Feb 13

Meanwhile, over at Ron Johnson’s place…

It’s been 15 months since Ron Johnson left Apple to become CEO at jcpenney.

If you go by the numbers, things aren’t going all that well. If you go by the vision, it’s a different story entirely.

During the Oscars, jcpenney ran six commercials that lay the framework for the transformation in progress.

(At this point, I must bare all and confess that I was part of the creative team for this work. But don’t let that stop you from blasting away at me if you disagree.)

The “Anthem” commercial above is a 90-second letter to America. Basically, it says that jcpenney knows who you are and what makes you tick, and is devoted to helping make your life a bit better — as it has been for over a hundred years.

This is jcp’s “stake in the ground,” much as Think different was Apple’s stake in the ground when it began its transformation.

The ads that followed put some flesh on the bones, showing how jcp is bringing some cool and unexpected brands into the store.

I’ve been dutifully reading the many expert opinions on Ron’s efforts for the past year, and I understand the pessimism. It’s not easy to revitalize a brand, especially when shopping habits have changed so drastically in recent decades.

But this is exactly Ron’s point. Shopping habits have changed in a big way, and the department store is an old idea. If the concept is to survive, it’s going to have to change — drastically.

The fact is, everything for sale in the Apple Store is available online. So why are Apple Stores mobbed all the time? It’s because those stores offer something that can’t be found online: a place to try things out, people who really know the products, and face-to-face help when you need it. Apple Stores offer an experience.

In the broadest strokes, that’s Ron’s approach to jcp. He gets that you can buy the same goods online (at jcp or elsewhere) without leaving the comfort of your home. So what will it take to get people into the stores? A unique, fun shopping experience.

Ron’s plan is to bring in high-quality brands and set up each one in a “store within a store.” Each store will be staffed by specialists who truly know what they sell. The junky stuff is gone. There will be wide aisles, places for people to relax and connect to the internet, and — you guessed it — “genius bar”-types of counters where you can get help with merchandise, design, food preparation, etc.

Here’s the problem. Every Apple Store ever built has looked fantastic from day one. With jcp, Ron has to revitalize 1,100 existing stores — most of them being far bigger than the biggest Apple Store.

Transforming jcp is an ongoing process that will take another 2-3 years. The changes are going on now, shop by shop, across all jcp stores. But it’ll be a while before you can walk into a jcp store and say “holy cow, this is amazing.”

This brings me to my most important point.

Visionaries are a special breed. They’re the ones who bring true change to this world. Despite that, people don’t just line up to follow their vision. In fact, visionaries are often met with scorn — because what they envision is so unlike the reality of today.

Steve Jobs experienced this when he returned to Apple in 1997. Wasn’t he the guy who got booted from the company in ’85 for running the company into the ground? He was met with even more doubt when he decided to open a chain of retail stores. Retail experts looked at the idea with disdain — yet the Apple Stores went on to make retail history.

To turn a vision into visible change, you must be immune to the criticism. You must do what you believe in your heart to be the right thing. Only when the vision is complete and has proven itself to be a success, do the naysayers quietly go away.

Is Ron Johnson a visionary? He’s proven that with a truly imaginative plan for reinventing jcp. Is his vision one that America will respond to? Well, that’s the big question. And it’s a question that can’t be answered until jcp’s makeover is complete.

So sit tight and enjoy the show. It’s easy to have an opinion, but you might first compare your own experience to Ron’s. He turned Target into what it is today, then conceived and built the chain of Apple Stores. He has a passion for retailing that is equal to Steve Jobs’ love of technology — and a deep understanding of why and how people shop.

Turning around a chain of 1,100 department stores is a task that is almost beyond comprehension. But I’d think long and hard before I bet against Ron Johnson.

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  • It is a fine commercial but the problem I see is that JCPenny stores in the Bay Area look slightly better than a Walmart from the inside. It is not a place my wife enjoys to shop like a Macy’s or Banana Republic. I know they are slowly under remodel but in the meantime, JCP leaves little to feel good about no matter how many commercials you throw at us.

