You own your logo and marketing message. Your customers own your brand relevance in the marketplace. And when your customers say you are irrelevant, no amount of advertising, positive press, or sales promotions will convince them otherwise.
Two iconic American brands are proving that every day.
It is hard to imagine that there could be a retailer that has fallen farther than JCPenney. The failed experiment to turn the venerable home of great value into the equivalent of an Apple Store for clothing and home furnishings came close to bankrupting the company that James Cash Penney founded as the Golden Rule stores.
And yet, Sears has proven to be an able competitor for the title of most irrelevant brand in American retail. The company just announced that it lost $279 million in the past quarter as compared to a net income of $189 million a year earlier. Revenue fell through the floor – dropping 9% to $8.5 billion. Same-store sales collapsed by 3.6%. Sears has been working to re-invigorate its brand and performance for so long that it is destined to live out the rest of its days on life support.
The Lesson from Sears and JCPenney
Sears and JCPenney are glaring examples of opportunities lost.
- Lost focus on customers and the value brought to them: Growing up, Sears was the only place to shop for appliances and tools. Its clothes were OK, but JCPenney held a clear advantage there. Granted, this was before the day of big box stores, category killers, and the Internet. But, both companies had a clear focus on what their customers needed and valued. Today, both companies are lost in the world of “Me Too.” They both offer good products and good prices, but there is no compelling reason to shop there. Neither is an upscale destination and neither is a low-price provider. Most important, both missed the opportunity to focus on clear value to a customer that can’t afford luxury and doesn’t want lowest price.
- Lost nimbleness: One – and maybe the only – thing Ron Johnson did in his 17-month odyssey as CEO of JCPenney is force change. The problem was he went too far and too fast. His customers, employees, and the marketplace he wanted to reach couldn’t catch up. The problem had its roots in years of doing things the way they had always been done. Unlike Apple with its history of innovation, JCPenney had been stuck in its own way for so long that they couldn’t become nimble enough quickly enough to pull off the change. Sears is a similar story. The company has rolled out new strategies and initiatives over the years, but they have failed from a culture that is not nimble enough to adapt.
- Lost discipline: Focus and nimbleness are not occasional competencies to be reinforced when the need arises. They are every day necessities for competing in a world where competition comes out of nowhere to capture your market. Sears and JCPenney lost on the fundamentals of their business because they didn’t anchor those things in their culture. And, no amount of being distinctive will matter if the discipline to execute the fundamentals is not in place at every level of the organization.
If JCPenney and Sears were animals, they would be on the endangered species list. That’s what happens when you forget that past success only proves that you were right once.