When John Cleese received an honor from the University of St. Andrews some years back, rather than follow in the footsteps of John Stuart Mill and other notables who had preceded him and who had talked about courage, magnanimity and other great virtues, he made a speech about cowardice. He made the case that if cowardice didn’t have such a bad name the world might be a better, more socially cohesive, place. After all, he pointed out, ritual submission works really well in the rest of the animal kingdom. He implored students to help society by going out into the world and acting more cowardly.
So, aspiring to this level of inappropriateness, I thought I’d write a post for Fast Company about patience. Isn’t this the virtue most antithetical to the spirit of Fast Company? It’s certainly the one most difficult to sustain in a business world driven by quarterly results and get-rich quick expectations.
What made me think about patience was the ongoing JC Penney saga. Can a 110-year-old brand that’s been sliding downhill be turned around overnight? Earlier this year, new CEO Ron Johnson and the investing public seemed to think so. Johnson, who had previously been running the Apple Stores, laid out an ambitious and aggressive plan that included many Apple-store like features like a Genius Bar-type concept in the middle of the store, a new logo and advertising campaign, and the elimination of sales and coupons. Shares soared reaching a high of 43 in February, their highest value since 2008.
But then reality kicked in. First quarter results were extremely poor, with sales missing expectations by $250 million. The stock began to plummet, dropping almost 20% in a single day and continuing to decline eventually falling below the price they were when Johnson joined. What went wrong?
• Unrealistic expectations of what a new logo and advertising campaign can do without some concrete action happening on the shop floor (store transformations are only just now getting underway)
• Overly optimistic assessment of the possibility of transferring the success formula from Apple to JC Penney—what works at Apple, one of the strongest global brands may not work with a brand that’s struggling
• Dismissive attitude about the power of price discounts to drive sales. No, consumers don’t hate coupons like the first wave of ads suggested. Expecting consumers to accept the elimination of coupons and discounts cold turkey, especially ahead of the planned store improvements and better merchandise, was a mistake.
Clearly, investors have lost patience. The question is, will JC Penney lose patience as well and end this brand turnaround before it’s had a realistic shot at working?
In a time where companies like Pinterest and Instagram become successes overnight, perhaps our expectations for what brands can or can’t do has become unhinged from reality. Brands that have been around for a while require, yes, patience to turn them around. Like an oil tanker. People don’t change their opinions about brands they know well very quickly. It takes time.
"The transition has been tougher than anticipated, but the transformation is ahead of schedule," Johnson said during a recent presentation. There’s a lot to like about what Johnson is doing at JC Penney: their label plans, the introduction of designer collections, the store improvements, the attempt to wean consumers off coupons are all great ideas that could work, eventually. It’s too early to write them off. Let’s hope that lack of patience from investors, the board or from Johnson himself doesn’t scupper the effort.
[Image: Flickr user Xavier Encinas]