  • ksegall

    Like I said — re-sculpting 1,100 stores is a gargantuan task. That’s why this is being billed as a 3-4 year project. The physical changes simply can’t be made overnight.

    What can be changed more quickly is the merchandise (bringing in new and surprising quality brands), pricing and advertising.

    Remember again that “Think different” came at a time when Apple was virtually going down the tubes. Even the diehard Apple fans were abandoning ship. The first ads could do nothing more than try to say that the spirit of Apple was alive and well. It was the first salvo in a much longer plan for recovery.

    Corporate turnarounds require vision and patience. Time will tell if jcp has enough of either.

  • ksegall

    I’m part of the creative group that conceived and produced the commercials.

  • ksegall

    You scared me, so I went back and checked that post. (http://wp.me/pAZEc-4sv). My answer to you then was: “It will definitely take a few years to change 1,100 stores, but at least they have a vision. Nothing’s for certain, of course. It will be interesting to watch.”

    I think it’s important to understand the difference between the vision and jcp’s current performance. You’re right that the stock went up significantly when Ron unveiled his vision. That’s pretty good proof that the retail industry analysts — those people who study stores and buying habits for a living — thought Ron had set a bold and viable path for recovery.

    You’re also correct that the stores have not been doing well this year, and that the stock price has suffered badly as a result. (An understatement.) This can be blamed partly on performance and partly on the way the stock market works. As we all know, investors are easily spooked when things don’t seem to be going well. (AAPL is excellent proof of that, with numbers that continue to set records and a stock price that’s lost over 40% of its value in just a few months.)

    Again, by no means am I saying jcp’s success is guaranteed, and I certainly understand why you feel the way you do. I stand by my comment from last year: it will be interesting to watch.

    I hope you keep coming around so we can taunt one another along the way :)

  • Jim Griffioen

    I guess it speaks volumes that the ad team Ron Johnson put together decided to completely rip off the costume I made for my son two years ago (and received 6 million pageviews on my blog) without even contacting me.


    Now that’s creativity! And integrity! Well, you do work in advertising, where pretending you have both while possessing neither is a primary virtue.

  • clancy sings

    Let me get this straight. You’re mad at the ad team for copying your costume, which is nothing but a copy of a well-known movie character?

  • Jim Griffioen

    I wasn’t using someone else’s work to sell mom jeans, bro.

  • logan

    They should call him Don Johnson.

  • RogerD

    There are a hundred different Batman costumes out there. They all have similarities because they’re based on the same character, but they all have differences too. You and JCPenney both created costumes based on the same character, and they have some obvious differences. Good luck trying to make any money off of this.

  • Chris

    Ken is it true that Johnson didn’t do any meaningful testing of his “fair and square” idea? If so, that’s inexcusable for such a huge undertaking.

  • ksegall

    I agree with some of your points and disagree with others.

    When I compare jcp’s quest to Apple’s back in 1997, I recognize that there are important differences. Apple sells cool stuff that it designs and manufactures. jcp sells tens of thousands of products that other companies make. Obviously, being a big department store with three times as many locations as Apple presents a host of different challenges.

    Think different celebrated the spirit of creativity. It did appeal to loyal users (though the numbers of those users had greatly diminished), but it also struck a chord with anyone who identified with creativity. It was also targeted to the Apple employees, who needed to feel that Steve was re-igniting the spirit that had long driven Apple (but had been forgotten in the previous decade).

    jcp is not using the kitchen sink approach and targeting everyone on earth. It’s targeting Middle America — which is made up of many different kinds of people. This is jcp’s “core customer.” So in this sense, this ad does have parallels to Think different. It is designed to form a connection with jcp’s core audience.

