May 13

Feeling jcpenney’s sorrow

[Sorry, but it seems that jcpenney has destroyed the evidence. The ad discussed here has been yanked from YouTube. Fortunately, they can’t censor the news story containing the ad — so I’m publishing that here instead.]

Whether you love or hate jcpenney, whether you love or hate Ron Johnson, this commercial gives us a good, juicy topic.

jcpenney is in a sorry state. Literally. It is now running this public apology, admitting mistakes and begging its old customers to come back.

This ad definitely defies conventional wisdom. To many, it feels too much like an oil company apologizing for spilling a few million gallons of gunk into the environment.

Most marketers in jcp’s position would be sensitive to sounding desperate and take a more positive approach. There are many bold and happy ways to send out a similar message of change.

So this move by jcpenney is either unexpectedly brilliant or astonishingly dumb. I think this is open to debate, and would love to hear your opinions.

Is jcpenney in such sad shape, on the edge of extinction, that it must do something extreme? Or have its marketing skills crumbled under the pressure and sunk to an incredible new low?

One thing jcpenney does not intend to apologize for is further muddling its own identity issues. In 2012, the company changed its logo for the third time in three years. That logo is now gone. The number of recent ad campaigns will now exceed the number of logos, as the well-received “Yours Truly” campaign also appears to have bitten the dust — just two months after it debuted on the Oscars.

jcpenney now seems laser-focused on getting back to the day before Ron Johnson entered the building. The previous CEO is back at the helm. The sales and coupons are flowing freely. They want the old customers back.

That may sound great to some. But back before Ron — with all the sales, low prices and house brands — the old customers weren’t responding so well. The company was in serious decline. That’s why they hired Ron Johnson in the first place.

jcpenney should be extremely wary about returning to the “good old days.” Because the truth is, they really weren’t very good at all.

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  • I’m having a bit of a tough time getting over the voice over first. I know it’s supposed to put me in a happy :) place but I think the actor went a bit overboard in trying to sound authentic, to the point where it sounds disingenuous.

    But I want to put that thought aside and try to just feel through this ad, rather than thinking through it.

    Feeling through it, I still am not impressed. I think it comes down to one thing: JCPenney has been hurting for a while. Even 10 years ago as a teenager I don’t remember ever going into a JCP store and being impressed. Not offended, but not impressed. They were certainly doing better financially then, but for them to imply the things they did in this ad is wrong. Namely:

    – That they only recently stopped listening to their customers
    – That they only recently have had product and brand quality issues
    – That they only recently have generally lost touch with who they are and what they’re doing
    – That now, finally, they’ve realized the error of their ways. (Which, by the way, how? If we’re to read between the lines here, is this ad basically one big apology for Ron Johnson?)

    It makes me sad. Because I really wish there were someone with enough clout there to hold up a mirror, shake loose the dishonesty, and start moving forward. I wish they would have given Ron Johnson another year.

    Never apologize for trying.

  • Ricky

    I looked at this commercial, then looked back at the “Yours Truly” campaign, then looked backed at this one. I must say “Yours Truly” was a lot more meaningful, whereas the tone of this sounds more like a desperate cry for reunion, the sort after broken relationships.

    I do wonder if the two campaigns are done by the same agency, as I see a lot of overlapping shots – the girl in pink suit is especially noticeable. Given that the folks behind the previous ad must have put in a lot of effort to deliver such a bright and positive message, for them to apologize is effectively asking them to deny their previous work. :/

  • What i basically take from this commercial is this…although we were in serious decline before and realized we should probably try to do something about it, which resulted in the hiring of Ron Johnson, we now realize after burning through several billion dollars in cash, that we and you the customer, didn’t really agree with the changes Mr Johnson was trying to make and are therefore returning everything back to the old format, which we’ve already said wasn’t working, in the hopes that it will work now. So we hope you get up off the recliner put that can of Bud back in the fridge, set the PVR to record that Nascar race you were going to watch, or sign yourself out of that nursing home for the day, and come down and join us at the “New/ Old” J C Penney.

  • Jeff W.

    They’re trying to hit reset, but instead just hit rewind back to, as you said, their previous sorry state. Even if they disagreed with Ron’s strategy, surely some of his ideas could have carried forward into a new direction. Especially the brand. Some — any — continuity would have helped.

    But I also wonder if they’re trying to first recoup their previous customers before rolling out new ideas? Doesn’t seem like it. But I hope so.

  • Chris

    Oh my god. This is a(nother) disaster from JCP. Once again, they give no proof points, like “we heard that you wanted sales. They’re back. We’ve heard you want coupons. They’re back.” This ad is for the Board and for the ad agency—no one else. If I were a former JCP customer why the hell would I come back to a place that told me I was irrelevant a year ago? If you really want me back, you’ll have to come get me. I’ll be at Target. Or Kohls. Or maybe even, gulp, Sears!

