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JC Penney Chases After Men With First Strahan Spot

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Forget getting gifts from others on Father's Day—JC Penney wants men to buy for themselves every day of the year. Looking to lift struggling sales, the retailer is going after a bright spot -- men-- with a campaign breaking ahead of the June 18 holiday for dads.

The push begins with its first TV spot featuring football star-turned-talk-show-host Michael Strahan airing June 7. The chain is expanding its relationship with Strahan, who has had an apparel line at JC Penney since 2015, to now include underwear.

"Last year was heavy into promotional, but you won't see those same conversations this year," said James Starke, senior VP-men's at JC Penney. "Instead of being smack-in-the-face promotional, we're talking to the customer in a different way using wit and humor." A few years ago, the 1,000-unit chain conducted research to find out how best to communicate with men shopping for themselves. Using Strahan, a "guy's guy" in the new messaging is one way to get through to that customer, said John Tighe, exec VP-chief merchant.

Today, menswear represents roughly 22% of sales, but is a growing bright spot for the brand, which recently reported a same-store sales decline in the first quarter of 3.5%. Last week, JC Penney announced the hire of Marci Grebstein, formerly the top marketer at Lowe's, as CMO.

Strahan, for one, is excited about the push. In the 30-second spot, Strahan, who has fond memories of receiving JC Penney catalogs as a kid, is filmed at MetLife Stadium, the home of his former New York Giants team.

"It was like going home…just to be there and have the first commercial in the place where I felt like I started," he said.

In addition to the Strahan commercial, JC Penney will air a 15-second Father's Day-focused spot, as well as radio ads. The company, which spent $291.1 million on measured media in the U.S. last year, according to Kantar Media, has also been upping its digital offerings in order to better reach male consumers. Earlier this year, it partnered with Turner on its "Great Big Story" network and also worked with Above Average to run a series of humorous videos around the new underwear line. The new TV spots were created with McGarryBowen.

Strahan "embodies everything JC Penney stands for—making fabulous quality available to all men seeking style at affordable prices," said Jacqueline Leak, exec creative director at McGarryBowen New York.

In a tough apparel environment, focusing on menswear, which has continued to see growth in recent years, could be a smart strategy. However, that once robust growth is expected to be more tempered in coming years. Research firm Mintel forecasts men's clothing sales will increase 16% between 2015 and 2020; that compares with a rise of 22% from 2010 to 2015.

JC Penney "can be successful like some of the other big retailers as long as they abide by these rules—update their fit and have a pretty good flow of merchandise to keep him coming back," said Michael Fisher, VP-creative of menswear at fashion tracking firm Fashion Snoops. "For a lower price point, there's no such thing as a seasonal collection any longer. The more transitional clothing can be, the higher the perceived added value." He added that Strahan, with his "everyday cool" and mass appeal is a smart partner for JC Penney.