    I agree that Think different made being a Mac user hip again. To a degree, the same thing is true of the new jcp campaign. Over recent decades, jcp had become stodgy. A lot of people think of it as a place where grandma used to shop. That’s not good. The new ads — which glorify a world of fashion and home goods that are unexpected, high-quality and affordable — aim to shift the image of the stores. If jcp doesn’t become more contemporary, it won’t survive.

    The very beginnings of campaigns are always a bit difficult to appreciate. Think different got an awful lot of negative comments when it first appeared. Only looking back do people appreciate the power it had, and how effectively it helped reshape the company.

    I would never be so presumptuous as to say that the new jcp ads are in the class of Think different, or that they will help spark an Apple-class revolution. But the early reviews are very positive. Even several of the financial reporters who have been screaming doom and gloom about jcp have said that the new ads are very good step in the right direction.

    And I don’t agree that even if customers come running to jcp, they won’t stick around. That’s the whole point of Ron’s efforts. If he does his job well, there will be lots of products for people to love, many available only at jcp, a fun and different shopping experience and some really good prices. These are the kinds of things that do win loyalty.

    But none of this is easy. Ron and jcp have a monumental task in front of them. If it works, this will be a historic accomplishment. If not … well, they tried. And I think that’s worthy of some respect.

  • Jim Griffioen

    Did you work on the team, Roger? If JCP/The Bureau Agency wants to argue that they based their costume on Robocop, it seems like whoever inherited the Robocop copyright from Orion pictures might have something to say about JCP using their intellectual property to sell their sweatshop garbage. I made my kid a Halloween costume. And you copied it to put in a stupid commercial.

    If you can look at those two pictures and still argue that somebody at The Bureau Agency didn’t directly copy exactly what I did, then frankly you are an idiot. They used the exact same materials in the exact same way—this isn’t an Adam West/Christian Bale different batman interpretation. It’s exactly the same thing. On a kid.

    I’m not saying I’m entitled to money for this. I’m merely pointing out that the “creatives” Ron Johnson hired and Mr. Segall worked with on this campaign aren’t actually so creative. They found something on the internet that a lot of people thought was cool and then they copied it. Then they paid some kid to wear it, paid somebody to shoot it, paid some caterer to feed a half dozen “creatives” to stand around watching the piece get shot. So creative! What I’m most angry about is thinking somebody might see it and assume I sold out to (or had anything to do with) some stupid, dying company like JCPenney.

  • RogerD

    No, I don’t work with these guys. I just think you have major delusions of importance.

    You made your kid a Halloween costume. Congratulations! Your costume and JCPenney’s have differences and similarities. Not surprising since you were both inspired by the same character.

    I’m sure you’ll never get this, but you make yourself look very small by hurling so many insults at people. Anyone who thinks JCPenney actually made a good ad isn’t going to change their mind because a tiny moment in a 90-second ad looks kinda like a costume you made for your kid.

    Pretty sad.

  • mr. pencil

    I agree. The commercial is great. The costume argument is stupid.

  • Jim Griffioen

    Whatever, “Roger.” I’m not concerned about making myself look small. I am small. I am, as you suggest just a guy who made his kid a Halloween costume. And I put them on the web. And the pictures went viral.

    The fact remains that your ad team assumed it was okay to just ripoff something some small guy on the internet did, and call it a day. Why couldn’t you guys have just used an ordinary, generic superhero in the spot? Why you couldn’t you have changed the style of the costume a tiny bit? I guess your people just aren’t that creative. I’m not here hurling insults. I am here (in the only forum where I’m going to bother doing this—one set up by Mr. Segell himself) to expose your lack of creativity. You’re the ones who think you’re so important. What big ad industry bigshots you are! I’m just here to show that you’re also super lazy and kind of lame.

  • Mark

    The new JCP commercial is much better than those that aired last year. It’s more emotional and has a chance of creating a “connection” with old/new customers. With respect to JCP performance, it’s bad. But the task to overhaul was never going to be easy. Right? JCP had been neglected for years and while small improvements were made, it was never enough to reimagine the store experience.

