J.C. Penney could easily embrace the boomer generation--and others--who still think of themselves as being cool, but not in the Abercrombie & Fitch way. That’s what this ad embraces.

The boldest ad in the series. The idea is to align the brand with us average folks. Too bold?

Another featuring the aging boomer who is nostalgic about once being cool. Kind of like Penney itself. This idea forges a bond between customer and retailer.

And one more.

Normal people like pizza. So why not position J.C. Penney as offering more of what everybody loves with this metaphorical proposition?

Most of us, if we're being honest, know we’re essentially average. J.C. Penney should become the destination for the average masses. The CBS of retailers, if you will. And turn a seemingly negative trait into a positive in the process.

The Abercrombie & Fitch position is about being beautiful, thin, cool, and having lots of friends. This message is simple: Come as you are and we'll accept you.

Honesty, integrity, with a splash of humor--that's how the company can distinguish itself from the competition and re-position itself in the minds of consumers.

Beauty is fleeting. Brand loyalty can be enduring. The comment made by Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries about not carrying women’s clothes over size 10 alienated, well, nearly everybody. It also made the brand’s values skin deep and shallow. This ad concept tackles that issue head on with attitude--and positions Penney as the anti-Abercrombie.

9 Fake Ads That Push J.C. Penney To Capitalize On One CEO's PR Blunder (And Get Back On Top)

As other retailers struggle with slipping sales, branding problems, and public relations controversies—or, in some cases, all three—an opportunity emerges for the once-venerable company. Brand strategist David Brier of DBD International shows how they can seize it.

Following last year’s net losses of nearly $1 billion, J.C. Penney lost an additional $348 million the first quarter of 2013.

There are numerous places one can look in trying to solve the beleaguered retailer’s woes. Perhaps the most telling is the way an unfocused store is losing sales to numerous retailers, including Target and Macy’s, who have better definition in the marketplace.

Some looked at the "jcp" American flag rebranding unveiled last year with its "hipper" campaign and scratched their heads. And what about the Ellen DeGeneres-starring TV commercials with its "no sales" pitch (almost a premonition of things to come)?

Who is supposed to care about this brand? And why?

Part of it may be searching for what to say. More importantly, to whom? (They could have easily applied "The Impossible Brand Formula" to their benefit.) In the interest of answering some of these questions, and helping, in a humorous way, to re-focus the brand, I made the above fake ads—more on those soon.

The Power of Slumps (and Ignorance)

During this last quarter, J.C. Penney saw sales decline 16%. Tough spot. This follows a $985 million loss in 2012 (with sales shrinking to less than half of Macy’s and stock plummeting 60% in the last 12 months).

The smartest branding step they did was recently bringing back a logo that spells out their name, versus the "jcp" approach—a smart move since obviously, without enough of us caring who they are, why make it tougher to remember?

During this same quarter, a former retailing "darling" saw its sales drop 17%. That would be Abercrombie & Fitch.

So let’s look at the two brands.

Who is J.C. Penney’s customer? I haven’t a clue. Good or bad, I know I have no reason to shop there.

Even with a company like Sears (struggling with its own decline in sales), I know that if I want Craftsman or Kenmore or simply a washer or a dryer, a refrigerator or a grill, I might at least stop in. They’ve secured that position in my mind.

Abercrombie & Fitch’s outspoken CEO, meanwhile, seems to have confused "knowing his audience" with sheer arrogance and snobbery.

Abercrombie & Fitch's sales drop follows the controversy over CEO Mike Jeffries’ six-year-old comments that the brand markets exclusively to "cool, good-looking people" and will not carry women’s clothing over size 10.

In this slipup, could there be opportunity for J.C. Penney?

J.C. Penney’s Strategy?

J.C. Penney’s strategy during this sales plummet has been "transactional." Focusing on "the sale/savings/no-spin savings" approach was about what you saveversus what you get, or where one chooses to shop and do business with.

In other words, they've managed zero identification with the consumer and their values (unless they’re looking for deals, and that space is already extremely well occupied by Walmart and Target, for different demographics).

The latest Home Design move has me even more confused since that space is already owned by some very big players.

Abercrombie & Fitch’s has been all about: who sells for us, who buys from us, who can be seen in our clothes. They over-emphasized their target audience to the point of completely alienating 90% or more of those who may not fit their profile of "cool" and "good-looking."

