JC Penney bets its future on returning to its past



Maybe it’s nostalgia. Maybe it’s corporate hardball politics. But whatever the reason, JC Penney’s sweeping away all the changes wrought by fired CEO Ron Johnson and restoring many elements of their past branding and marketing, Advertising Age reported October 8.

Back to the future

To begin with, they’re scrapping the name “jcp” and the square, red-white-and-blue logo that Johnson introduced. Henceforth, the store will be known by its old name, JC Penney, with a resurrected logo to match.

“Kate Coultas, a spokeswoman for J.C. Penney, confirmed the retailer is phasing out ‘jcp’ in communications, noting that the classic logo has reappeared in TV spots the last few weeks,” Ad Age reported.

That logo, a simple red font, which features the first three letters of the retailer’s name in uppercase, is now rolling out to various print and digital pieces, as well as the retailer’s credit card, she said.

The [jcp] moniker had been falling out of favor for months, however. An apology ad which ran in May ended with the retailer’s full name, something that had been missing from much of the company’s recent communications, including the prior campaign, “Yours Truly,” which launched during the Oscars.

The retail chain is also bringing back store brands, like St. John’s Bay, that Johnson did away with. They’re also bringing back lots of price-off promotions, which Johnson’s everyday-low-price “fair and square pricing” trashed.

In short, management “is now in the midst of dismantling Mr. Johnson’s vision for J.C. Penney’s home stores,” and that’s where the corporate politics comes in.

An exercise in nostalgia?

One might well question whether bringing back the trappings of the good old days will bring back the good old days themselves.

Many commenters to the Ad Age article had the very same question.

  • Jonathan Blaine, for example, said, “Perhaps someone should tell them that a logo is not a brand. That has to do more with value and relevancy to today’s consumers, both of which has [sic] been lacking for years. The latter will not be fixed by returning to 2007, which seems to be what JC Penney envisions as ‘the answer.'”
  • “The logo is not blocking the doorway,” commenter Brand Luvva concurred. “It’s what’s inside that’s keeping the shoppers away.”
  • So did Patrick Di Chiro, who posted, “What’s left of JC Penney’s customers probably couldn’t give a hoot about the company’s logo. This move has more than a whiff of desperation about it. The logo change appears to be much more of an ego-driven (the current management’s collective ego) marketing move, designed to stick it to the departed Ron Johnson, than a well thought through strategic action.”

But in Penney’s case, that viewpoint just might be wrong for two reasons. First, it was Johnson’s changes, now being scrapped, that drove away long-standing customers in droves. And second, with the return of store brands and the return to price promotions, management is trying to fix not just what’s on the outside of their stores, but, to quote Brand Luvva, “what’s on the inside” as well.

So crazy, it just might work

Judging by Penney’s public statements, at least, the retrofitting was motivated by something more than just corporate spite.

“Through recent consumer research, our customers overwhelmingly confirmed their preference for our classic J.C. Penney logo,” Coultas told Ad Age.

“The logo revision will remind formerly loyal customers that this is the familiar place where they used to get good merchandise at a good price, especially on sale,” commenter Michael Zinke agreed.

According to commenter Micah Belem, who sounds like one of those formerly loyal customers, the changes may – just may – be working. “Has anyone been in a JCPenny’s lately,” he asks. “Sales are back, and people are actually waiting in lines. I, for one, am looking forward to their holiday campaign; and I think bringing the old logo back was smart.”

That’s not just in Cleveland, where Belem lives. As we reported here two days ago, quoting an October 8 press release, “September comparable sales showed signs of improvement, while sales on jcp.com were up 25%, on top of an 11% gain in August.”

Good, but will it be enough?

Literally betting the store on it.

The holiday season, which starts anywhere from just after Labor Day to Thanksgiving, is make-it-or-break- it time for department stores, because that’s when they get most of the year’s sales and revenues.

For a chain that’s been hemorrhaging both, and whose stock prices have fallen to 35 percent of their 1980 values in terms of real dollars, it’s even more crucial.

For JC Penney, the handwriting (in the form of the new-old logo) is literally on the wall. The next two months will tell what it says.

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