J.C. Penney; Great Marketing Opportunity

The Marketing Doctor Says:

J.C. Penney Must Seize This Great Marketing Opportunity

Yesterday, I looked at the  Fiat/Gere controversy with China and how it might represent the new marketing (see that post here). 

Today, there’s the flap about J.C. Penney.  A video surfaced on YouTube (where else?) that purported to be a racy ad for J.C. Penney.  Penney reacted angrily and it has since turned out that the ad seems to have been made by a production company working for their advertising agency.  It won an award at Cannes, but it won’t win any awards from a company that believes –rightly— that its brand was misrepresented.

There are those that say that J.C. Penney is missing the point and should welcome the publicity that this ad has generated.  One blogger calls J.C. Penney “a twentieth century” company that doesn’t understand the Internet (see this post here). 

If this was a different kind of ad I would agree, but it’s not.  Certain kinds of controversy stray into taboo territory and when this happens a brand can be scarred –and let’s face it, this is the last thing J.C. Penney wants.  It is a long-term company and has to think long-term (it survived the Great Depression when its founder, pictured above, made payroll by borrowing against his insurance policies).

So this is a different kind of controversy than Gere and Fiat or Sharon Stone and Dior.  This is the kind of controversy that J.C. Penney needs to show it is actively distancing itself from.

And that’s where a great marketing opportunity lies. 

First, the controversy has catapulted J.C. Penney into a limelight it hasn’t occupied for years –maybe even decades.  Second, the company is the victim here –the ad was a great example of the inmates running the asylum (i.e., the creatives doing what they wanted to do and not thinking about their client, Penney).  Third, it is an entry into a demographic –young people— that have shied away from the store.

J.C. Penney can share in the indignation and harness it in creative ways that can actually build their brand.

Here are four ways they can do this (and show that they really are a twenty-first century company):

1)      J.C. Penney must apologize.  After all, their brand was involved and they need to make it clear that this kind of ad is unacceptable.  But simultaneously they should take the opportunity to make clear that they didn’t sanction, design or in any way support this ad –this means taking some action (possibly legal) against those who did create the ad;


2)      J.C. Penney should then spring into action.  They should create a website that tracks the debacle and the actions they are taking to deal with it.  This website can also be used to re-enforce the brand’s values –family, community, school— that run counter to the values (or lack of values) of the “runaway” ad (the website can also be a way of building the brand in a practical marketing way through subscriptions, etc.);



3)      The website is only step one of J.C. Penney taking the lead in the issue of Internet exploitation.  In other words, this is a great CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) moment in which J.C. Penney can say “look how we were victimized and vulnerable on the Internet…it’s happening to our youth too –they’re vulnerable— and these are some groups that are trying to do something positive about it…”  J.C. Penney can partner with non-profits and sponsor ongoing campaigns to raise awareness about Internet dangers for youth, young adults, etc.;


4)      Building on points #2 and #3, J.C. Penney should then get “hip” but in a more acceptable way.  It should involve young adult celebrities with wholesome reputations –like the Jonas Brothers— in cross-promotions as well as other merchandising/marketing initiatives.  This will increase their profile among the demographic that this renegade ad was seeking to reach but in a way that builds the brand long-term without alienating other portions of their customer base.

J.C. Penney really has a chance to turn a lemon into lemonade for its brand –but the company needs to get moving.  If recent Internet-driven media mis-steps and controversies have shown us anything, it’s that the viral power of the Internet is real, can be incredibly beneficial, but requires that brands become ever more flexible, creative and quickly responsive to harness that power.

And, remember, it’s always easier when you keep branding in mind!


A branding crisis well-handled can build a brand like nothing else.


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