Four logos in three years. No, we’re not talking about a student magazine or village shop. This is JC Penney, a retail chain with more than 1,000 department stores in suburban shopping malls all over the US. A formidable force in American retailing for over a century, it’s a US institution: the site of its first outlet, in Kemmerer, Wyoming, is a National Historic Landmark.
In early October, this once-cherished brand switched logos for the third time since February 2011. To be fair, it wasn’t the fourth logo in three years – it was the logo it had in the first place, back in 2010. That was before three years of branding and pricing chaos that confused and alienated the chain’s core customers and saw sales drop through the floor.
Rewind to late 2010 and the decision to replace the JC Penney logotype developed for it by Heinz Waibl at Unimark, Massimo Vignelli’s deeply functionalist, lab-coated design collective. Back in 1970, the wordmark brought Helvetica and sleek modernity to middle America; JC Penney was approaching its peak number of stores of more than 2,000, and its new image was one of thrillingly no-frills shopping. It may have been, as visual identity consultant Tony Spaeth has speculated, “the single purest exploitation of the excitement Helvetica generated in that era”.
By 2010, that excitement was a distant memory. The retailer wanted to freshen up, to reach out to young, stylish Americans. So, they did what any nationwide, multi-billion-dollar enterprise would do: they got a student to design their new logo. JC Penney crowd-sourced its new identity from an apparently random selection of ‘associates’, design agencies and two art and design schools.
The logo-off yielded a winning submission from Luke Langhus, a third-year design student at the University of Cincinnatti. It kept the Helvetica for continuity but re-set the name in hip all-lowercase (a convention rigidly stuck to in all communications) and placed the ‘jcp’ in a red square. The letters “appear to break out of the box, symbolizing an emergence into an exciting, new future,” frothed the press release. It was premiered at the 2010 Oscars.
By the 2011 Oscars, ‘jcpenney’ was launching another logo. Customers who’d stuck with the store all their lives were turning their back on it. The latest look was said to appeal to “all Americans”. It truncated the hallowed name to simply ‘jcp’ and placed it in the blue corner of something reminiscent of the Stars and Stripes. New CEO, Ron Johnson (formerly senior VP of retail at Apple) trashed the retailer’s coupons and discounts and heavily invested in trying to Apple-tise its stores, taking it upmarket and introducing separate areas for services and products.
In the 12 months that followed, ‘jcpenney’ lost $985m. Sales fell 32% in the fourth quarter of 2012. The shop was in freefall.
Johnson lost his job. Old CEO Mike Ullman returned and instantly put out an ad apologising for the company’s mistakes. In October, the classic logo reappeared.
Whether JC Penney (as it’s now known – again) can regain the confidence of the millions of ‘tried and true’ customers it lost remains to be seen. It will take much more than a logo change. But if you ever need an example of how not to rebrand in retail, the recent history of JC Penney will serve you well. 1