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J.C. Penney: We Learned to Listen to You

by verniasoriano

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To secure brand loyalty, a brand’s experience should reflect its consumers’ values, lifestyles and interests, sincerely deliver its promise and credibly reflect its heritage. People want to see themselves as part of the brand; sometimes a slightly more polished version but never a dramatically different persona that feels out of step with their life. Given this shifting context, when J.C. Penney evolved the brand positioning to woo a younger target audience, their core audience was right to feel misplaced.
Under ex-CEO and former Apple Executive, Ron Johnson, J.C. Penney, first established in the frontier lands of Wyoming in 1902 for miners and farming families, looked to become “a happy place to hang out.” Coupons were ditched in favor of everyday low pricing and old faithful lines were displaced. Check out by smart phone and Wi-Fi hot spots were central to Millennialize the retail experience and appeal to more affluent consumers. J.C. Penney’s heartland clientele did not recognize their reliable go-to brand, which to this day prides itself on its commitment to make “everyday matter.” How could this national institution believably transform overnight into Apple’s much older sister? Many labeled it an awkward branding jumble; and one that resulted in disastrous sales.
At Onesixtyfourth, we believe brand leadership demands brands mirror societal shifts. And CultureQ, our proprietary tracker of sentiment reveals that men and women across cohorts are growing more and more tired of divisiveness in all areas of their lives; the haves vs the have nots, the young vs the over the 40’s, Republican vs Democrat, it goes on. So, what’s the impact of such divisions, and often, artificial separations imposed by institutions and marketers? Well according to our panel, it’s stalling progress – politically, socially and economically.
In the run up to Mothers’ Day in the US, J.C. Penney has put out an awkward and slightly squirm inducing campaign that acknowledges they should have listened to customers. Walking a day in their customers’ shoes is probably more apt to understand the broader context J.C. Penney plays in their lives. Our respondents’ conversations demonstrate even America’s more affluent segments across cohorts, who J.C. Penney thought would hang out with them all day, really aren’t in that mindset at all. They are increasingly valuing the significance holding onto the basics (being able to pay the bills, buy food and keep a roof over their heads). They tell us they plan to be even more frugal during 2013 and prioritize saving money for their school, kids’ college education and/or retirement, over unnecessary spending.
Clearly, J.C. Penney needed to change tack, but have they really aligned their brand more closely with the values of customers?  Here’s our two pennies worth:
1. Brand truthfully

As the world remains uncertain and we plan every aspect of our schedules, people are increasingly interested in attaching more strongly to the past. Understanding a brand’s story helps people feel part of a cultural legacy and more connected with other cultures and generations.
J.C. Penney should not try and make the brand into something it cannot credibly claim. Instead it should leverage its back-story and apply its founding principles in ways that are relevant to how we live today.
2. Unify not divide

People tell us they want brands to be inclusive and not define themselves exclusively or divisively, by male or female, young or old, Millennial or not.
J.C. Penney should define the brand around a common purpose that is shared across cohorts and motivates people of different backgrounds; which evokes a sense of we’re in this together, yet at the same time recognizes consumers’ individuality; their motivations, interests and preferences.
3. Promote the basics

Millennials, Gen Xers and Baby Boomers all tell us they’ve seen their incomes dwindle or disappear and are fighting to keep hold on to the opportunity to earn money. As a result people are more greatly valuing what was taken for granted ten years ago. They don’t want to waste money or time on brands that don’t deliver or feel right.
J.C. Penney’s brand strategy should promote product and service excellence and help customers to save money with good quality, fairly priced products that are meaningful to them. “Everyday matters” is still relevant – and in some ways even more so than before – yet the expression needs to come alive more strongly.
4. Innovate meaningfully

Technology has forever made innovation the new normal. People demand organizations keep up just to compete. However, innovation is alienating when disconnected with the cultural context.
J.C. Penney has a history of being innovative: their catalog, which debuted in 1963, was the forerunner of today’s They should offer new ways to simplify and enrich consumers’ lifestyles, ones that fit with customers’ daily routines and simplify their challenges, big or small.
5. Value you and yours
Treat others the way you want to be treated yourself was the J.C. Penney’s founder’s mantra. Gen Xers and Baby Boomers, most especially, are concerned about changing American values. They tell us society is becoming more individualistic and less community oriented. At the same time Millennials are competing for barista jobs. People respect organizations that value, not stereotype, their life stage, talents, experiences and ability to create solutions.
J.C. Penney has an understanding of local communities, ethics and responsibility in its DNA. Operations, marketing and CSR efforts should come from an integrated policy platform to position the brand as a good Brand Citizen, one that supports local people and addresses the issues they face (ageism, re-training, unemployment, affordable healthcare etc).

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