Blue State/Red State: Imposing His Own Personal Values On JC Penney Doomed Ron Johnson’s Brief Tenure As CEO

Empathy, a feel for the human condition, and an understanding of how your product will enrich the lives of your customers, must all rank high among the essential qualities behind successful businesses,.

Steve Jobs was not an empathetic person. His legendary nastiness, selfishness and narcissism are on vivid display in the great 2011 biography by Walter Isaacson.  However, despite his personal demons, Jobs had an uncanny sense of what people wanted. He is the rare exception, not the rule.

Ron Johnson, who learned at the foot of the master at Apple, seems to have brought the hubris but not the insight to JC Penney. An article in today’s New York Times reports that many while many at Penney found him to be a “personable” man with “intriguing” plans, Johnson and his key hires (from Apple and Abercrombie & Fitch) had a tin ear when it came to understanding the wants and needs of J.C. Penney customers.

Simply put, he thought he could impose his blue state values on what is essentially a red state, heartland America culture. This is the greatest sin in marketing. Assuming that your values and tastes are superior of those of your consumers is seldom a formula for mainstream success.

Johnson and his most of his top executive recruits never moved to Plano, where J.C. Penney is headquartered. This symbolism of this choice notwithstanding, remaining in the Northern California, Silicon Valley bubble denied Johnson and staff the opportunity to experience and understand the lives of their heartland customers and employees first-hand.

Taking a page from the Apple playbook, the rationale for this decision seemed to be Johnson’s belief that “just like at Apple, customers don’t always know what they want,” according to “an executive who advocated testing.” Johnson felt that he knew better and refused to test any of his initiatives.

Moreover, “Mr. Johnson liked to tell employees that there were two kinds of people: believers and skeptics, and at Apple, there were only believers. He wanted the same at Penney: when employees pushed back on Mr. Johnson’s strategies, they got nowhere, according to several former executives.”

His vision was “Bloomingdales for Middle America.” There was only one problem. Middle America didn’t want Bloomindales.  “He (Johnson) ordered merchandising executives to move away from frumpy categories like maternity wear and toward slim-fit polos and European-cut suits — despite the fact that many shoppers went to Penney for figure-forgiving basics, according to two former executives.” And “Penney ran an Oscars ad telling customers they “deserve to look better.” But as a former Penney executive is quoted as saying, “If you’re a certain customer and you’ve been shopping Penney’s, that’s kind of insulting.”

Visionary leadership should never be confused with hubris. Steve Jobs did indeed know what consumers wanted before they wanted it. But most of us – Ron Johnson included – are no Steve Jobs.


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