Second Thoughts On JC Penney

Andrew-Simon2I recently read an article in Branding Strategy Insider entitled “4 Brand Transformation Lessons from JC Penney” written by Thomson Dawson. The article essentially says that JC Penney is a broken company and a broken brand. Early on, the article talks about the need to fix the internal culture of the organization.

It then lists four critical factors that I paraphrase:

  • the need to change in order to keep up with a changing world. People behave differently than they did 100 years ago.
  • an understanding of what you stand for
  • difficulty in changing brand perception
  • commitment

I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Dawson’s thesis. However, I wonder whether or not sufficient time was spent on the brand, or more specifically, branding. And by that, I believe the appropriate question of the day is: How much effort did JC Penney spend on the internal brand? Having run several corporations and consulted for others, I understand that planned external change will not be effective without employee commitment. How well did the JC Penney employees understand what JCP was, what it wished to become, and why?

What internal branding exercise had been initiated? What was the internal message? Was it important? What did senior management believe and was it communicated? Because without employee commitment, change just doesn’t happen! Employees ─ store personnel ─ are your front line and are certainly part of the very critical buying experience.

So what does this mean? Could the in-store employees have mitigated the effect of consumers without price-off coupons? Could they have helped in the execution of the store within the store? Perhaps. How many times do you go to a restaurant and the food is mediocre but the service is great, or to a hotel where the rooms are small but the concierge is terrific? And would you say the experience was good…probably yes.

My hypothesis is that even in the store, the experience is what counts. It is critical to the success of any organization, even essential, and something I don’t think people can envision from a marketing campaign. It is the execution at the base levels that deem it important. Consumers can’t turn it on and off. Again, it is critical and you simply can’t paint the right picture just through external marketing. It is a living and breathing testimonial to what/who you are.

While I don’t have the ability to peel back the veil, I would bet that the JC Penney people did not have a vision of the new JC Penney and, if they did, it would not have been a shared vision.

So here we are in 2013, looking at a seemingly 18-month terminated execution of a new concept to reconfigure JCP and make it relevant in the 21st century. And who can say if it was a failed execution or a failed concept.

Which brings us to culture. Is it common to each JC Penney location? Is it clearly focused? Are all the symbols aligned? Are expectations managed?