Marketing June 12, 2013 Last updated September 18th, 2018 1,199 Reads share

From Tweak To Train Wreck: The Ron Johnson Lesson

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Right now recently ousted

The Poison Apple

Johnson of course came straight to J.C. Penney from the Apple Stores and before that he was in charge of Target. The Apple Store experience must have gone to his head because it doesn’t seem like he brought anything he learned from his Target experience to J.C. Penney. And can we talk? J.C. Penney is a whole lot more like Target than it is Apple. I have an interesting idea regarding that relationship, but first let’s get to the main point we need to make about tweaking a brand:

✓       Build on your brand’s strength.

We could cite all kinds of very wise folk wisdom here, like “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water,” or “Don’t try to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear,” or “You can’t put a square peg in a round hole,” and they would all speak to the situation. However, there must be an underlying reason why Johnson went counter to all of that accumulated wisdom. Bob Herbold says Johnson was seduced by his own strengths. I would boil it down to one word: hubris.

The world according to Johnson

Johnson’s over-the-top pride and self-confidence was oozing off the screen last year when CBS Sunday Morning talked to him about remaking J.C. Penney in a story the news magazine did about the current state of department stores. Today stores must be a destination, a place where shoppers want to meet and spend time, he boasted. So he was transforming JCP aisles into “streets” and building stores within the store.

He was apparently so blind he didn’t notice something: Malls already do all of that and J.C. Penney stores are located in malls.

Connect with customers

Every retail genius is able to relate to customers and know them more intimately than they know themselves. That is why savvy retail leaders can tweak their stores and align them better with the needs of their customers. This goes back to our main point: build on brand strengths. And at the same time, avoid bonehead branding pitfalls.

Here’s a good exercise. Complete the sentence: Our customers expect ________. Can you do that for your customers? For J.C. Penney customers one good response would have been “sales.” The retailer was famous for sale flyers. Johnson tossed out the frequent sales, instead opting for supposedly everyday low prices. This pits J.C. Penney “mano a mano” against Walmart.

Where does the smart money go on that bet?

A good tweak

Above I said that Johnson could have related his Target experience to J.C. Penney and I believe there’s one tweak he made at Target that he would have been an immediate winner at J.C. Penney. Johnson cashed in on the way people like to mispronounce Target and give it a French twist by saying “Targét.”

If Johnson had truly understood J.C. Penney customers he would have known that they like to do something similar by calling the stores Jacques Penné. That is something he could have used to draw new attention to the brand and built some enthusiasm.

However, Johnson had no clue. Quelle horreur! It’s no wonder the board bid him adieu.

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Megan Wright

Megan Wright

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