J.C. Penney, Shift Your Focus

Looking at the above statistics and situations unveils an opportunity for an unlikely company. That's right, J.C. Penney.

What we know:

  • People don’t like being pigeonholed or grouped by a CEO who should know better, especially when he echoes the values of bullies.
  • People must have a reason to shop based on something more than sales, since there are already so many players that have saturated that field. It’s nothing new, nothing exciting. In other words, it’s almost impossible to win in that arena as your key differentiator.
  • Opening Home Design departments when that space is already owned by other giant leaders is also a move that makes no sense.

In the examples above, J.C. Penney has failed to focus on the one thing that matters: who they’re selling to.

The Opportunity

What if J.C. Penney went ahead and took Abercrombie & Fitch’s bad PR and used it to isolate and crystallize who their audience is? They would find a remarkably larger demographic than the "cooler good-looking" people—they would locate the "average people" of the world or those who may have previously been "cool" at some point in the past. That is to say, most of us.

With this in mind, I decided to create the above tongue-in-cheek ads to drive the point home.

I used their now-abandoned "American Flag" logo because, conceptually, it worked perfectly well with this tagline: "America. The (almost) beautiful."

What do these ads do?

  • They set J.C. Penney in opposition to the Abercrombie & Fitches of the world. It becomes the the place to go if you’re tired of being looked down upon—and just want someone to give it to you straight and treat you like the grownup (or young adult) you are.
  • They show that the company's not afraid of having a little fun, something J.C. Penney isn’t currently known for. This, then, is more than a re-branding; it's a re-positioning in the consumer's mind.
  • They might even position J.C. Penney as the store where average people shop, which based on current sales trends, would not be a bad thing.

So let's start having some fun, Penney, and carve out a unique voice of the people, for the people. For America—the almost beautiful.

[Image: Flickr user Robert S. Donovan | Ads by David Brier]

Add New Comment


  • Anthony Dodd

    "Who is J.C. Penney’s customer? I haven’t a clue."

    Exactly.  This is where research is needed instead of making suggestions despite admitted ignorance.

  • jimsweeney

    Yikes!  The last thing JCPenney needs after the mess it got into is another dramatic turn in an idiotic direction. If JCPenney was serious about becoming a "cool" retailer, it should not have fired Ron Johnson.  If it wants to go back to who it was before Ron Johnson, the future is bleak, because its numbers were not that good in the first place, which was the catalyst for hiring Johnson.  So now what? How about this:  Fire your current (past) CEO and find a new one.  One who is not as slick as Johnson, but not as dull as Mike Ullman.  And here's a crazy idea: how about a woman who might better connect with JCPenney's target customer (past, present and maybe future).  JCPenney is a mess, but there is no need to make it worse with more bad ideas. And the idea of pitting JCPenney against A&F may be the worst idea I've heard in a long time.

  • Karen Heneks

    I found the article humorous.  Thank you for sharing your ideas.  The ads were entertaining.  Isn't that the point? 

    I'm personally not a big fan of JCP (I'm close to 50 everything's an acronym).  I find the private labels boring and the quality on the border line. 

    My mom loved it at one time.  She still refers to it as Penny's (close to 70).  Funny, my grandmother adored JC Penny's (always the full name - died many years ago close to her 90's).  I believe there have been just as many transformations. 

    I shop for 2 reasons.  I shop out of necessity (and times are still somewhat tight) or because I aspire for greater things when I can afford them. If it were easy talking to the 90% (me included) JCP and so many other retailers wouldn't be failing.  I often fall victim to shopping at the 'winners' Wal-mart and Target for such items as clothing and some RTA furniture because of comparison shopping.  But, in the long run suffer because the quality doesn't exist and the cheaply made clothes and furniture wear out. 

    There was a time when Penny's or JC Penny's was known for quality.  "It came from Penny's" the ladies would say.  Ha!  I think at one time it was a combination of style and quality without overpaying.  On sale...Saving a buck..  It's a lot to accomplish.  Good luck to whomever can get them there!

    BTW - I'd go in JCP if the ads were an actual campaign, just for the fun of it!  I'd love to see what's going on.  Average Joe - I don't think so - :)

  • David Brier

     Thanks Karen for your comment and feedback. I agree with you, something like this would add some intrigue into what was happening over at JCP.

