but did need an update and adjustment. Like so many companies instead of brand adjustments, they threw the baby out with the bathwater. Rebranding is rarely the answer. You only need to rebrand if the brand is damaged. (Phillip Morris, BP, etc)

Marketing execs need to learn that rebranding is like paying the mortgage on a house for 30 years then abandoning the house because you’re tired of the wallpaper and paint. The key to successfully moving the perception of a brand is to take the positive brand equity with you instead of abandoning it.

JC Penney faced an impossible task. You can’t change a 110-year-old brand in a few months. Maybe they began with good intentions. Moving away from constant sales, coupons, and promotions was a good idea, but they over reached by trying to reinvent language. People know what a “sale” is, but a normal person doesn’t understand what “month-long value” is. And who knew a “Best Price Friday” happens on Saturday and Sunday as well? In general, JCP should have been more delicate with the brand work.

So now what? JC Penney is caught between the dock and the boat. They’re going to have to decide whether to build on what they have or keep trying to reinvent. What would you do?

By the way, if any company is thinking of hiring someone to come in and destroy their brand in 9 months for $15 million, I’ll do it in 5 months for only $7 million!

(UPDATE: April 2013 – JCP has ousted the architect of failure and reinstalled the former head honcho. We’ll see if it’s too late to save the brand.)

(UPDATE: May 2013 – I’ve written a new post complete with the JC Penney mea culpa commercial.)

Chris Houchens is a marketing raconteur & writer. Connect with him on Twitter or Facebook.

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8 comments on “jc penney failure
  1. True dat. Plus JCP forgot that to many shopping is a social event – the thrill of the hunt, the scoring a “find.” This is stuff shoppers brag to their friends about. Seems that the ivory-tower kicked in on this one and JCP disremembered their heritage.

  2. Oh, I forgot to complete the assignment…
    I would:
    Pull a New Coke and run a giant SALE…

    • This is exactly like the New Coke fiasco. JCP thought their customers wanted the new, when they actually loved the old. They still need to update to the times, but they need to build on what they have.

  3. Becki says:

    I agree but your comment “They may not be sexy, but the 35-65 female demo buys most things in department stores” is really insulting. You don’t have to be under 35 to be sexy. Couldn’t you have said JC Penney thinks they may not be sexy instead?

    • Sorry. I could have worded that better. I was referring to how the much value the demographic had to JCP, not the sex appeal of the individuals. This would be a much different blog if I spewed opinions like that! Thanks for the feedback and opportunity for clarification.

  4. Ann says:

    I so agree with you. I have been purchasing from JCP for years but have only placed one order in over a year. Recently, I wrote a review on an article of clothing that I loved, as did hundreds of other women that wrote reviews, but they had discontinued it. In it, I reminded them that the people they turned their backs on were the ones who had kept JCP afloat many years. Wooing the younger generations is fine, but don’t turn your back on us old folks!

  5. Evan Waters says:

    With the “spokesman who many people find objectionable” bit, you really do seem to be implying that companies should not be hiring openly gay spokespeople. If it’s not acceptable now, with gay marriage the law of the land in several states, DADT repealed, and public opinion inexorably swinging in favor of gay rights in general, then when?

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  1. [...] been updating my original post on the JC Penney brand debacle as they’ve come to this point. And I’m glad they’ve re-embraced their core brand. [...]

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