  • sarumbear

    Close it and return the shareholders’ money, I’d say :-)

  • Scott

    I believe I read somewhere that this ad was actually produced before Ron was dismissed. Not sure if that’s true or not.

  • Nameless Coward

    Time will tell. Most likely they are done.
    This is damage control. They made up after the fight the evening before, but now they they need to keep their promise. And they aint got none.

    We all here seem to agree and see the same thing.
    This will go off topic fast because the rats will not leave the ship.
    Same as the redcoats who run Amerika. The fish rots from the head down.

  • ksegall

    Not sure about your comment, but I do love your name.

  • ksegall

    Totally untrue. The ad was created by Y&R, who was hired to be the new agency after Ron left.

  • ksegall

    Yes, they’re trying to win back the old customers. But I do hope they keep many of Ron’s ideas alive — raising the quality of the merchandise and creating a new shopping experience. In an age when so many people are choosing to shop online, the only way to get people into a store is to offer them an experience they can’t find online.

  • ksegall


  • ksegall

    Well, I was part of “the folks behind the previous ad.” We were called The Bureau. And no, we did not do the apology ad.

    We were a project-based group. Our mission was to create the new campaign — “Yours Truly” — which debuted on the Oscars. Our project concluded with the production of this campaign.

    After Ron left the building, chief marketer Sergio Zyman hired Y&R to be his agency. Between jcp and Y&R, it was apparently decided to make an apology ad. Nothing new was filmed — they used all the footage we had shot for the “Yours Truly” campaign.

    Personally, I think it’s a shame to use this bright and positive imagery to make a multimillion-dollar apology.

  • ksegall

    Thanks Tyler. Couldn’t agree with you more.

    Ron was brought in to help breathe new life into the company. The problems go back way further than Ron’s tenure. As noted in earlier posts, Ron’s vision for a re-imagined jcpenney was met with great enthusiasm by industry experts. The stock price rocketed. It was an inspiring vision.

    But mistakes were definitely made, and those mistakes led to Ron leaving the company. I just hope jcp has a new vision — because going back to the day before Ron arrived isn’t going to help much.

  • donnafm

    I hadn’t stepped foot in Penney’s in years. When I heard of the changes Ron Johnson initiated, I visited a couple of stores. Some of the quality new brands appealed to me: I purchased bedding, housewares and clothing for my dad. I’ve been looking forward to the Jonathan Adler and Michael Graves collections. The old Penney’s had no appeal. JCP did interest me, however.

    The one area that might’ve helped the transition would’ve been to focus on the store teams before the product changes. During each visit, the staff were sparse. On my first visit, I had to search for a register with an employee present. On return visits, that register had several people in line, staffed with only one team member. The iPhone POS has potential, but only one team member was comfortable using it during a visit in February. Inventory was slow to be replenished as well. The duvet I purchased was out of stock for well over a month in the size I needed. I could’ve ordered online… but I tend to buy on impulse after considering something for a while.

    For the most part, I liked the JCP transformation. Will I like JCPenney post-Ron Johnson? I’m doubtful.

  • If you want to do some amazing casual marketing research read the comments section on YouTube where actual customers state what they want. The comments that caught my eye were the ones critiquing the actual clothing. People wanted clothing in a larger range of sizes that fit better on people who aren’t shaped like fashion models. At the end of the day the product is the brand experience — and if “the shoe doesn’t fit” you can’t be a main street fashion retail prince charming.

    – “JCP, PLEASE find a fashion designer who will design jeans for real women where the waistline actually SITS on the woman’s waist!!!”
    – “Your Arizona brand jeans are not meant for man work. After the 5th pair not lasting 2 weeks”
    – “More flattering women’s clothes for mature women that don’t look matronly.”

  • I read similar comments from people on Facebook. Size matters.

    Also it seems people don’t know that St. John’s Bay is a JCP brand. I thought that was interesting.

  • Dennis

    To me, this messaging includes a subtle air of condescension towards the customers they’re trying to attract back. It’s feels like trying to come back and date an old frumpy girlfriend you dumped because you weren’t very happy with her anyway and you thought you had a shot at the high-fashion prom queen. But that didn’t work out, so you’re willing to take her back and settle for her since you’ve decided she’s the best you can do, and you’ll deign to put up with her incessant couponing and trashy clothes as long as she goes back to making you dinner and doing your laundry like she did before.

    Not quite as positive (or sincere) a message as Ron Johnson’s “we’re going to give a bear hug to Middle America”.

