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I agree with Al Ries that JC Penney failed to change…I just don’t agree with his reason why.

Al Ries, who famously coined the term “positioning”, wrote in Ad Age this week, “What’s the most difficult job in marketing? Change. And J.C. Penney is the latest example of how hard that is. In the year since now-departed Ron Johnson introduced his new strategy for the brand, sales were down 25%, the stock was down 66% and the company has lost $985 million.”  (Read the full article here:

In a nutshell Ries makes the case that JCP couldn’t change its image as a downscale brand focused on inexpensive clothing because that is the position it holds in consumers’ minds, a position he maintains is extremely difficult to change.

But brands evolve all the time, and many do a great job: Coach, Gucci, Harley-Davidson, Apple (yes, folks…Apple wasn’t always all THAT.)

My take is that ex-CEO Ron Johnson was so focused on his own mission that he was tone deaf to the American consumer. And the American consumer wants sales. Lots of them. All the time. We have been trained to look for bargains and discounts. It’s in our DNA. Ever been to a sample sale in NYC? It takes less guts to climb Anapurna. When it comes to bargains, we can’t get enough…or as the kid in the AT&T commercial says, “we want more. When we like it, we want more. ”

Trying to polish JCP’s image and make it more relevant wasn’t Johnson’s great failure. It was simply doing it the wrong way, and then persisting in his wrong-headedness…always the biggest mistake of all. As a realtor once told me while I was throwing good money after bad on my first New York apartment renovation…when you’re digging yourself into a hole, stop digging.


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