JCPenney brandIn June 2012, Forbes proclaimed JCPenney’s re-branding fail to be “epic.” Yes, an epic fail. What’s worse is that the writer devotes the entire first paragraph to reassuring the reader that the phrase wasn’t employed as a cheap, click-earning cliché, but is actually the most accurate way to describe JCPenney’s sliding sales. Okay, so that’s one take on the situation. But what’s happened since then? Like many marketers, I was pleased to see JCPenney’s new campaign that debuted on Oscar’s night a few weeks ago. The new Dear Dreamers campaign reinforces the JCPenney brand as a classic, all-American company. Maybe there’s hope? Well, it looks like the company might need a lot more reinforcement…

Why JCPenney Is on a Slippery Slope

  • “The Martha Stewart Deal.” JCPenney thought they might climb out of their hole with an exclusive deal licensing Martha Stewart products. As it turns out, Stewart already has a deal with Macy’s, which according to Macy’s is exclusive. Retail analyst Walter Loeb told Business Insider that if this deal falls through, it could be game over for the brand.
  • Bigger Problems Than Coupons. JCPenney CEO, Ron Johnson, decided that doing away with coupons and sales would be a great way to introduce “fair and square” pricing. That strategy caught a lot of flack, which has caused Johnson to reintroduce sales in his stores. According to customers, however, the problem isn’t a lack of sales or coupons. They simply don’t like the clothes.

Ultimately, there’s a disconnect between what JCPenney (aka Ron Johnson) thinks customers want and what customers actually desire. Some say the solution lies in getting rid of stores (which Ron Johnson insists he won’t do: “It’s an unfounded rumor.”). Others think that the JCPenney brand is beyond salvation.

So, what happens now? Can JCPenney turn things around, or do we all grab our lawn chairs and prepare for a final clothing retailer spectacle on Wall Street this summer? Will they even last that long?

Small Business Branding Tips (Not From JCPenney)

There are a few branding tips in all of this that small business owners can pick up. I hope Ron Johnson would say, “Here’s how you can learn from my mistakes…”

  • Don’t try to be something you’re not. Ron Johnson came sailing right off the Apple boat into JCPenney’s arms. Somehow, he seemed to get the idea that Apple’s success could be replicated at JCPenney. Clearly, that hasn’t worked. Great strategies don’t have universal application. What Apple does works for Apple. That doesn’t mean it will work for you, too.
  • Make sure your marketing strategy resonates with customers. And then check again. Johnson assumed that he knew what his customers wanted. Again, he was proven wrong. Use a focus group, implement an interactive content marketing strategy, do whatever works. The bottom line: you need to crosscheck your marketing strategy against your customers’ real desires on a regular basis. If things aren’t working, go back to the drawing board, and don’t delay!

What’s your take on the JCPenney debacle? Will Johnson pull the company out at the very end? Will someone else rescue JCPenney? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?