JC Penney: Lessons in Branding

For brand owners, who want and care to build an enduring and valuable brand, the recent JC Penney drama offers a unique learning opportunity. Esteemed retailer JC Penney opened its doors a century ago, and generates annual revenues of nearly $13 billion from its 1,100 stores. For most of the 20th Century, as a mid-market department store, JC Penney was a force to be reckoned with.   A force, however  that got the brand stuck in its recent self-inflicted drama today. Like its competitor, the department store format is becoming a relic–an idea that no longer serves the changing needs of shoppers in a new world of digital.  Now, JC Penney is a broken company and a broken brand.  Jcpenny’s recent attempts to transform its iconic brand, left head’s rolling- and people questioning the brand and it’s value overall.  Loyal followers, old and new, took a step back and no longer recognized the discount store.

Let’s look at the lessons for marketers based on JC Penney’s recent attempts to transform its iconic brand:

What got you there, won’t keep you there.

Lock onto true north before changing anything.

Iconic brands are typecast.

Be committed no matter what.

Just like an aging child actor, brands will always be who and what customers remember them to be. Iconic brands are typecast. By its current generation of shoppers, JC Penney is and always will be a discount department store brand so why put a fox in a sheep’s costume and pretend it to be something else?  Everyone knows it’s not a sheep ! A Chevy, no matter how elegantly designed and engineered, will never be perceived with parity as BMW.  You can stretch brand relevance only just so far. This is especially true for iconic brands. For JC Penney, taking the discount coupons store and driving up the market in an Apple-esque manner has proved to be a steep ascent indeed- one that they wouldn’t have needed to really try and climb.  Once, JC Penny dropped its beloved coupons, legacy customers abandoned the brand in droves.

True north is the sacred reason the brand exists in the first place. True north is not subject to the whims of the marketplace. To transform an iconic brand, the transformation begins from the inside out, not the other way around. Transformations are a process not an overnight decision.  Revolutions are bloody and expensive. Change is painful and takes a long time- Big old boats take longer to turn around- if you push them to move too quickly they are more likely to sink.  To have a chance at success (not a guarantee), brand owners must be all in over the long and uncertain road of transformation. An idea that doesn’t sit well when your watching your pocketbook- whatever the investment.


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