J.C. Penney burnishes its Liz Claiborne brand

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Ready or not, here comes autumn, brought to you by Madison Avenue.

Although the calendar still says summer, marketers are already beginning efforts to get America in the mood for fall shopping. Perhaps the most ardent pursuers of consumer dollars at this time of year are retailers and apparel makers, promoting fall fashions.

For instance, J.C. Penney this week begins a campaign to burnish the image of one of its most important house brands for women, Liz Claiborne, with print, online video, digital and social ads. The campaign is the first work for Penney from an agency in New York, Yard, known for ads for fashion — and fashionable — brands like Perry Ellis, Tumi and John Varvatos.

The campaign, featuring a new brand theme, “Love, Liz Claiborne,” is part of attempts by Penney to come back after a near-death experience under the management of its previous chief executive, Ron Johnson, who was ousted in April 2013. There have recently been some signs of a nascent turnaround at Penney, which shed customers and profits under Mr. Johnson by changing its merchandising and discounting policies, but questions remain about the company’s future.

Mr. Johnson eliminated or played down many mainstay Penney house brands, but he “recognized the importance of” Claiborne, said Siiri Dougherty, senior vice president and general merchandise manager for women’s apparel at Penney, devoting store space to dedicated Claiborne shops. Still, the Kantar Media unit of WPP reported that spending to advertise Claiborne in major media yo-yoed from $52,000 in 2011 to $1.1 million in 2012 to nothing last year or in the first quarter of 2014.

“I think a lot of things with us have yo-yoed over the years,” Ms. Dougherty said ruefully.

Data from Robert Passikoff, president of Brand Keys in New York, a brand-loyalty consultancy, ranks Claiborne No. 11 on a list of 15 women’s apparel brands, ahead of only Old Navy; the Kardashian Kollection; another Penney house brand, Worthington; and Catalina. (The No. 1 brand on that Brand Keys list is Victoria’s Secret, he said, followed by Ralph Lauren, J. Crew, Gap and Calvin Klein.)

The problems for Claiborne are “partly who it’s associated with,” Mr. Passikoff said, referring to Penney’s difficulties, which removed “some of the luster” that Claiborne had achieved. Having a store brand with a familiar name “certainly gives Penney a little bit of a head-start against a store brand you’ve never heard of,” he added, “but context is everything.”

According to Ms. Dougherty, the campaign is meant to bring Claiborne more ups than downs by trying to “make sure we stay relevant, and not just grow old with the older customer” who knows the brand. The offerings under the Claiborne name, aimed at women ages 35 to 50, include, in addition to apparel, merchandise in categories like footwear, jewelry and home goods.

“It’s a multigenerational brand, and we want to continue to be so,” Ms. Dougherty said, and as a result it must “appeal to the new 35-year-old” as well as longtime brand fans. To that end, the new ads will be upbeat and free-spirited, she added, celebrating “empowering women and self-expression.”

That is being expressed in the online commercials and other ads through expressions that the executives at Yard call “Liz-isms.” Among them are phrases like “Item No. 1 on the to-do list — throw away the to-do list” and “A little impulsivity goes a long way.”

Ads that depict three female friends eating cupcakes offer this advice: “If it feeds your inner light, it’s not an indulgence. It’s a necessity.” Ads with a woman sharing pizza with pals at an after-party declare, “When the festivities are over, the real celebration begins.” And ads with a confident woman putting on lipstick as she waits for an office elevator assert, “When you own the room, you can decorate however you please.”

The challenge for Yard, said Ruth Bernstein, chief strategy officer of the agency, was to “find the contemporary purpose for a brand that makes clothing women actually wanted and loved.” Research helped determine the path to take was an optimistic approach pitching Claiborne as a brand for women in a life stage that she and Stephen Niedzwiecki, chief creative officer of Yard, call “prime time”: experienced, established in careers and, as Ms. Bernstein put it, “in your age of certainty, when you hit your stride, knowing what works for you — and what doesn’t.”

Other apparel brands talking to women 35 to 50 either speak in a voice “too young,” she said, “or talking as their mothers would have.”

Although the new Claiborne ads do not include a Penney brand theme introduced this year, “When it fits, you feel it,” it was “very helpful to have the new strategy in place” while developing the campaign, Mr. Niedzwiecki said.

The ads are to appear in the print or online versions of magazines like Food & Wine, InStyle, More, People, Real Simple and Redbook as well as websites that include AOL, BuzzFeed and Hulu. Depending on the response to the online commercials, Ms. Dougherty said, they may also run on television. The media agency is OMD, part of the Omnicom Group.

Some questions about Penney’s future could be answered Thursday afternoon, when the company is scheduled to release its second-quarter earnings. Estimates by analysts call for a revenue increase and a narrowing of losses compared with the same quarter a year ago.

Calvin Klein - Perry Ellis


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