Exhuming JC Penney’s Failed Marketing Makeover For Leadership Lessons We Can All Use

The iconic, 111-year-old retailer ditched nearly everything former CEO Ron Johnson attempted during his short stint in charge. Good call?

Out with the new, in with the old.

In a sweeping move to right the ship after former CEO Ron Johnson’s failed attempt to reinvent the JC Penney brand and inject new life into the business, the company has adopted a bold new marketing strategy—hire their retired former CEO who Johnson replaced just about two years earlier and quickly return to the deep discounts and door buster deals that originally got them into this mess. Wait. What?

I get it. I really do. After experiencing a deeper than expected loss of $348 million and a drop in same-store sales of 16.6% in the first quarter of 2013, something definitely had to be done. And so far that something has meant completing undoing just about everything Johnson tried to implement during his 17 months in the position. Talk about throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

When you get right down to it, JC Penney's "new" marketing strategy sure does sound a lot like the old one—reconnect with core customers, offer promotions, and bring back some private label brands. But here’s the thing: If that approach had actually been working in the first place why bring Johnson in to shake things up?

Trying to reinvent the image of a 111-year-old retailer

Johnson was obviously on a short leash, and his inability to deliver meaningful results while the company continued to experience mounting losses only made that leash even shorter. Whether or not he would have been able to completely overhaul the brand, appeal to a new customer base, and help guide JC Penney back to a path of consistent profitability, we’ll never know. The company was burning through a lot of money and they didn’t have the luxury to give him more time.

Johnson has taken a ton of flak for creating a mess during his short tenure as CEO. He failed big time trying to reinvent the brand and marketing strategy of a 111-year-old retailer in a hyper-competitive landscape. But just because things didn’t work out doesn’t mean there still weren’t some really good ideas and insights the company could use and build upon as they develop their "new" plan. To completely wash their hands of pretty much everything that was put in place over the past two years seems a bit shortsighted and reactionary.

Putting the "new" in new marketing strategies

With department stores and more and more discounters and online retailers nipping at their heels, one thing is for sure—just staying the course is definitely not an option. If JC Penney is ultimately going to be successful and avoid another failed makeover attempt, at some point they’re going to have to embrace "new" marketing strategies and actually mean it.

[Image: Flickr user Anthony Albright]

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