  • bobmonsour

    I completely agree that the imagery of smiling women and children does nothing to support the words that they’re saying. I really don’t get it at all. For most people who just plain shop, they’ll probably wonder what the hell they’re talking about and come away from the ad thinking that they must have screwed something up. That’s not a store that they’ll want to go near. It’s not like there’s not a ton of choice out there of places to shop. I think that they went to the well once too often going with SergioZ.

  • WNeder

    Wow. I’ve been sitting with this for the day and really trying to carve my thoughts. I see two different points of view on this:

    1. Investors and resource providers. For this group, this ad is a huge sign of the encroaching mortality of the brand. It reeks of the new/old CEO coming in and taking up a bit of “fake martyrdom” to show everyone that Johnson was not the better hire and should not have replaced him.

    And from an investor standpoint, apologies are not beneficial on their own. What are you apologizing for? Who are you attempting to influence, and what are you offering to do for them? What, clearly, do you expect them to do as a result?

    If I’m an investor I’m asking, “where is the clarity?”. Seeing none, I have no choice but to acknowledge the lack of fundamentals in the brand and will place my resources elsewhere.

    2. Customers. For this group, it’s much more simple. JCPenny doesn’t know who they are. The only thing they know is, they want me to bring my money back. It won’t be long before shopping at JCP will be a social tradeoff for younger crowds, as has happened with WalMart and the “people of Walmart” stigma.

    The brand is divested. JCP’s competitiveness is critically wounded, and they had better hope for some daring acquisition scheme if they read the odds with open eyes.

  • As Lou Gerstner famously said when beginning to turn around IBM: “The last thing IBM needs right now is a vision.”

  • Owen Imholte

    A Time article indicates the fake prices and massive coupon/sales strategy is already back.

    “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.”

    As a Ron Johnson sympathizer I find this quote insulting and demoralizing in light of the new(old) policy.

    Insulting my intelligence by saying I can’t understand what something is really worth. In the age of apps that do instant price comparisons across the Internet this seems like a particular fools errand.

    Demoralizing because if the constant sales and fake sticker prices work better than honesty it runs counter to the notion that simplicity and directness are valued by consumers at large.


  • Andrew

    When you say “jcpenny is in a sorry state. Literally.”, is it because they are HQ’d in Texas?

  • Small sample, but jcp’s new ad campaign has gotten my in-laws’ attention to the point they’ll walk through the store and pay attention at least.

  • ksegall

    Do you mean the “Yours Truly” campaign, or the new apology commercial?

  • SuperMatt

    Ron Johnson was trying to get a new generation of customers. He was trying to make JCP into a place where you’d go to get quality products at a reasonable price. Of course they would lose customers who will buy poor quality clothes as long as they’re cheap. Leave that segment of the market for Old Navy, Wal-Mart, and K-Mart. Oh well, JCP slowly let their quality erode over the years, and when Johnson tried to fix that, they fired him. Bankrupt in 5 years.

  • Glenn

    Hitting rewind — as in, “Well, it was bad before, but not as bad as now” — is to my tiny brain a ginormous mistake. Essentially they’re saying that since things are worse now, EVERY action taken by the “new guy” must have been wrong. Which tells me there’s a big ego in charge rather than someone who really considers things.

    And I really wonder who started that rumour about the new commercial being created under Mr. Johnson. That doesn’t even matter; the CURRENT marketing head (or above) is the one who approved it. This smells like someone trying to wash their hands before the ad even gets out the door.

    Next thing you know, jcp management will be pretexting.

  • Glenn

    P.S. Forgot to add…I REALLY enjoyed “Insanely Simple.” Pre-ordered it thru Amazon, and was glad I did. Outstanding work.

  • From my experience, probably the apology, as unfortunate as that is. I think Ron was headed in a good direction – the simplified pricing and “shops” were great, in my opinion. But many people I know did not like the Ron Johnson JCP. They liked the old JC Penney better.

    Our particular store was sparsely stocked and carried low quality items. Larger cities didn’t seem to have this problem quite as much.

  • Penny – Kohls – Target – Yonkers – Belk – ShopKo – Whoever – are pretty much all the same – they have no distinct identity. Ron was trying to give Penny’s a unique character to separate them from the herd. Just guessing that he got responsibility but not corresponding authority and that some on the Board wanted the safety of being able to rewind to the pre Ron Johnson era if his changes didn’t work out which consequently kept him from slashing overhead.

  • ksegall

    Everyone in advertising has seen this type of thing play out before. New people come in and toss aside what was done before.

    A smart team (client and agency) would take a good look at everything, toss out the bad and keep the good. That’s especially important in tough times, when “starting over” will just cost valuable time and possibly confuse customers even more.

    I’m assuming that this rumor about the apology ad being created under Ron Johnson is based on a misunderstanding.

