In the face of the rising popularity of e-commerce, the backlash of the 2008 recession, and, more recently, COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns, traditional department stores have been on the decline for years. Many brands, including Sears, Lord & Taylor, and JCPenney, have filed for bankruptcy in the past few years.
While there have been many think pieces about the “death of the American department store,” these retailers aren’t ready to throw in the towel quite yet and have started to revamp their marketing and operations strategies to adapt to the 21st century.
Under the leadership of CEO Marc Rosen, JCPenney is currently undergoing a “large-scale transformation” to help the brand regain relevance and connect with America’s diverse working-class families.
Change is nothing new for JCPenney. After more than 120 years in business, the brand has had to learn to evolve. Nowhere is this more clear than in their branding and logo, which has undergone several redesigns since James C. Penney opened his first store in Kemmerer, Wyoming.
A Brief History of JCPenney
James Cash Penney was born in Missouri in 1875. In addition to working a family farm, his father was also a Baptist minister. The family did not have much money, and though he wanted to become a lawyer, James took a job as a clerk in a dry goods store shortly after graduating high school. When he was diagnosed as “being susceptible to tuberculosis,” he moved from Missouri to Colorado in search of a drier climate.
He went to work for The Golden Rule store chain owned by Thomas Callahan and Guy Johnson. Impressed by the young man’s character, Callahan sent him to work with Johson in the Evanston, Wyoming, location in 1899. Three years later, Callahan and Johnson asked Penney to join their partnership. Penney opened his first store under the Golden Rule branding in April of 1902.
By 1907, Penney’s store was doing so well that he bought out Callahan and Johnson when they decided to dissolve their partnership and took on new partners, though he continued to operate his stores under the name the Golden Rule for another decade. Penney incorporated his franchise under the name J.C. Penney Stores Company in 1913, and the following year, moved his headquarters to New York City to be closer to the garment district.
James Penney served as the CEO of the J.C. Penney Corporation until 1946, when he stepped down and became an honorary chairman. He was known for his conservative approach to running his business. J.C. Penney was not publicly traded on the stock market until 1929. The store also had a strict cash-and-carry policy that did not allow customers to purchase goods on credit until 1948. Unlike many other department stores that had started mail-order sales via catalog in the late 19th century, J.C. Penney did not introduce a catalog until 1962. Around this time, the company also expanded its offerings to better compete with brands like Sears and Macy’s.
J.C. Penney first started to lose its grip on middle-class families looking to buy brand-name clothes, furniture, and appliances at affordable prices in the 80s and 90s as stores like Walmart and Target rose in popularity.
In 1994–the same year Amazon hit the web–the company officially launched a website where customers could shop its products from the comfort of home.
After the 2008 recession, bargain chains like Ross, T.J. Maxx, and Dollar Tree started attracting more of the company’s target audience. When Ron Johnson took the position of CEO and discontinued sales and coupons, many formerly loyal customers abandoned the brand.
In 2019, JCPenney tried to revitalize its brand by opening a new store concept in Hurst, TX. Called Penney’s, this new shopping experience offered cafes, yoga, a salon, and more. However, it wasn’t enough. Amidst the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, JCPenney filed for bankruptcy protection.
However, the brand hasn’t given up yet. Though it ended up closing more than 200 stores during the bankruptcy proceedings, it is now almost completely debt-free for the first time in years. CEO Mark Rosen believes the company finally has the financial flexibility to upgrade its technology and systems and become competitive in the 21st century.
The Evolution of the JCPenney Logo
Throughout its history, the brand now known as JCPenney has changed its name four times and its logo even more frequently.
It has experimented with almost every aspect of graphic design, from typography to color and shape to composition.
The Golden Rule
When James Penney opened his first store, he had already inherited branding and a logo from the original owners. While Callahan, Johnson, and later Penney intended to spread the Golden Rule chain across the Rocky Mountain region, each store was still being treated as an individual enterprise.
Penney’s first Golden Rule logo was simply the sign over the door of his shop. As the sign had to be handmade, it couldn’t be too complex. It featured the name of the store in tall, refined seriffed letters and location in a plain sans-serif font. To keep the start and ends of the two lines of text square, there is a noticeable gap between “Kemmerer” and “Wyoming.”
By the time Penney decided to update the logo in 1909, he had already bought out Callahan and Johnson but was still using the Golden Rule name for his Kemmerer store and additional locations. However, he put his own spin on the logo.
Penney still paired a serifed font for the store’s name with a smaller, sans-serif tagline. However, the main font was much bolder with less vertical accentuation. The tagline also became more vertically compact, and instead of the location said, “J.C. Penney Co., Incorporated” and “85 Busy Stores” (“busy store” was another way of saying “department store” at the time).
The changes to the logo were a clear indicator of Penney’s ambition. The store count–which would presumably change each time he opened a new location–showed customers that they were shopping at a rapidly expanding business.
It also helped streamline the transition to making the brand his own. Golden Rule stores were already established in several western states. Adding his name to the original store before changing the name was a way to establish trust and loyalty with customers.
