JC Penney, Your “Tagline” is Inside Out

Reposted from Huffington Post.

When I first heard JCPenney’s new tagline “When it Fits, You Know it,” I was reminded of why I don’t “fit” JCPenney. It is the same reason why I believe they are struggling to be a profitable and relevant brand.

As a young girl growing up in Michigan, JCPenney was a brand that was forced on me. When I was 9 years old, my parents divorced. My mother took her first full-time position with the JCPenney store in Burton, Mi. I remembered annual shopping trips for school clothes to Penneys. My brother, sister and I spent a lot of time in the store, sometimes before it was even open or after closing.  The strangest experience I had at JCP was being a part of my mom’s wedding ceremony in 1982 to my stepfather that took place at the same store she worked in. The bridal party was dressed in their best baby blue tuxes and dresses straight from the pages of the JCPenney catalog. I don’t quite know how the local news got wind of the wedding but they were there too. Even as a child I thought it was odd but I have to admit I did think it was pretty cool to see myself on the local news. My mom stayed at that store for 10 years, serving various management positions. The drawback to this for my siblings and I was that all of our school clothes had to come from JCPenney. As a preteen and teenager, I begged her let us shop at the more popular stores in the mall like The Limited. Occasionally we would get something from those stores but overall I was always a little envious of my friend’s wardrobe in comparison to my JCP duds.

Even though the JCP brand was somewhat forced on me, it was familiar enough to stay connected to it. During high school in Michigan, I took a job with a company owned by JCPenney’s called Units. After high school,  I attended Bauder Fashion College in Arlington, TX. As I made that transition I was also transferred to work at a Units store in Fort Worth, TX. Shortly after the transfer, I learned some of the key executives at Units would be replaced or moved to the JCP company.  Within a year, JCPenney closed Units.  At 20 years old, I was appointed to the position of a troubleshooter which essentially meant I was responsible for traveling to and from Units stores in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex to close the stores.  In 1997, I went to work for JCPenney at the corporate office in Plano, TX. I served as an internal communications manager.

By the time I arrived at the corporate office, I had an endless amount of personal experiences with the JCP culture. It did not take long to see there was a consistency between inside behavior and outside actions.

It did not surprise me that my manager was more concerned if I was wearing pantyhose to work than utilizing my talents and experiences. Every colleague I knew had a story about a manager that would spend hours walking the campus, smoking cigarettes, reading the paper or any other non-work related time-waster. The JCP corporate culture I experienced was overly sensitive to the now: What are you doing now? What crisis do we need to focus on now? What is the project everyone is required to participate in now?  There was a constant sense of impatience in the pursuit of productivity and profit which left very little space for employees to feel invested in their position.  Employees had only two paths because of this: they left or they stayed where they remained safely under the radar while riding out retirement.  In my experience, the vast majority of corporate employees only did what was required of them to do without ever reaching their full potential. People would waste a lot of time waiting to be asked to react to whatever they were asked to do, they would complete that task and waste time until the next request. There was no incentive to go beyond  the task at hand. I left JCPenney because I knew I was at a disadvantage there. I was driven to reach my full potential and help others do the same; I could not do either there.

The average lifespan of companies on the S&P 500 Index has decreased by more than 50 years in the last century. While successful companies lasted an average of 67 years in the 1920s, they typically exist for only 15 years today. What does this mean for a company like JCPenney founded in 1902?

For starters it means they know how to survive. They have survived the Great Depression, two additional recessions and a highly competitive marketplace both online and off. Survival sounds like something commendable and it is when it is done in moderation. Yet when a company operates in survival mode for a long period of time the company culture is centered on reacting to the “next” thing. And when there is not a next big thing to react to; they create one.

This is what I experienced at JCP and exactly why consumers do not know what do with JCPenney. They always seem to be going through some sort of identity crisis. After the death of James Cash Penney, they have struggled to “owe” their own culture in a consistent favorable way that encourages both consumers and employees to be loyal to them.

There are two lessons they have not learned yet:
1.    How to engage younger generations without alienating their core clientele.
2.    How to “relate” in general. Rapid change in the marketplace has created a demand for one-to-one relating as both the means to get work done and the ability to maintain and grow a customer base.

The ability to proactively adapt to change increases significantly when the focus is on thriving as opposed to constant attention on what needs to be done to survive the next crisis. Thriving means optimized systems for workflow, communication and innovation. Thriving means making plans for the future instead of waiting for it to take place.  Most importantly in order to thrive, every person involved with the company both inside and out must believe their interaction with the brand enables them to thrive as well.  This can’t be done when a few people are making decisions that affect the whole. This is done when true conversations are taking place through cross-sections of employees, managers, vendors and customers with a system in place for implementation based on what is learned. Culture is created through conversation. Relationships are created through conversation. This is what sets companies like Patagonia, Chipotle and Google far ahead of their peers.

jcpenney-dress-for-success-w724If JCPenney wants to be relevant brand of the future the conversation must evolve past variables of price, quality, quantity and convenience.  Store closings and new marketing messages serve only as a band-aid for a brand that is in needs surgery on it’s most vital organ – their people.  When their employees believe in their brand they will have a brand that consumers want to patronize.  Relationships with customers can’t exist if there are not true processes of relating internally.

As I reflect on my own disadvantage at JCPenney, I wonder now who is at a greater disadvantage? The trusted and knowledgeable worker who does not have a voice or the CEO who doesn’t act on what the worker already knows?  Today’s CEO can’t lead with their own instincts.  Perhaps this is what got Ron Johnson in trouble. He did not identify and involve the customer first.  He implemented changes without a culture in place to sustain the change. Today’s best leaders are those who cultivate a team of experts who together can account for the how, what, when and why of implementation. This is done with careful consideration to each team member’s strengths while identify variables of support and conflict in the planning stage.

Why do I care about what happens to JCPenney? Despite their dysfunction, their story is a part of mine. The brand is like a family member that I have outgrown; I can only love them from a distance because I can’t really relate or understand what they are doing. If my mother did not remind me to “call on” my JCP family member I probably never would. I can’t even remember the last time I was in a store but I will check out their website from time to time. The crown jewel of my bedroom is a metal framed canopy bed I found on clearance on their website. When my friends ask where it came from, they are shocked to learn it is from JCPenney.

When James Cash Penney talked about why he established his stores in small towns in the Midwest he said it was because he knew how to relate to the people who would populate the stores; they were like him and he knew how to serve them.  J. C. Penney the man knew how to connect to people. JCPenney the company does not. This is what the “about us” says on their website:

“J. C. Penney Company, Inc. (NYSE: JCP), one of the nation’s largest apparel and home furnishing retailers, is undergoing a resurgence to become America’s preferred retail destination for unmatched style, quality and value.”

Really? How many other brands could say the same thing? Does this make you want to shop at JCPenney? What would? In order for brands to be relevant to consumers they need to stop telling  us what they are about and show us.

To the leadership team at JCPenney, I say to you, “Your tag is hanging out. Tuck it in, take a look at what is going on inside and pull it together. I want to see you at family dinners again.”