How JCPenney seeks to ‘reinvigorate’ at 120 years old

VP of Marketing Bill Cunningham on coupons, competition and connecting with core customers

Turning 120 might be its own miracle — particularly for a department store chain. Just ask JCPenney. In a bid to move on from the scars of the pandemic — even as it has emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy under the ownership of Simon Property Group and Brookfield Asset Management — JCPenney is in the midst of what it calls a brand reinvigoration: In a new ad campaign tagline, it’s reminding faithful customers that “Shopping is Back.”

NRF spoke with Bill Cunningham, JCPenney’s vice president of marketing, about how the Boomer-centric chain can appeal to a digital generation.

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Bill Cunningham headshot
Bill Cunningham,
JCPenney’s vice president of marketing

What’s it like to be responsible for the marketing and imagery of a 120-year-old brand that’s had more than its share of headaches in recent years?

It’s actually a great honor to work on an iconic brand. I’ve been with JCPenney for nine and a half years. I’ve been part of the strategies and campaigns through the years. One thing that keeps coming back is how JCPenney has played a part in peoples’ lives throughout the history of the brand.

How has JCPenney been a part of their lives?

When I speak with people for job interviews, six out of 10 have a story of how JCPenney had a key part in their lives. Some say they went there for their back-to-school clothing. Some say they had their first jobs there. Some recall coming to JCPenney for a gift for their mom or their grandmother. Some say they went to JCPenney for their family portraits every year. These stories are prolific. There is so much richness in the heritage of the brand.

In the mid-1970s, JCPenney had more than 2,000 locations and seemed to be in every mall. Now you have about one-third of those locations. What happened?

I’m very optimistic about JCPenney’s future. We’ve emerged from (Chapter 11) bankruptcy and have a path forward as a privately held company. That’s a reflection of our momentum as a brand. We’re refocusing on our core customer. As a marketer, there are very few brands that have our richness in brand identity.

How do you take this richness from the past but recreate it in a relevant way in the present or future?

"It’s not about the past, present or future. It’s about connecting with the customer."

Bill Cunningham, JCPenney

It’s not about the past, present or future. It’s about connecting with the customer. We have more than 50 million customers who engage with us as a brand annually. As we look across the customers who are still shopping at JCPenney, their reasons for shopping are similar and they all have stories about our iconic stores.

Some like the destination shopping. In one shop they can accomplish a shopping task for their entire family and for their home. And then there’s the value element — like great couponing and sales. That wasn’t always embraced enough in our ads or campaign work. So, this isn’t about a store that’s not relevant today. It’s still very relevant.

If you look at our core customer, their need states are basically the same. They want to provide for their family without sacrifice.

Who is JCPenney’s core customer?

It’s the diverse, hard-working American family. But it’s more complicated than a single person. The heart of our demo ranges from age 35 to 55. Sometimes JCPenney is labeled as a store for older customers, but we’re much more diverse than that. The household income of our core customer looks similar to the mid-American household income range. So, our core customer looks like the diverse make-up of America.

JCPenney has lost about 250 stores since the beginning of the pandemic. How many stores does it have now, and how many more might it close?

We have more than 650 stores today. We believe this is the right size for our footprint. This is all part of modernizing the brand and adjusting to the new retail landscape. Now, it’s about innovation and keeping up with the consumer.

What has JCPenney done wrong in the past that it’s going to do right in the future?

The story of JCPenney is rich with how we got to where we are today. We are a forward-looking company. We now have the financial foundation to move forward. We don’t have nearly as many stores as we did but we are appropriately sized to serve the core consumer and laser focus to their needs. It’s a strategy of gaining back the trust of the consumer for destination shopping.

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What is JCPenney specifically improving as it moves forward?

Over the last few years — even as we were going through bankruptcy — our merchandising department was still focused on revitalizing the matrix of products and making sure that we have broad offerings of merchandise from the very casual to the very dressed-up. We’ve launched many private label brands (like Mutual Weave, the men’s private label brand). This is not a standstill strategy. We were building a go-forward strategy before COVID-19 and we still are.

What are some new technologies recently implemented by JCPenney?

JCPenney is committed to adapting to the shopping habits and desires of our customers. From buy online, pick up in store to curbside pickup and the introduction of DoorDash same-day delivery, we’re serving customers by enabling their preferred mode of shopping.

In the months ahead, we’re focused on designing and building technology that will improve customer experience across all domains, including modernizing our supply chains and improving in-store and online shopping functionalities.

JCPenney app

Since JCPenney seems to have a focus on somewhat older consumers, what about Millennials and Generation Z?

We look at all audiences in the marketplace and are not interested in turning a blind eye to our younger audience. But our focus is on our core 35- to 55-year-olds. That covers multiple generations. If we can address their needs and the changes in their lifestyles, we’ll create a destination for them.

Can you explain what JCPenney is doing right now? Is it rebranding?

We call it a brand reinvigoration. This is different from a rebrand. It’s about the best of what JCPenney has to offer and what customers say they come here for. Home. Beauty. Apparel. Optical. Portraits. This is not a hard pivot but we’re putting the spotlight on the great things we offer.

What does JCPenney’s new tagline, “Shopping is Back,” mean?

It’s about many conversations coming together in the same place. It gives credit to the value we bring to our core customer. It’s about what makes us different. It’s the broad range offered in one shopping destination. We offer apparel for yourself, your family, your kids and your grandkids. It’s about home goods. And beauty products — and our salons.

JCPenney

It’s about how customers — who might have been hesitant when COVID-19 first started — are returning to the malls and shopping in their leisure time. Since we are predominantly a mall anchor, we are inviting these customers to come back to JCPenney.

Why did you pick Melissa Villaseñor from the “Saturday Night Live” cast to star in your new campaign?

As we look at casting and talent, we look to make sure we’re representing all of America. She is someone authentic and engaging and we want our brand to show up as authentic and engaging. While we were filming, she shared with us that the very store where we were filming was actually her childhood store where her family went to have their family portraits shot.

Who is this “Penny James” character that she plays in your new ads, and will she continue going forward?

Our hope, our strategy and our intent is that Penny James will continue to make appearances. We wanted to create a JCPenney marketing campaign that lived longer than one month. We have the opportunity to span shopping seasons and bring the message of destination shopping at JCPenney.

You will continue to see Penny James show up throughout the year and beyond. It’s a personification of our shopping enthusiasts —shopping as retail therapy. And her name is a play on the name of our founder, James Cash Penney.

What about couponing? 

I would say that couponing is at the core of our brand. It will be a big component of JCPenney’s strategy going forward. Our customer wants to stretch their dollar and get more for less. Coupons are not going away. They are still very much of our marketing message. But they won’t always be coupons that you can clip. Some will be through the app or digital.

How do you compete with Amazon?

Everyone does. It’s hard not to compete with them. We have a bit of an edge with our bricks-and-mortar footprint. Apparel, in particular, is very personal and our presence in bricks-and-mortar gives consumers the opportunity to try on and experience clothes before they purchase them.

What’s your most important piece of advice to other retailers?

Stay close to your customer. As I look at the many strategies, nothing is more important than understanding your customer and why they do business with you.

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