In the wake of the recent ouster of CEO Ron Johnson, JC Penney, seeking to undo some of the potential brand damage, used a strategy that is becoming increasingly popular, the public mea culpa. In what was a fast turnaround for a traditionally slow-moving brand, a strategy was launched involving both apologetic television commercials and social outreach with the use of a designated hashtag inviting customer feedback.
The response was large and immediate. The brand's Twitter feed was flooded with responses and the hashtag #jcpListens floated to the top of Twitter's trending list. Forbes reported that the Facebook post titled "We're Listening" received over 50,000 likes and over 16,000 comments. By measuring engagement statistics alone, the campaign could be deemed a success. People are clearly interested in talking to the brand. But it also had the unintentional side effect of exposing the brand's flaws to a wider audience. Anyone who clicked on the hashtag could see responses from upset customers detailing negative experiences, many of which had nothing to do with the changes instituted by Johnson. In fact many of them were around customer service issues.
The public apology has become very popular in recent years. There are some major advantages. It shows that a brand is human and willing to listen. When used correctly it can engender a turnaround. Perhaps the most famous example of this was when Domino's Pizza ran an extensive ad campaign featuring the CEO. Domino's had long been the butt of jokes. People ate the pizza because it was relatively cheap and convenient but it wasn't seen as a quality brand. As part of its road back the company changed its practices, switching focus from convenience to quality. It made employees the star of the commercials and instituted a pizza tracker that enabled the buyer to track the progress of the order online. The moves have been successful leading to an increase in sales and stock prices. Recently Domino's took it a step farther, saying that they had abandoned their famous "30 minutes or less" guarantee in order to up their commitment to delivering a superior product.
The apology route tends to work best with brands that are at the top of the food chain. When Netflix decided to split streaming and mail delivery methods into two separate brands and pricing models there was a huge uproar and many people discontinued their use of the service. Many more didn't simply because the brand was the leader in the space and people generally avoid change if they can help it allowing the brand time to re-pivot and still retain much of their loyal fan base. The business was theirs to lose. Imagine if the New Coke debacle had taken place in the age of social media, the decision to return to the old formula likely would have taken place a lot more quickly because rather than waiting for sales figures to show a drop, the response online would have let the brand know they were in real trouble immediately.
For an aging brand struggling for relevance in a crowded marketplace the pathway is less clear. One major problem that JC Penney is facing is that it doesn't quite knows what it did wrong. It's like a dog that wants to please its master but doesn't understand what the master wants. The brand was in trouble before Johnson came to town and one of the reasons he was hired was that they were hoping a little of his Apple cool would rub off on them. Unlike the Domino's problem, there is no single solution to treat what ails JC Penney. While the brand is experiencing an increase in social attention right now, the changes it will need to engender will likely take time to show up in stores and by then any goodwill it drummed up during this campaign could evaporate. In business as in life, apologizing is often a great first step but without action following quickly after it attitudes are unlikely to change.