In 1916, Penney revamped the Golden Rule logo one last time, taking it in a vastly different direction. The use of cursive and more intricate, curved shapes was probably due to the rise in popularity of offset printing. Unlike older printing methods, which relied on metal plates, offset printed sharper, clearer images. Before offset printing technologies became widely available, simple, sharp lines and serifs created the cleanest prints. Now, there was more room to experiment.
J.C. Penney Co.
In 1917, Penney officially transitioned to using his name for the branding of his stores. He kept many of the design elements the same, just with a different name and an updated store count.
Later that same year, to fully solidify the transition to a new brand, the designers completely overhauled the logo design. The handwritten cursive font was replaced with a bold, contoured print set on a jaunty angle.
The initials J, C, and P were larger than the rest of the text, serving as a focal point. The letters of the main wordmark were black and outlined in white with another thinner black outline.
This logo introduced the tagline “A Nation-wide Institution” in a more decorative font framed by two bars underneath the main wordmark, with an emblem in the lower right corner displaying “297 Stores.”
J.C.Penney kept this logo for 3 years before making slight modifications in 1920. The tagline “A Nation-wide institute” was moved to the top of the main wordmark and the font was changed to a simpler sans-serif type with only slight ornamentation on the A and N. The bars underlining the smaller letters of the wordmark now ran parallel to the lant of the letters instead of the horizontal axis. The letters C and O in “Co.” are now more aligned with each other and the rest of the wordmark.
This logo has considerably more information than previous iterations. It now boasts 475 “Department Stores” in a plain, black, serifed type. “Incorporated” has been added in very small, flourished letters underneath the main wordmark. The company also added additional information to the sides of the logo. On the right, it reads “World’s Largest Chain Department Store Organization,” with each word on its own line in a bold, serif font. In a similar style, the left reads “Reliable Quality Goods Always At Low Prices,” with “At Low” sharing one line.
This version of the logo was used from 1920-1929, though in 1926, the company introduced a variation that also ran in parallel. In many ways, the 1926-1929 logo was a simplified version. The font became less decorative, removing the double-outlined effect and opting for solid black letters.
The company also removed the diagonal slant and underline from the main wordmark and transitioned to plain, sans-serif capitals for the tagline. Incorporated was shortened to “Inc.,” and the logo stopped displaying the number of locations. The columns of text on the side started using all capital letters.
After the busy logos of the 1920s, J.C. Penney turned to minimalism in 1929. All extraneous text was removed, leaving only J.C. Penney Company Inc. in white sans-serif letters with a think block outline on a shaded background. “Inc.” was noticeably smaller than the rest of the wordmark, and the periods between the initials were elevated to sit along the horizontal axis of the letters.
The vast simplification may have been an attempt to save costs and also convey a sense of reliability and practicality during the Great Depression.
In 1933, the company began experimenting with more decorative elements, again keeping the same concept of a white wordmark on a dark background.
However, they switched to a more elaborate serifed font with heavy downstrokes and thinner upstrokes and crossbars. It made “J.C.Penney” the main focus of the logo, shortening “corporation” to “CO.,” making it smaller, and stacking it on top of “Inc.”
However, the company only used this logo for a short time before making changes. That same year, they went back to a sans-serif font with more rounded elements.
They also made “Co.” and “Inc.” the same size as the rest of the wordmark, though only the name “J.C. Penney” was kept in all caps. Some versions of the store would use this logo until 1938.
The 30s represented a period of experimentation for the brand, which shortened the name of its stores simply to “Penney’s.” The first version of Penney’s logo was very simple, just a white wordmark on a black background.
It returned to a cursive font for the first time since 1917, though this typeface was much bolder than any cursive the brand had used before. The rounded Es and Ns were reminiscent of the “J.C. Penney” logo used during the same period.
For most of the 1930s and 1940s, Penney’s had two separate logos running simultaneously, usually a print font and a cursive font. The logo above was used from 1934-1937.
However, in 1935, the company introduced a version with bold, geometric serifed capital letters. This new version of the logo, which was used until 1943, also featured the tagline “J.C. Penney Company, Incorporated” in a similar style, though much smaller.
Penney’s launched a new logo in the cursive style in 1940, this time inverting the color palette back to black on white.
The designers used a brush lettering style that gave the impression it had been done by hand. It was more casual than previous versions of the logo, making the brand feel more accessible to the average American consumer.
Penney’s kept the casual brush strokes logo from 1940 to 1949. At this point, they opted for something more streamlined and legible: simple black serifed letters.
Though the wordmark used all capital letters, the P was larger than the rest of the letters. This logo was in use for only two years before it was revamped.
As America transitioned into the prosperous post-war period of the 1950s, Penney’s started using a more elaborate logo in 1951.
The wordmark remained the same, but it got a decorative frame of thin black lines.
The designers included a thick black bar underneath the wordmark displaying the brand’s new tagline in sans-serif white capitals: “Always First Quality!”
By this point, the constant innovation of the company’s earlier decades had slowed. It kept this logo for 10 years. Then, in 1963, the company suddenly decided to go in a very different direction.