  • ksegall

    Thanks! Much appreciated.

  • JohnDoey

    That explains why the visuals did not match the voice over. Thank-you.

    So the ad is recycled Old JCPenney plus recycled New JCPenney. Wow.

  • As I’ve posted elsewhere, much is made of how Johnson supposedly misunderstood JCP’s “core customers”, and yet it’s clear that those same core customers were a dwindling group of cheapskates who weren’t producing enough sales to support the company, and were the reason JCP was in the crapper in the first place.

  • Paulie G

    I think your second point is spot-on. JC Penney was one of the “anchor stores” at the shopping mall. At some point, they went from being the store that pulls shoppers into the mall, to being merely another store that’s fighting for a slice of that finite pie of shoppers that are in the mall already.

    For example, my wife used to shop at JC Penney regularly. Now she frequently laments that they no longer carry clothing styles that suit her taste. They don’t seem to know what demographic they are targeting. It’s a kind of flawed approach, because they seem to be trying to get a bigger of the pie, instead of looking for ways to make the pie bigger (i.e. get back to being the store that pulls shoppers into the mall).

  • ksegall


    This is exactly how the “Yours Truly” campaign evolved. At the very start, Ron told us the story of how jcpenney was once “America’s favorite store,” and was in fact a destination for many people. But over the years, it started acting like every other store and lost its identity.

    The point of “Yours Truly” was to directly address a target audience with the “Dear XYZ” opening, and then surprise that group by unveiling another great brand that was now available at jcpenney. That was how we would become relevant (and attractive) to customers, old and new.

  • Nameless Coward

    Can’t have it all

  • Larry M

    Wow. I must be getting better at watching commercials. The first time I saw The Apology, I just about fell out of my chair, then I saw it again, paying more attention to the visuals. My reaction was “These pictures don’t go with the words. The people the words are aimed at are much older (like me)” Penney’s advertising has been such a mixed bag, I don’t know why they bother. Soon after Ron Johnson took over they ran the series of ads with people screaming at their mailboxes. I did not get that at all until I saw a video of Johnson’s presentation to the financial community. My reaction was “I can do business with that company (jcp)” and I did. I don’t know if I’ll bother trying again.

  • ksegall

    As much respect as I have for Ron (and it’s a lot), I do think that the first batch of commercials done under Ron’s regime were awful. That screaming commercial in particular. Not that it’s a terrific defense, but those spots were done under the supervision of the then-president Michael Francis. He was ultimately (and fairly quickly) shown the door by Ron, largely because of his marketing approach.

  • Vansberdeen

    In some ways this ad addresses the intense media hatred of Johnson. He became more important than JCP; the stories were almost entirely negative and impossible to avoid. The Google Business section was abuzz with stories related to Johnson and his disastrous rein. He was mean, he hated the customers, hubris, arrogance, gay friendly, anti-Christian, etc. He was the embodiment of evil. People always hate genius and the desire to be better.

    The ad is apologizing for him. The press has certainly been nicer to Ullman in that JCP stories are harder to come by, and that happened almost as soon as Johnson left.

    I’ll probably stick with JCP for a while. I do hate the new prices, but if the merchandise stays the same and keeps improving, I will wait for sales. I hope they don’t change too much; my local store looks amazing ( but it was only 3 years old when Johnson came in), and I look forward to the new home department. Some day, people will realize that we were given a great opportunity with the new JCP.

  • Let me guess, you’re a liberal right? Why is it liberals hate on the south so much? Because there are a lot of blacks there? That would explain the racist history of the democrat party.

  • Chuck

    I watched this ad once and am going with my immediate gut reaction regarding the tone I felt: Desperation.

    As Dennis commented earlier, for me it carries that dynamic of a relationship that didn’t work out which ends in the desperate cry, “Please, Honey, just give me a second chance. I’ll do better. I’ve changed. I swear.”

    I’ll also add my praise for “Insanely Simple.” It is a thoroughly enjoyable book and I’ve been recommending it to family and friends.

  • Fraydog

    And that has absolutely nothing to do with the topic at hand. If you want to be correct, the Dixiecrats who gave the Democrats their formerly racist history almost all migrated to the Republican party. That’s an undebatable fact.

  • “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show” came to mind.

  • ksegall

    Thanks Chuck!

  • Hmmm…video has gone private.

  • ksegall

    Thanks for the tip. I’ve re-linked to a news story about the commercial, since jcp has apparently yanked all the posted versions.

  • Yanked? Must be testing well… ;-)

  • ksegall

    They said they were only going to run it for two days. But it’s pretty weird that they would then wipe out every trace of it. The plot thickens!

  • Just watched the jcp anthem commercial again. So beautiful, so well done, so inspirational, and in a non-jingoistic way so patriotic.