JCPenney’s Comeback Strategy Includes Wiping the Brand Clean of Any Trace of Johnson Era

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If Ron Johnson were dead, he’d be spinning in his grave. Instead, the ousted CEO of JCPenney can simply watch from afar as his predecessor-turned-successor Myron Ullman dismantles the former Apple retail head’s failed ambitious plan to transform the venerable retailer, piece by piece.

The latest back-to-the-future moves by Ullman? Scrapping the simple new logo that Johnson instituted as well as some of the ad-agency help that he hired. Such gambits are part of Ullman’s efforts to ensure that Penney has bottomed out as the crucial 2013 holiday shopping season gets underway.

Johnson introduced the red-framed logo last year to great fanfare, “updating” the marque to simply “jcp” in a blue box in the upper-left corner of a square that was intended to invoke an American flag with its patriotic colors.

Instead, it became just another reminder to JCPenney’s traditional customers that Johnson didn’t really care about their business. So the old “JCPenney” logo in a simple red font is back—albeit slightly updated—marking the fourth logo in as many years for the embattled department store brand.[more]

“Through recent consumer research, our customers overwhelmingly confirmed their preference for our classic JCPenney logo,” a spokeswoman told Ad Age. “The classic JCPenney logo is familiar, as it is the same logo displayed on most of our stores today, and reignites pride in JCPenney and symbolizes the company [that] has faithfully served communities in America for over 100 years.”

Take that, modernists.

JCPenney also has just replaced Young & Rubicam, a Johnson-era agency, with a trio of new ad agencies to lead its creative efforts. And it has added Saks CEO Stephen Sadove—a personification of old-world retailing if ever there was one—to its board to fill the void left by activist investor Bill Ackman.

All of these moves add to other retro thrusters that Ullman has powered up in his several months back on the job, including reintroducing popular private-label brands such as the $1 billion St. John’s Bay line, layering back in ample price promotions, and dismantling Johnson’s vision for recasting JCPenney’s home stores to chase younger, more upscale buyers—a clawback that notably has included Ullman’s dissing of the Martha Stewart line that is the subject of its litigation with Macy’s.

Ullman claims that such moves have begun to level off a top and bottom line for JCPenney that plunged ferociously over the year of Johnson’s reign. Sales at JCPenney stores open at least 12 months fell 4 percent in the fiscal month ending October 5, the company recently reported—a vast improvement over its typically double-digit swoons earlier.

And Ullman believes that he has managed to get JCPenney nearly back to where it was—still struggling, but at least in a comfortable place for its traditional middle-American consumer base—just in time for his re-engineering to pay significant dividends during the winter-holiday season.

“They are making improvements,” an Imperial Capital analyst told Bloomberg, “and we are seeing it.”

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