We may use P’com, but you never will

Positioning and brand expert Al Ries has written a superb Ad Age column that beautifully captures the kind of top down, inside-out thinking that still pervades most of Corporate America's C-suite.


In the column, Ries mocks J.C. Penney's rebranding of itself as JCP. Having been involved in countless name changes over the decades, Ries knows what he's talking about. He says Penney CEO Ron Johnson and his team chose JCP because that's how THEY refer to the company in their internal e-mails and casual office conversations. But, as Ries points out, the rest of the world still calls the organization J.C. Penney, Penney's or Penny. And, he cites studies showing that the JCP abbreviation is being completely ignored.

Ries says consumers should be the ones who decide if a corporation should change its name. He cites Coke as a prime example. Coca-Cola didn't begin putting the abbreviation on soda cans until the four-letter C-word had entered the popular lexicon.

That's smart, outside-in thinking. Federal Express did the same thing, waiting until everyone in the world was using the FedEx abbreviation before formalizing the change.

Emily Yellin, our strategic partner in Peppercom's Audience Experience offering, made the same point in her book, 'Your Call Is (Not That) Important to Us.' She constantly reminds marketers that consumers don't think of themselves as consumers. They're shoppers. And, shoppers don't think of J.C. Penney as a brand. They think of it as a discount store.

The best thinkers in marketing are the ones who've figured out the audience is now in charge. The days of re-branding your company as JCP and expecting the mindless, advertising-dependent masses of the past to automatically start using the ersatz initials are gone with the wind.

The game has changed and, before making a name change, listen to your audience first. If you listen hard enough, they may tell you to stick with what you've got.

I can promise you one thing. Just because we refer to our firm as P'com doesn't mean I'd ever re-brand us that way or expect you to suddenly calling us P'commers.

Oh, one more plug for Ries. Just to pour salt in the JCP wound, he says he would have advised Penney to stay with their name and use the tagline: 'Save dollars at Penney's.' Brilliant in its simplicity, isn't it?


7 thoughts on “We may use P’com, but you never will

  1. Interesting. Last night we walked from Penn Station to Herald Square and saw the new JCP logo outside the Manhattan Mall logo. My thought: “how dumb.”
    I’m willing to bet the marketing geniuses who came up with this just HATE that the name most consumers refer to the retailer by is “Penney’s.” Their rationale was probably something like this: a huge rebranding and marketing effort will change those idiots’ perceptions in no time.
    Will it work? Check for the answer at notgonnahappen.com.

  2. Thanks for the comment. Your experience represents classic, top-down, inside-out corporate thinking. Intent on getting you to embrace JCP and stop calling them Penney, the corporate powers-that-be instead alienated you. Odds are good you’ll take your business elsewhere as a result. Management needs to understand that customer experience rules supreme and name changes, new logos and, indeed, marketing itself, are now subservient to what you and I experience.

  3. Interesting post. I enjoyed the closing quote from Ries suggesting that J.C. Penny keep the name and simply add a new tagline. Simplicity is best. I was at Penny’s today and the gentleman who was helping me pick out a suit could not give me a suit bag because they had run out of the ones they had. They had to get rid of all merchandise carrying the old logo and were awaiting the arrival of new suit bags with the updated JCP logo. This is just another way that the move to JCP was costly. For something so expensive it’s unfortunate that they did things without paying attention to what consumers were already saying.

  4. Thanks Keith. Yup. Despite all the books and all the articles, many marketers continue to think the same way their predecessors did in the 1960s.

  5. Good points, Steve. It’s amazing (and unfortunate) how we PR pros and marketers have taken the relatively simple concept of “consumers” and bastardized it in a way that we can barely even relate to actual people/shoppers in the real world, it sometimes seems.
    I think the JC Penny / JCP rebranding effort is a perfect case in point. Like you and Al Ries, I can’t think of a single time in my life when I ever referred to the company as JCP. Back home in Missouri, we call it Penny’s, simple as that.
    Rebrandings can work, but only if the new brand concept aligns well with what shoppers expect and think of the brand. If it’s a complete 180 then the company just finds itself back at square one a few months down the line.