The broad lines and tapered edges look very “mid-century modern” and like they could have been done by hand with a chisel-tipped marker. This was also the first J.C. Penney Co. logo to experiment with color. The use of teal for the rounded part of the P is very much in line with the era’s preference for bright colors.
This logo, which to this day remains the most unique logo the company has ever created, was used until 1971.
In the late 60s and early 70s, the company began to transition back to the JCPenney name. This time, they removed any periods, spaces, or apostrophes from the store’s name to create a more cohesive wordmark. They also dropped the words “Company” and “Incorporated” from the title.
The simplified brand name needed a simplified logo to go with it. JCPenney recruited Italian graphic designer Heinz Waibl to create a new wordmark. Waibl went for a sleek, simple design of slender, elongated sans-serif letters in black. This would be the company’s longest-running logo, in use from 1969 to 2000.
Black is a divisive color in logo design. On one hand, it can represent luxury, innovation, and confidence. It can also be very easy to overlook.
By the 2000s, black and white was no longer a good color palette to appeal to JCPenney’s main audience of middle-class American families.
The company kept the typography the same but made it white on a solid red square. Red is a vibrant, eye-catching color that is strongly associated with other successful department stores like Macy’s. It also has a distinctly all-American feel to it.
This is the version of the logo that JCPenney used from 2000-2006.
Though the company has continued to refine the logo over the past 20-plus years, this logo has provided the base elements for all future logos. From 2006-2008, the company added a little more dimension and visual interest to the logo with a gradient effect, a thin dark red outline along the edge of the square, and a bolder font.
In 2008, the company removed the red square from its visual identity and went back to a simple wordmark, this time in red on a white background.
They also retained the slightly bolder font from the 2006 version of the logo. Though this version of the logo was officially in use between 2008 and 2011, it can still be seen in some locations even today.
In 2011, JCPenney launched its all-new branding at the 83rd Academy Awards. For the first time in the brand’s history, it used only lowercase letters. This was considered more modern-looking.
The designers brought the red square back, but only as a background for the first 3 letters–”jcp”–which were white to create contrast.
The rest of the wordmark was red on a white background. The red square created a condensed logo that could be separated from the rest and used as a pared-down version in some applications.
In 2012, Ron Johnson stepped up as CEO of JCPenney and redesigned the logo. He ran with the concept of silhouetting the first three lowercase letters in white against a colored square.
However, he made the square blue and set it in the upper left corner of a white square with a red outline. The overall effect looked like an American flag.
In addition to making radical changes to the logo, Johnson made radical changes to the way JCPenney did business and is credited with causing irreparable damage to the company’s reputation and finances.
When he stepped down in 2013, the company also redid the logo. Once again, they returned to a simple wordmark in a lowercase sans-serif font.
This variation of the logo lasted less than 6 months before the company brought back the 2008 logo, which it used until 2019.
In 2019, only a year before the company would file for bankruptcy, they started using a darker shade of red, a bolder font, and more spacing between letters.
While the main brand still operates under the name JCPenney, the company introduced a new shopping experience operating under the name Penney’s in 2019.
Penney’s is located near the company’s headquarters in Texas and promises to be more than a department store with salons, cafes, and yoga classes.
The return to a black-and-white color palette and the use of a handwritten cursive lettering style convey a more upscale experience for shoppers.
Most of JCPenney’s logos over the years have been heavily text-based, with minimal use of other visual elements and symbols. However, the brand has proved that designers can experiment a lot with just typeface and color to create logos that resonate.
Tracking how different fonts and lettering styles are used in branding, especially for companies with a history as long as JCPenney’s, is an interesting way to look at how printing technology has evolved.
Brands use typefaces to convey their values, and the technology available to them influences how they do that. When James Penney opened his first store, his sign would have needed to be hand-carved or painted.
A clean, simple design that showed excellent craftsmanship told customers that they were a dependable, responsible business that took pride in their work.
Today’s digital technology makes it possible to recreate unlimited identical copies of the logo for any application.
The sleek, modern look of sans serif letters establishes JCPenney as a progressive, forward-thinking brand.
The colors a brand uses in its logo also tend to reflect the technology of the time. For many years, JCPenney would have been limited to only black and white as that was what could easily be printed and appeared on screens most clearly before color television was widespread.
Adding color to the logo at the start of the new millennium was a way of modernizing the brand and showing consumers they were still relevant in a technicolor, digital world.
JCPenney has had two dozen logos since James Penney opened his first store.
Some have been more elaborate than others, but the company always seems to come back to a simple, streamlined wordmark. JCPenney’s branding is proof that sometimes, less really is more. JCPenney wants to have a broad appeal to a large audience.
It wants to be seen as the reliable, go-to option for families who need good quality clothes, furniture, and more at affordable prices. Its brand personality is dependable, friendly, and modern.
Minimalism helps convey these values more effectively than an overly elaborate logo.
Lessons from the JCPenney Logo
Today, JCPenney’s future is uncertain. Under its new leadership, it may be able to prove its relevance in the twenty-first century, or it may be an unfortunate victim of changing consumer habits.
It will be interesting to see how the company’s logo changes as it seeks to redefine its brand for a modern audience.
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