  • Sam S. Douglass III

    These ads miss the point: the reason JCP is failing is because it doesn't understand its audience. Resonating with them via a perception as plain/average isn't going to win anyone over. You must help people feel better about themselves, about the purchases they feel will satisfy their desires, hopes, etc. No one wants to feel like they shop at a place that's "not cool right now." JCP: get "cool" right (read as feeling great in your own skin, not someone else's), then message that you know how to provide that feeling through fashion, design, and things that make life just a little bit better. That's how Target did it. 

  • BlyEaston

    These fake ads are clever and I appreciate that they are bold and honest. But, they still don't want to make me shop at JCP. 

  • David Brier

     Thanks Bly for the feedback. At least these might amount to some curiosity into what was happening over at JCP.

  • April

    "It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat. "
    theodore roosevelt

  • Steve Chayer

    This is one of my favorite passages. Please tell us why you posted here? Are you defending the discredited CEO, Ron Johnson? If yes please say so and why. I'd like to understand it from your perspective. If not Johnson, then who? You posted this. You are obviously passionate. I might learn something, which is why I read this magazine. If you do...thank you.

  • Efe Abbe

    I sympathise with loyal customers who felt like JCP was totally ignoring them in the "Ron Johnson Makeover" phase. However, while he was CEO, it was the first time I could walk into a JCP and actually see merchandise folded neatly, color coordinated and "inviting". I think his overall idea to get the stores looking chic wasn't a bad one, all he had to was retain all the favorites and the special days sales model but packaged it smarter (not every day low prices -bleh)

  • Farhan

    I don't think enough people who would be shoppers for JC Penny know about the Abercrombie CEO's comments - I was confused by these ads until I read a little deeper. 

  • briana

    This is exactly what I was thinking too. The connection is too elusive for most people. I don't think JCP and Abercrombie ever competed for the same customer either, so the ads just don't make sense.

    JCP did well with middle class, middle America, middle age. Boring? From an advertising stand point maybe, but it's a demographic largely ignored and a retailer who can get it right has a huge customer base ripe for the taking. JCP tried to get them with their new campaign but they clearly missed the mark.

  • Debradouville

    Genius! Get them back on track doing what you do best. 

    If they're smart your phone will start ringing!

  • David Brier

     Thanks Debra. They were fun to do and help to breathe life into the brand. Would be  fun to add some life into their brand message.

  • stevec77

    Interesting article. I am a long time Penny's shopper, am now middle-aged and was never cool but, I always looked and felt good in JCPenny clothing. I'll be shopping there this week in fact because I'm going on a long over due holiday back east and I want to feel good in new summr casuals. If I were flush it'd might have been Nordstroms however, at only a slightly higher perceptual upgrade. JCPenny still has strong brand identity with me i.e. quality fashion, good selection, good customer service and all at very reasonable prices. I will pay close attention to the vibe in the store, the execution of their current branding campaign efforts and the others shoppers and relate them to Mr. Briar's excellent observations and advice here in this article.

  • CC

     Honestly, anything looks good if it's age-appropriate and fits well. Don't worry about shopping at JCP vs Nordstrom - it doesn't matter what the price point is, as long as you feel comfortable. :)

  • Juliana Ormsby

    Brilliant!  I have always loved J.C. Penney.  Well, after I became 30 at least (a long time ago.)    I eventually became a single mom, working full time as a teacher, raising my beloved son, and pursuing a doctorate. In other words, BROKE. If it were not for the J.C. Penney catalog, my son and I would have gone around naked, and my apartment would be bare.  Granted, I had champagne taste on a Gatorade budget, but I was still known as one of the best-dressed teachers in the school.  Why? I could pick smart, classic clothes that did not shout" Cheap." That was my trick and also my way of surviving.  Why not send your ads to J.C. Penney?   I received their home catalog, and it is lovely.  You are right, though, it confused me. The designers were good and prices reasonable, but now that I have read your article, I can sense a desperation in them to survive. I sent them a tweet to compliment the catalog. I hope they read this article.   

  • David Brier

     Thanks Debra. It was fun to do and I'll watch to see if the JCP folks take note.

  • David Brier

    Meant to write your name: Juliana (sorry about the wrong name). I loved your story above. Very authentic and honest. Appreciate that.