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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.

  • <p>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.</p>
  • <p>The boldest ad in the series. The idea is to align the brand with us average folks. Too bold?</p>
  • <p>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.</p>
  • <p>And one more.</p>
  • <p>Normal people like pizza. So why not position J.C. Penney as offering more of what everybody loves with this metaphorical proposition?</p>
  • <p>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.</p>
  • <p>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.</p>
  • <p>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.</p>
  • <p>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.</p>
  • 01 /09

    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.

  • 02 /09

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

  • 03 /09

    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.

  • 04 /09

    And one more.

  • 05 /09

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

  • 06 /09

    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.

  • 07 /09

    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.

  • 08 /09

    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.

  • 09 /09

    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.

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]

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