What it says on the tin
US department store JC Penney recently went through a major rebranding, drastically changing and simplifying their communication across all touch points. Former head of retail at Apple, now JC Penney CEO, Ron Johnson, headed up the process and the result appeared in a presentation to the shareholders earlier this year. It’s long, but definitely worth a look.
A few months later it is clear that the relaunch was a massive failure, with plummeting sales and share price. So what went wrong? I think they made two mistakes, both results of assuming they played a larger role in people’s lives than they actually did.
JC Penney tried to simplify their price and promotion strategies, but instead ended up complicating them. Neither staff nor customers got it. People instinctively understand, and respond to, the word sale; what they don’t instinctively understand is a three-tier color-coded everyday-low-price structure or 12 annually themed promotion periods with individual personalities, visual codes, colour templates and propositions. Not unless they sit through the above presentation a couple of times. They arrogantly assumed people cared enough about them to make time to understand and adopt a counterintuitive new business structure.
JC Penney didn’t see a need to genuinely connect with the customer on level that went deeper than their pockets; assuming such a connection already existed. Despite pretending to understand that great brands stand for something (0:38:19), seconds later (literally), when time comes to apply this rather crucial element to the JC Penney brand, they reveal their efforts to be limited to a new logo (the third in as many years!) and a far-fetched visual framing device. A logo doesn’t create and define an identity for a brand: it is the company’s personality, evident in its actual actions and behaviour, which has to inform the logo and, by extension, the brand identity (although their actions and behaviour arguably include their new price and promotion structure, this is not in itself powerful enough create an iconic brand (0:36:40). Again, connection takes place on a deeper level).
JC Penney wanted to become distinctly American, but only by referencing it through visual language; they wanted to become America’s favourite brand, but only by partnering up with one of its favourite celebrities, Ellen DeGeneres. That this lazy approach to branding comes from one of the brains behind Apple is surprising to say it the least.
The slick and confident presentation is deceptive and effectively hides the lack of any real strategy. They wanted to be everything to everyone, but with no substance, vision or position it was only a matter of time before the customers discovered that the clothing retailer themselves had no clothes.