Monday, March 12, 2012

What's in a name?

You may have noticed that safe, stodgy retailer J.C. Penney is now dead. Rising in its place is hip retailer JCP, which is so cool that it produces commercials featuring Ellen DeGeneres.

Or, at least they changed the name. I learned via the RepMan (one of my favorite PR bloggers) that this change was born of the habit of CEO Ron Johnson and other company insiders of referring to the company as JCP in emails. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the company rebranded itself based on the equivalent of an inside joke.

I can't help but recall Radio Shack deciding that everyone should start calling it "The Shack," in a bid to revitalize its antiquated image. It's like your dad deciding he's going to start shopping at Abercrombie & Fitch in order to seem young and hip, but the attempt only draws attention to just how old he really is. (Hell, I'm almost 39, so it's like me deciding to shop at Abercrombie & Fitch to seem young and hip.)

Allow me to say it again: You. Do. Not. Own. Your. Brand. Your customers do. It's not what you say it is, but what they say it is, and no amount of changes to your name or your logo or any of your other branding will make a damn bit of difference unless your product or service changes along with it.

What Radio Shack and J.C. Penney -- excuse me, The Shack and JCP -- demonstrate is that people often ascribe far too much power to things like taglines and logos and even brand names, when those things are merely reflections of an organization's reputation, not the basis of it.

On the other hand, organizations also can underestimate the resonance of their own brand campaigns, and abandon them too quickly. This happens because people inside the organization, steeped as they are in it every day, grow tired of a logo, or a slogan, or a commercial much more quickly than the public at large, or even than the most devoted customers. Those people don't live and breathe the brand on a daily basis. Witness what happened when Gap trying to redesign its logo. Aside from the criticism of the mediocre result, the bungled effort demonstrated that people were still invested in what was perceived as a tired brand.

Ultimately, it is behavior that drives reputation, not graphic design. But changing a logo is a hell of a lot easier than changing behavior, sad to say.


Krista said...

Very impressive observation and analysis, Jonathan! I think it's often forgotton at the C-suite level that companies are not the ones who "control" their reputations and brands. It's much easier in their minds to dicate the brand and broadcast it out to customers whom they think know no better. I think the Gap can attest to the fact that they should give them more credit than that.

Time will tell if JCP sticks already reminded me about The Shack, which I thought kind of demeaned Radio Shack's reputation as an electronics company. But then again, I'm just a common customer... ;)

Jonathan Potts said...

Radio Shack is one of the worst examples -- or best, depending on how you look at it -- of rebranding gone bad. But I understand their instincts: a store with the name "radio" definitely doesn't paint a picture of a modern, hip, electronics store. But what's worse, in my opinion, is the outdated decor and store layout and poor service.

My advice would have been to embrace its reputation and repackage itself as the store for people who aren't technogeeks, who have to ask questions that many of us might be embarrassed to ask. After all, we all have to use technology, but not all of us have mastered it. One of the downsides of being an ubercool brand like Apple is that some people are put off by it.

What would you have recommended?