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Love, Hate, Meaning, and Marketing

David Bowman
David Bowman
BY: David Bowman ON February 14, 2012

A little over a week ago I was out with a colleague running some nighttime errands and we drove past JCPenney.  As marketing dorks like us tend to do, we started a discussion about the Penney’s brand.  “What a meaningless, boring brand,” I stated.  “Why on Earth would I choose Penney’s?”  We went on to expound upon the idea that Penney’s was generally sort of an afterthought.  They filled the slot of I checked everywhere else in the mall, could not find what I wanted, and went to Penney’s as a last resort just to be sure.  It was a brand that was just kind of there – not the coolest, cheapest. edgiest, trendiest, most convenient, or most luxurious.  It was not loved or hated, but simply there.  I wondered aloud why they were still there and what the brand really did mean to people.  “Who really gets excited to go there?  Honestly, is anyone sitting around going, wow I can’t wait to get down to Penney’s.”  I recognized that my opinion of the brand surely did not apply to everyone, but I was genuinely curious as to what the brand was about and how they could possibly be relevant to anyone.

Less than a day later, all that changed.

JC Penney’s made a choice to very publicly support and defend the choice of Ellen DeGeneres, who is openly gay, as their spokesperson in the face of the protests of a small but vocal  group of people threatening to boycott the store.  They took a stand knowing that it would alienate these potential customers.  They stated that Ms. Degeneres was representative or their values and principles, and stuck by her.  They chose to mean something through action, and not just empty principles printed in an employee manual.  They moved from the middle and took a risk.  Based on their organizational principles, they chose to stand for something and do the right thing.

Was this a calculated economic decision, a pr move, or a grand moral statement?  I can’t pretend to know, and generally the answer is typically all of the above in some way, shape, or form.  What I do know is that following that decision, the brand went from being largely meaningless to something relevant and interesting.  The people that wanted to protest them likely hate them more than ever.  The people that saw this decision as a good choice, including people that would have never thought about the brand, now view Penney’s as standing for something more than endless racks of clothing and weekend sales in a yet another non-descript big giant mall chain.  They went beyond offering basic value (clothes, housewares, etc at a competitive price) to offering meaning to consumers.  A Penney’s bag now means something to the person carrying it.

Over the weekend someone close to me, who has never so much as ever mentioned Penney’s, let alone shopped there on purpose, said to me “I think I am going to start shopping at Penney’s now.”  Make no mistake, if they want to keep her and others coming back, they will have to provide value in terms of selection, quality, and price, but alone those things are not enough.  Every store offers that.  Not every store offers meaning.  By creating a brand that means something, they are now a part of the conversation.  They have the opportunity to be considered and chosen versus settled for as a last resort.

You don’t have to make a grand political statement to be important to people, but you do have to make choices.  Stand for something.  Chipotle stands for something.  Patagonia stands for something.  Toms shoes stands for something.  Seth Godin stands for something.  Dorothy Lane Market stands for something.  These brands go beyond just selling boring stuff at a fair price – they sell meaning to people.  The people that buy from them love them.  The people that don’t buy from may not understand them or worse yet might even despise them.

In the end, it is better to be loved or hated than to be boring, irrelevant, and ultimately extinct.

Want a great read on the topic?  Check out my friend Bob Gilbreath’s book The Next Evolution of Marketing – Connect With Your Customers by Marketing with Meaning.

Happy Valentine’s Day – much love to you.

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