Fair and Square: Ron Johnson’s JCPenney

The New JCPenney Logo

This post was written for my advertising class (Strategic Creative Development).  The assignment was to analyze a big idea of an advertising campaign. I chose JCPenney because I’m curious to see where their new CEO plans on taking the company strategically.  So far the first step has been to initialize a rebrand. 

Ron Johnson has taken a sledgehammer to the JCPenney brand and the future is already looking bright.

When Johnson, former SVP of Retail Operations at Apple, was given the keys as CEO to take over one of the oldest American retail brands, people were surprised. Now, all eyes are on the Steve Jobs protege to see if he can transform a stale shopping experience into something as refreshing and fun as going to buy a laptop.

While we’ve yet to see Johnson’s grand vision executed in stores, “Extreme Makeover: Retail Edition” has been already been making it’s way into the company’s marketing materials.  Like under Jobs, we’re seeing a goal to aim for simplicity.  Johnson’s big idea going forward is fair and square pricing.

This branding change goes against everything that JCPenney stood for.  Prior to Johnson’s involvement, the retailer pushed out 590 promotions a year. That’s over 1 and a half promotions a day!  People, for the most part, only bought items that we’re on sale —  it was frustrating and confusing for many to know what was discounted when. Under the simplistic fair and square model, the company aims to have low prices all the time — no gimmicks, just good deals.

Johnson’s new way of thinking isn’t creative, but it’s a breath of fresh air for a company that lost it’s identity over time.  It’s simplicity aims to differentiate it from other department stores. Like with the Apple retail experience, Johnson is moving JCPenney from a price oriented brand to a customer oriented brand. Fair and square represents a consumer promise to stop playing games and start making shopping easier.

Now, the company is aiming for a more simple idea: 12 promotional events a year, based on the monthly calendar. Advertising will use feelings and colors to represent each month’s theme.  For example, February, represented with a warm purple, means there’s lots to love: the Super Bowl, Valentine’s Day, and the Oscars.

However, in order to achieve these branding goals, Johnson had to blow up the old way people thought of his company and start from scratch.

First up, redesign the logo. Some companies aim to infuse their new big idea through visual brand cues.  JCPenney is taking a similar approach. Like their new slogan, the retailer switched their logo to emphasize the idea of being fair and square.  While they’re also symbolizing their American icon status (hence, the red, white and blue), the image is meant to invoke fair and square pricing, always.

Next up, create buzz. In December, JCPenney fired Saatchi and Saatchi as their agency of record and signed on Mother as well as Peterson Milla Hooks (PMH) to help bring their new brand vision to life.  As a teaser for the rebrand, Mother created a spot called “Enough. Is. Enough.” that said goodbye to the JCPenney of old.

The message, playing off their big idea, was that all the pricing schemes were going away and would be replaced by something better. While the ad was certainly polarizing when it launched (you can imagine why people would get annoyed by a chorus of “noooo’s” – I can’t necessarily say I disagree), it certainly created a hubbub that this wasn’t the same retailer from a year before.

The company even aimed for a social component to build buzz prior to their new pricing launch.  A Facebook app was created and included a “No Meter” (this feature is no longer available on the site). Consumers could also work through “challenging” exercises to try to get a discount.

Lastly, generate awareness. Once, Johnson officially unveiled his reenvisioning for JCPenney, it was time to start generating awareness for the new fair and square store. With the help of PMH, the retailer is aiming for a more playful ad campaign that invokes their new positioning in the marketplace.

The ad’s feel very similar in tone to Target (it wasn’t a surprise to find out PMH also worked with the discount retailer), but the message still drives home the new big idea: we’re done playing games.

One commercial shows a boy and girl playing pin the tail on the donkey. Although a simple vignette, the point is clear: “No more making your head spin. Any Return. Any Price. That’s Fair and Square.”

Bringing an old brand into a new millenium. While the company certainly hasn’t started doing anything unique and innovative on the digital front yet, you can’t help but imagine there’s something on the horizon.  We’re talking about a guy who didn’t believe in cash registers at Apple.

The new “fair and square” model could certainly lend itself to building digital initiatives.  The website and Facebook page have certainly built off this.  JCPenney.com features a February calendar with big events happening and their fan page also invokes the square layout.

The retailer has also started a Pinterest page, with images representative of their “lots to love” February.

The future is still uncertain. Despite Johnson’s alterations to the JCPenney brand, the company still has a long way to go.  While the Fair and Square campaign is trying to change audience perception, the pending store makeover will have to live up to the Ron Johnson hype.  After all, a campaign can only do so much and can only be enduring if the company promoting it lives and breathes by those standards.

It’ll be interesting to see if the executive who made laptop shopping an event can also make shopping at a mall a great experience again.  Either way, JCPenney is one step of the way there with their new “fair and square” campaign.



4 thoughts on “Fair and Square: Ron Johnson’s JCPenney

  1. Intelligent post, Maurice.

    With many years of retail experience behind me, I am surprised any retailer is staying in business now. Consumers have been trained to wait for sales and are also savvy enough to know that “regular priced” items are inflated to cover the loss of frequent bottom dollar sales.

    I am excited to see the results of the JCP campaign and expect it will lead the way for other retailers. This is a busy world and more and more of us are attracted to simplicity to meet our personal needs outside of business. I am also looking for more online retailers to create a better model that makes the search for product process much simpler to lead to more purchases. It is ridiculous that it is often easier to get in a car and go to a brick and mortar to find help v having clean search results online to expedite purchases. No one has time to comb through pages of results, nor does everyone want to play Sherlock Holmes to determine the right keywords :)

    Go JCP – wish you luck!

  2. I’m interested to see where this rebranding of Penney’s goes, too. With retail mall occupancy still struggling (according to the WSJ), and the new trend toward outdoor, pedestrian-friendly shopping areas, I think JCP’s physical location could work against it. You can rebrand all you like, but if shoppers aren’t willing to come to your store because of its location, you’re still doomed.

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