JCPenney: A fatal lack of bravery

I swear, I try to avert my eyes—but I keep getting drawn into the sad saga of JCPenney. Why is that?

Morbid fascination? Schadenfreude? Personal guilt? (I had a hand in two years’ worth of JCP’s ads on the Oscars.)

Actually, I’m not that deep. It’s just that JCP’s failure has been more like a decade-long crumble, and it has such great lessons to offer.

Once “America’s Favorite Store,” JCP has now filed for bankruptcy protection. A single share of JCP stock, once priced over $83, goes for 18 cents as I write this.

It’s tempting to cut JCP a break, since the current crisis has hurt so many companies. But—this crisis only pushed JCP over the edge of the cliff where it was already perched.

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Farewell Jony, and farewell Apple of old

Jony, Jony, Jony—now look what you’ve done.

With one little “I quit,” you dragged all of us across the line separating Apple Classic and New Apple.

We had one foot over that line already with Steve’s passing. This just makes it final—the last spiritual connection to the old Apple is now behind us.

Not that your exit is a surprise. You certainly dropped enough hints. Thank you for staying long enough to keep things stable in the post-Steve era.

But yeah, it does hurt a little to see you go off to LoveFrom. Not the career move—I’m talking about the company name. Wish you’d thought a little harder on that one.

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Apple’s long journey to the workplace

What a difference a few decades make.

During the 1985 Super Bowl broadcast, Apple followed up its previous—and widely acclaimed—Super Bowl commercial, 1984, with a little disaster called Lemmings.

Designed to seduce business customers with “The Macintosh Office,” it actually insulted its intended target by depicting them as, uh … Lemmings.

34 years later, Apple is again making its pitch to business. This time, it’s a bit more down to earth—and infinitely more convincing.

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AirPower: a fiasco beyond imagination

If there was a Beginner’s Guide To Corporate Screwups, surely it would explore the tried-and-true ways for companies to shoot themselves in the foot.

Release buggy software. Fail to protect customer data. Run a bad ad. See your CEO arrested. So many possibilities!

But AirPower is not your stereotypical screwup. It’s something far grander. Never in history has Apple announced a product, gone silent about it for 18 months, and then killed it before it ever shipped.

At least it proves that Apple can be a true innovator in the area of self-immolation.

“Freedom to fail” is actually a liberating thing, essential to the Apple culture. In an internal meeting, I once heard Steve Jobs defend Apple’s large cash reserve by saying, “It gives us the freedom to jump as high as we want. If we fail, we will always have solid ground beneath our feet.”

Unfortunately, AirPower isn’t the “liberating” kind of failure. It’s just shocking and sad.

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Battle of the insurance jingles

Okay, Farmers. You’ve enjoyed your monopoly on silly insurance ad jingles long enough. This is war!

Liberty Mutual has now marched into the arena, armed with a jingle even more annoying than yours. Surrender now, or you will see no mercy.

What Liberty Mutual did is actually pretty rare in this business. After running an ad campaign for at least a couple of years, they decided to “enhance” it with a new jingle at the end—a veritable body blow to competitors taken from the Classic Book of Advertising, circa 1964.

I’m painfully aware of how hard it is to come up with smart strategies and creative executions. I also know how many meetings it takes to sell a creative idea to people who may not see what you see.

That said, I can’t explain how ideas that deserve a quick and merciful death survive a process that includes multiple checkpoints at both the agency and client. The best I can do is imagine how the final meeting went…Continue reading…

Ron Johnson was right about JCPenney

The latest painful chapter in the JCPenney saga has now been written.

CEO Marvin Ellison resigned a couple of weeks back—with the company’s stock price down to a mere $2.43. That’s a particularly brutal number, considering that in 2007 a share of JCP went for $85.

Technically, this plummet was co-authored by three CEOs serving four terms—Marvin Ellison, Ron Johnson and two stints by Myron Ullman.

By numbers alone, it’s hard to tell who was worse. The stock plunged 65% under Ullman (Act I), 54% under Johnson, 58% under Ullman (Act II) and 66% under Ellison.

So I was surprised that Ellison received the praise of many writers reporting his resignation. “He helped turn around J.C. Penney,” said The Street. In what universe that happened may never be known.

Not only do the writers let Ellison off the hook, they seem to rally under a common theme: it’s all Ron Johnson’s fault. After all, Ron was in and out in less than two years, and the stock was decimated during his reign.

However, this narrative ignores two major facts. First, JCP had already lost more than half its value before Johnson took the reins. Second, Ullman and Ellison succeeded only in driving JCP further into the ground.

The truth is, Johnson’s vision was correct and necessary. History has now proven that JCP was (and is) doomed without a radical plan for reinvention.

The company committed the classic sin of throwing out the baby with the bathwater.Continue reading…