J.C. Penney has been one of the most respected department stores in America for more than a century. But recently it went through some rebranding that threatened to jeopardize that. Hiring Apple’s senior vice president of retail operations, Ron Johnson, to be their new CEO, seemed like a good idea in the beginning. But the changes implemented under his leadership weren’t well-received. Features like a “Denim Bar” inspired by Apple Stores’ “Genius Bar,” and store employees armed with iPod Touch devices to assist customers were things that may have worked in a computer store, but found little success in a department store setting.
In addition, there was their much-hyped, much-decried movement to get rid of discounts and sales, the logic being that constantly fluctuating prices were confusing, and that theirs were dependably low every day. Needless to say, consumers didn’t see things that way. Under Ron Johnson’s regime, the company lost billions of dollars, and the once-great department store was struggling to stay afloat.
As the company floundered, its first step was to fire Johnson. But even after that, they were still stuck with a marketing nightmare. Revenue remained down, and there was talk of closing stores. Even if they fixed all of their mistakes, how could J.C. Penney quickly and publicly regain the trust of its former customers who had left?
Desperate times call for desperate measures. And so they did something direct, and a bit risky. Rather than trying to deny what had happened, he apologized. With an ad on TV and on their YouTube channel called “It’s No Secret,” they admitted that they’d made mistakes. They assured their customers that they had heard their concerns and complaints. And they asked them please to come back.
It was a bold move, to say the least. Marketing is supposed to be about putting your best face forward and making your brand look its best at all times. Even though the commercial was tasteful and dignified, begging customers to return had the potential to come off as desperate. But then again, they’d already tried to reinvent themselves, and it hadn’t worked. They were running out of options. So they took a risk.
And it seems to have worked. The immediate response to the ad was largely positive, among both investors and customers. The social media reaction to the ad’s release showed optimism that the store was getting back on track and returning to the service and values that people have come to respect over the last century.
Though the ad did air on television, it works as a model for content marketing as well. Using content and social media, J.C. Penney was able to appeal to their customers directly and personally, demonstrating that they were listening and that they cared about their needs and concerns.
Of course, they still have a long way to go. Those billions of dollars are a lot to recover, and it will take more than a video to do it. But even though it’s not going to happen overnight, it’s certainly a good start. Whether or not it will save the company in the long run remains yet to be seen. But it seems like a good sign that a few weeks later they released another commercial, done in the same style. This one had the message, “Thank you.”