JCPenney Problems Highlight What Happens When A Brand Becomes Just Another Name

the kids are all about lowercase type this year

JCPenney has lost a ton of money since the beginning of the year, when it announced a drastic “no sales” policy and attempted to rebrand itself as “jcp.” But can you really “re-brand” a store that hasn’t had an identity since my mom dragged me there to buy back-to-school clothes in fifth grade?

Think about it. Coca-Cola is a brand, like a capital-B brand. Whether you like the product or not — even if you’ve never tried it — the mere mention of the name conjures up very specific associations. The same goes for Apple, Sony, Samsung, and countless other products.

Even companies that don’t make anything but only sell other businesses’ products can still have unique identities. Just ask anyone about Best Buy or Costco and they’re likely to have an opinion that’s in line with public perception of those brands.

But what about JCPenney (or jcp, or J.C. Penney, or JC Penney; you’ll find all of the above if you look through enough press releases)?

Even at its heyday, the store always felt wedged between Sears and Macy’s on the department store food chain, a place you’d go because it was closer than other stores, or because it had something you wanted on sale. It became the store whose name you knew, but without a real identity; like an actor you recognize but for whom you can’t identify more than one or two roles.

BrandKeys founder Robert Passikoff says the real issue with stores like JCPenney isn’t name recognition; it’s how engaged consumers are with that brand.

“When we talk about ‘engagement,’ we mean how well the consumer sees the brand meeting –- or in some cases, like Apple –- even exceeding expectations consumers hold for the drivers of loyalty and engagement in the category in which they compete,” he writes.

Of the department stores tracked by BrandKeys, JCPenney ranks lowest, with a 70% score; though it’s worth pointing out that the rest of the general department stores are clustered between 78% and 88%, demonstrating how difficult it is for stores that just sell “clothes and stuff” to differentiate themselves.

Passikoff refers to JCPenney’s CEO Ron Johnson as a “man without a brand and without a plan,” which seems to echo the sentiments of other experts.

“They’re going to have to figure out what kind of store they’re going to be,” explains Mike Davis, a professor with SMU’s Cox School of Business, to CBS Dallas-Fort Worth. “What are they going to sell? What’s their pricing strategy going to be? And who are their customers? If they can figure that out, they can still do really well.”

Though we sincerely hope that Ron Johnson (I just love writing that name) is about to pull a very profitable rabbit out of his hat, we’re less than optimistic, especially when you consider that retailers with defined brands are losing market share to online retailers.