    It didn’t help that Johnson & Co misread what the customer wanted (ie, sales/coupons). Indeed. Mistakes were made, but we learn and move on from them. Yet I find it astonishing that people wanted positive results overnight. Rome was not built in a day. This sort of transformation and complete overhaul should really be happening with a privately-owned store. JCP is facing too much criticism since it’s a publicly-traded co. Not fair!

    I’m keeping my fingers crossed that JoeFresh and the complete revamp of JCP Home (Martha Stewart, Jonathan Adler, Terence Conran) will make the difference.

    I think JCP should take some inspiration from this ad: telling the story of how JCP has and will continue to make us feel/live better.

  • Alexis Santos


    It’s been on my mind each time I visit jcp to check in on my investment. There’s no messaging inside the shops. Now that there is a terrific ad campaign and a clear message with vision and heart, that thing should be playing inside the store, on monitors, big ones, right there when you walk in. Maybe at the entrance inside the mall to remind other shoppers what the new jcp is all about and to entice them in. It could scroll through the various compare ads along with the vision of the new store and videos of the exciting prototype…

    Really, the Dear America ad is brilliant and should be leveraged for optimal use.

    It would remind folks how to view the new and emerging jcp, and build excitement around the transformation rather than defaulting to the confusion and frustration i too often hear of low inventory and long walks to cashiers. Which thoughts do we want customers carrying around in their minds as they shop?

  • RogerD

    Thanks for the compliment, “Jim,” but I only wish I was part of the team that did this ad. It’s getting good press — even though, as you say, it was made by “lame, super-lazy, rip-off, ad industry bigshots who lack creativity.” (But then you’re not hurling insults, are you?)

    Though I think you’re pitiful, I thank you for providing such good entertainment. It’s been nonstop laughter here in the office as we take turns reading your comments aloud. You really don’t get how ridiculous you sound.

    Thanks again for exposing this massive fraud. Keep up the good comedy!

  • Jim Griffioen

    You’re welcome Roger, and good luck to you, Ken, Jill, Andrew, and the rest of the Bureau Agency in your continued efforts to use Helvetica and sentimental drivel to rearrange the deck chairs on the HMS Momjeans.

  • stan mikta

    i guess apples philosophy doesnt work in all bussinesses . ron johnson over estimated the thought process of the consumer and buying clothes, its an impulse buy not something you think a lot about . price is big . we all want a bargain .

  • Tom

    You are a spin doctor of the highest order Ken.

  • Ricky

    Another great article. I do have some questions regarding the creative process: how was the concept of the ad conceived? and did you guys have to find actors and shoot all the footages (or were they stock)? I realized the footages are extremely detailed, especially that scarred man with the ‘supermen’ scene. That brought me curiosity on the process.

    Thank you for the thoughts and for answering!

  • ksegall

    Hard to say where ideas come from. I think they start in different places every time. We have a talented group, and a video we created over a year ago was actually the spark for this campaign.

    All of the scenes were original footage shot for this ad, as were the other spots in the campaign. We worked out a long list of scenes with our directors — two were involved in the 90-second commercial — and all the details (casting, wardrobe, set design, props, etc.) were all worked out in the weeks leading up to the shoot.

    Thanks for asking! Most people don’t appreciate all that goes into a production like this.

  • michael
  • Henry
  • If I may…

    That commercial kept building and building. You called me so many things, you made me feel so good about myself, you gave me goosebumps and choked me up… and then you told me I didn’t look so good. The last lines just didn’t do it for me; they were a sales pitch and jarred with the rest of the ad (which is gorgeous in every aspect). “Look better, Live better”? Nah!

    In other news, I love your blog; I love your unapologetic opinion. Thank you.

  • RogerC

    I hope The Bureau Agency wasn’t accepting JCP stock as payment. . .