For Penney, Revival Means Having To Say You're Sorry

As every wayward significant other knows, it all starts with an apology -- and that’s what J.C. Penney is doing to the customers who felt jilted by the gone-and-unlamentedCEO Ron Johnson’s attempts to woo a younger, more urbane consumer.

“It’s no secret,” a woman’s sincere voice intones at the start of video titled “It’s No Secret” that was posted to YouTube Tuesday. “Recently J.C. Penney changed. Some changes you liked and some you didn't, but what matters from mistakes is what we learn. We learned a very simple thing, to listen to you. To hear what you need, to make your life more beautiful. Come back to J.C. Penney, we heard you. Now, we'd love to see you.”



The tagline reads, “come back to see us” and “we’re listening on [Facebook logo].” Almost 34,000 people “liked” the spot through early this morning. The :30 is also destined for a 50-inch screen near you.

The graphics, aside from a couple of quick shots of nostalgic storefronts that nobody in the target demographic ever saw, are a misty mix of fresh, young faces -- all women or girls, except for the back of one guy gazing into the setting sun with his partner and the entwined hands of another couple.

Forbes contributor Will Burns writes that he is “of two minds [about the ad] that are so far apart that I am going to take both sides and then let you decide.” He wonders: Is it a “bold, honest move” or a sign of desperation? After sorting through the reactions to the video on Facebook, he concludes that “most seemed negative or angry.” I’ll say this -- they are filled with both suggestions and upbraids.

“None of the people who wanted coupons are realizing you're paying the same price you were before,” comments consumer Megan Richards. “JCP brand shirts are now $12 retail price, and they are on sale for $7.99. They were $8.00 before!” She concludes: “I just don’t understand why people don’t get it.”

The hed over Brad Tuttle’s piece on seems to agree: “J.C. Penney Reintroduces Fake Prices (and Lots of Coupons Too, Of Course).” Tuttle cites a story by Reuters’ Phil Wahba in late March that reported that  “even before Johnson was fired, the retailer had quietly started raising its ‘everyday’ prices -- mainly so that stores could regularly put them on sale and hope that more shoppers bite.” 

More recently, Tuttle writes, “bargain-hunting website Dealnews” has disclosed “that the prices of certain items -- designer furniture, in particular -- have risen by 60% or more at J.C. Penney almost overnight. One week, a side table was listed at $150; a few days later, the ‘everyday’ price for the same item was up to $245.”

Dealnews’ Louis Ramirez’ advice to shoppers? In short, don’t pay full price for anything at Penney. As some point, there will be a sale, markdown or coupon.

“The hard part is next: telling customers what specific changes they're making,” Allen Adamson, managing director of Landor Associates tells the AP’s Mae Anderson. “When you are in a free-fall, you sometimes need to call a time-out and say, ‘Wait a second. We're going to get this under control,’” he says. “The answer may be further down the road as to why they come back.”

Tim Calkins, a marketing professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, tells Bloomberg’s Matt Townsend that “there is no question that an apology can help a brand recover from a setback. The key is you then have to follow it up and live up to the apology.”

One thing is for sure, as the hed over Burns’ Forbes piece tells us: Penney is playing “The Card It Can Only Play Once.” But it evidently had little choice but to play it.

“Wall Street analysts expect same-store sales to fall 12.7% in the first quarter, according to Thomson Reuters data, adding to the urgency for Penney to win back its shoppers,” Reuters’ Wahba writes. “Penney is set to report quarterly results later this month.” 

The idea came out of Penney's internal marketing department several months ago, Wahba reports, and Young & Rubicam helped with the execution. “Polarizing” ex-Coke executive Sergio Zyman is reportedly playing a major role in the brand refurbishing, as Ad Age’s Natalie Zmuda reported last month. If nothing else, Zyman has long been living proof that there can be life after even the most notorious marketing gaffes.

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