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5 Important Branding Lessons from JCPenney

Branding Lesson DiagramBranding Lessons from JCPenney

If you’ve been following the latest in the saga of JCPenney, you no doubt know that once again they are trying to right their ship. Ron Johnson, during his seventeen month tenure as CEO of JCPenney is out, and the brand is now trying to control the damage.

Johnson is no beginner at retailing.

He is credited with a number of successful initiatives. If you’ve ever been to an Apple Store, you are familiar with his work. By all accounts he is a brilliant light in the world of retailing. However, for JCPenney, his light was just too bright.

When Johnson was hired, JCPenney was a declining brand. Johnson was brought in to work his magic, to do what he had done for Apple, Target, and others. And so he did, or at least, tried to. He instituted a complete makeover of JCPenney as we have come to know it. He changed the store layout from borderline bland to bold boutique. No more rows and rows of clothing racks. He changed the merchandise to a hipper, more fashionable assortment. He put an end to discount sales , something JCPenney was known for, and instituted everyday discounts instead. By all appearances, including new advertising and a modernized logo, JCPenney was a different place. The result? JCPenney went from being a declining brand to a failing one. And now their advertising is trying to make amends with a new campaign that apologizes for its mistakes, and claim to have learned from this strong branding lesson.

Some fault Johnson for this.

I am reluctant to put both feet into that camp. JCPenney was half-right. They did need an artist. But they also needed someone who could draw within the lines. They needed someone to inspect their brand’s foundation to see what could or couldn’t be done before making radical changes. They needed someone who could pull out a yardstick to measure risks before taking them. They needed someone who could put the JCPenney brand culture under a microscope to assess how much could be realistically changed. And through this hiring mistake, JCPenney added itself to the list of brands like Coke, KFC, The Gap, and others who got lost on their routes to becoming something different than before. However, unlike these brands, it is doubtful that JCPenney has the resilience to bounce back.

Here are five important branding lessons we can all learn from JCPenney’s mistakes.

Branding Lesson #l. It’s easy to change the church, but difficult to change the religion.

Brands are far more complex than they seem from an external perspective. What the brand looks like is the result of some deep-seated belief that has been subscribed to by both customers and employees. You can’t just one day announce that the new normal is “chic” when “chic” is inconsistent with the brand’s essence. Wake up and smell the existing belief. Because no matter how hard you try to appear different, consumers will know who you really are, deep down inside. And the longer you have been around, the deeper your “down inside.” Building on existing beliefs, while remaining true to what they are, is far better than changing them altogether. To think that JCPenney could be like an Apple Store is a little like believing any frog can become a prince.

Branding Lesson #2. It takes a village.

One man’s vision can’t drive change, especially radical change. It takes an entire organization to both agree and support change. And that includes everyone who has a face-to -face relationship with the customer. If you want to change behaviors, allow time for that change to take place. You can’t tell people to be different. You have to train them. Short-term, your chances are better setting out to modify operations instead of completely changing them. And, by all means, don’t announce things are different or better until those differences have been field tested and proven operationally sound.

Branding Lesson #3. Find the beauty in your beast.

Sometimes the only change that is needed is the realization that fundamentals don’t have to change. Before buying into Chicken Little forecasts that the sky is falling, be mindful that there is still some value in what you are and what you have been. Before throwing everything out and starting over, see if there are better ways to celebrate who you are and what you stand for. Your problem could be nothing more than a missed opportunity.

Personal branding requires utilizing many different tools.Branding Lesson #4. Know the difference between an Apple and a Penney.

JCPenney gambled everything on the hunch that what worked for Apple and other retailers could work for this 100 plus year old department store. Artistry gave way to science. Had both disciplines worked collaboratively, management might have seen that JCPenney has its own idiosyncratic realities. It helps to know what is working or not working for different brands, even those in entirely different categories. But blindly betting the farm on an approach that worked somewhere else can be disastrous. At the very least, test.

Branding Lesson #5. Brand new or new brand?

When Toyota introduced a luxury car, they came up with an entirely new brand. So as to disassociate this new car with what the Toyota brand had come to mean, they named it Lexus. General Electric did this with Hotpoint years ago. BMW did this with Mini-Cooper. I wonder if JCPenney considered a similar strategy. Of course, for JCPenney, this would have cost a great deal in capitalization. But weighed against what they lost, it might have been the lesser of two expenses.

For JCPenney, Ron Johnson was a new, shiny object that was going to contemporize JCPenney. His modern ideas were going to change the company for the better. He is no less brilliant a retailer as a result of what happened to JCPenney. But if your brand needs a change, first know why. Then be realistic, be purposeful, and, by all means, hire the right person to lead the charge. Branding lessons 101.

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About Jim Signorelli

Jim Signorelli is the CEO of eswStoryLab Marketing and the author of "StoryBranding" and, most recently "StoryBranding 2.0," two books that use the logic and structure of stories and archetypes to help brands arrive at authentic, meaningful, and profitable brand identities.

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