The J.C. Penney Company on Thursday said it would invest more than $1 billion to improve areas like customer experience and operations, the latest turnaround bid by the embattled department store chain. The effort also introduces a new brand positioning and campaign, called “Make It Count,” that center on four core areas: making fashion accessible, offering a compelling loyalty program, supporting varied local and cultural communities and reinforcing a commitment to positive change. The company uses the brand name J.C. Penney in marketing and advertising.
“We have a belief that the industry hasn’t really taken our customer seriously enough, whether that’s size inclusivity, whether that’s the focus that we have on our communities,” said Katie Mullen, J.C. Penney’s chief customer officer.
The J.C. Penney brand joins a deluge of others undergoing revitalization initiatives in 2023, reflective of businesses viewing the post-pandemic transition as an opportunity to pivot. Like many in the industry, J.C. Penney is trying to balance leaning on what’s familiar — its classic logo is returning, for instance — while bringing something forward-looking to the table that can appeal to consumers whose shopping habits have shifted over the past few years. The J.C. Penney Company filed for bankruptcy in 2020 and was later acquired by two of its landlords, Simon Property Group and Brookfield Asset Management.
“What we’re doing isn’t a reinvention of the brand. It’s a reinvigoration, it’s a recommitment to the set of things that had historically been true about us,” said Mullen.
“Make It Count” was about a year in the making, according to Mullen, and involved six months of qualitative and quantitative consumer research. Mullen moved to the chief customer officer role in April after previously serving as the retailer’s chief digital officer.
On the messaging front, the focus is on working families and helping make their dollar go further without sacrificing style. That could resonate with consumers who continue to grapple with inflation and an uncertain economy. At the same time, the retailer is trying to avoid conventional department store tactics that communicate value, Mullen said.
TV spots depict a series of “lifestyle vignettes” that capture authentic, sometimes messy moments between friends and family while showing off the range of fashions available from J.C. Penney. The brand positioning was developed with agency Yard NYC and creative was handled by in-house teams.
“It’s not a little picture of a product with a big price sticker attached to it,” said Mullen. “It’s the romance, and every customer wants to be romanced.”
Context is key
Though the campaign is just one piece of a more sprawling initiative that also touches on the chain’s merchandising, supply chain operations and tech and digital capabilities, “Make It Count” represents a substantive increase in marketing expenditure. The media ramp-up arrives ahead of the crucial holiday season.
“We’re spending tens of millions of dollars incremental to our baseline marketing to make sure that we’re getting this big brand message out,” said Mullen, without sharing specific figures. “You’re going to start to see us showing up in sports, in music in other types of entertainment that our customer is really highly engaged in.”
Mullen explained that marketing strategy supporting the J.C. Penney brand is essentially bifurcated. On the one hand, there are creative plays, like the new commercials, that are focused on reach. Congruent to that approach, the marketing team is deploying more contextual efforts targeted at specific product interests and demographics, which aligns with the broader inclusivity angle of “Make It Count.”
“For our customer who really cares about beauty, they’re going to see beauty content in the publications and in the forums that they’re using for beauty information. Likewise for cooking, likewise for home,” said Mullen. “You’re going to see us in media channels like Essence. We know that that’s an incredibly important way for us to connect with our African-American consumer.”
At the top level, the retailer is a much more “digitally native shop” than it was a few years ago, according to Mullen. However, the executive noted that the department store is aiming to avoid using “very short-term levers” for driving engagement. Or, in other words, to avoid the trend-chasing that publicly traded rivals might feel the pressure to adopt.
“As a private company, we have a lot more flexibility to invest in the right long-term ways of connecting and engaging with our customers versus being highly motivated to do what some other public companies might do,” said Mullen. “That’s not the game we're playing.”
In search of a turnaround
While Mullen emphasized that “Make It Count” is designed to have a long tail, the marketing team is paying attention to some KPIs in the short term. Those include monitoring the brand’s net promoter score, direct website traffic and, perhaps most importantly, customer frequency, a sign that shoppers are returning to the J.C. Penney brand versus rivals like Macy’s or Kohl’s.
“Make It Count” and the $1 billion reinvestment plan seek to right the retailer’s ship following a trying few years. The company’s net sales dropped 3.4% year-over-year to $7.6 billion in 2022, Retail Dive previously reported.
The retailer also highlighted recent moves like a partnership with celebrity stylist Jason Bolden to revamp private labels J.Ferrar and Worthington. Those types of deals demonstrate that the makeover is gaining traction, according to Mullen.
“There's always going to be work that we still need to do. But as measured by the way the industry is taking notice, the way potential partners are coming to us and saying they want to partner and do collabs with us, we think that’s a measure of the fact that we are ready to go tell this story more broadly,” said Mullen.