JC Penney Says It's Listening, Brings Back St. John's Bay Brand

Social-Media Team Goes Into Overdrive, As Brand Tries to Lure Back Customers

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JC Penney is taking to social media channels with a major PR offensive dubbed #jcpListens.

On Monday, the retailer put up a poll on Facebook asking customers which JC Penney brand was their favorite. By Wednesday, it launched the much-debated "It's No Secret" ad apologizing to customers and directing them to Facebook, where it changed its cover photo to include an image featuring #jcpListens.

Then, last night, the retailer announced the brand that emerged as tops in the poll -- the St. John's Bay women's line that was one of the casualties of former CEO Ron Johnson's tenure -- would be returning. At the time the women's line was shuttered in favor of younger brands like Betseyville and Joe Fresh, the house brand brought in more than a billion dollars in sales annually. "We heard you. St. John's Bay is back! What will you snag first, pants or shirts?" the brand posted on Facebook. JC Penney's social-media managers have also been working overtime, as judged by the volume of direct replies to consumers on posts that have thousands of comments.

Another subtle change worth noting: JCP, the moniker created and championed by Mr. Johnson, also seems to be falling out of favor. The apology ad ends with the retailer's full name, JCPenney, something that had been missing from much of the company's recent communications, including the prior campaign, "Yours Truly," which launched during the Oscars. Under Mr. Johnson's direction, the brand had even abandoned its Facebook.com/jcpenney page in favor of Facebook.com/jcp.

Consumers and industry insiders are mixed on whether the retailer's latest efforts are a savvy bit of marketing for a troubled company or destined to cause even more damage.

On Facebook, a number of customers are responding positively to the new changes and promising to come back and give JC Penney a shot. "This is it folks. … JCP needs US! Now let's do our part and shop," wrote Victoria. Added Ruth, "When St. John's Bay went so did my husband and myself. Hooray, we'll be back. Thanks for listening to your regulars."

A smaller contingent is bemoaning the return of coupons and "older" brands, however. "Loved the new JCP. And I was your new target market. You finally brought in youthful clothes that fit and I never had to remember to bring in a coupon. Guess I'll have to go back to my other stores," wrote Beth.

Among marketers, opinions are just as split. Some commenters on anearlier AdAge.com story pointed out the ad only draws more attention to the brand's missteps, while at the same time making the brand's newer fans feel undervalued.

But Mike Duda, managing partner at Consigliere Brand Capital, applauded JC Penney's new approach. "It's a smart thing to do; it would not be a smart thing to go deep on," he said. "It's telling consumers we're hitting the reset button, and they're signaling change to their own organization -- people that have been beaten up during the [former CEO Ron] Johnson regime. It's the message that it's over. Sometimes you do advertising to speak to your own employees. As much as they're saying it to the consumer, I would think it would also go over well with corporate, people in the stores, vendors and people in the supply chain they rely on."

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