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JC Penney and the Courage of Relevance

In what can be described only as a singularly courageous move, the new JCPenney unveiled a Father’s Day ad featuring real-life gay dads Todd Koch and Cooper Smith, and their children, Claire and Mason. It is widely considered a direct response to the failed hysteria of the “Million Moms” boycott of the retailer after it named Ellen DeGeneres its spokesperson. And, indeed, this read of events is likely.

Something more is going on, though. The ailing retailer has found the courage to be relevant, and with bold social intent.  Under the remarkable leadership of CEO Ron Johnson and CMO Michael Francis, the company means to show it welcomes and celebrates all people. JCPenney respects the customer — a shockingly new old idea for retailers. Johnson led the greatest retail plays of the last 20 years, building Apple into the most highly profitable retail space in the world, and driving Target stores into a destination unto themselves. Francis came with him from Target, a place he contributed to greatly but also was willing to leave (coincidentally, as it came under fire for backing anti-LGBT legislators).  These two know a bit about what works:  it is anything but wilting in the face of outmoded notions of culture, consumers, or the families who make up both.  They are a team to bet on, full stop.

Notably, the real family in the ad does not just feature gay dads, but the loving play of a mixed-race gaggle of “pals.”  It is one of the most accurate portraits of the modern family we have ever seen; each one of our residential tribes are unique, complex, colorful  and wonderful.  Consider it no less bold and right than earlier advertising portrayals of African American families, or of “extended” new families including step-brothers, sisters and parents. The world is interesting; protesting against its variety is senseless. Johnson, Francis and JCPenney are on the right side of history, and this moment will be remembered as a culture shift.

At the end of the day, JCPenney has taken a bold move to show the retailer will actively shun — protest — it own image and reputation as irrelevant; they just became the most culturally relevant retailer in the United States. Wonder how many gay men, with high levels of influence and disposable income both, will now be visiting the once unthinkable stores? We predict it will be nothing short of amazing to watch how far a bit of courage from a brand and a load of respect for all consumers will take JCPenney.

As for the million moms (at least 10 percent of whom will likely have an LGBT child)? We hope they can find somewhere drab and dated (say Sears?) to buy their Simplicity patterns for corduroy coveralls and bulk tube socks, while their children are welcomed elsewhere.

Social relevance from brands stands as one of the most important new brand benefits managers should consider adding to their traditional structures of functional and emotional benefits. Consumers depend on brands to have positions and voices — not to live in the easy middle of indifference. Reliable data from one major sports apparel company indicates that the next generation of consumers (ages 12-18) want to see top brands take on issues like equality and anti-bullying more than any others, making these the next wave of cause marketing.

This gives us great expectations for the StandUp brand, the first social-commercial brand to benefit LGBT and anti-bullying causes. It is a Livestrong of sorts for the issue today’s shoppers care about most. Glad to see JCPenney stands up to the million-mom bullies as well, and comes out stronger than ever.

                    



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