Despite all of the attention the recently fired JC Penney CEO, Ron Johnson is getting, the real culprit continues to be ignored by the press and pundits alike: The JC Penney brand. After all, a brand is a promise and a distillation of the core values, experiences and personality of what the company offers and stands for.

A brand represents a unique and differentiated proposition that helps consumers understand the differences with competitors. Here lies the JC Penney problem – lack of a clear brand personality and proposition that consumers find compelling, unique and exciting.

jcpenneys-logo-evolution-brandingDuring Johnson’s tenure a lot of attention was paid to things like sales promotions vs. “every-day low prices”, store within a store experiences, and whether an ex-Apple retail genius can bring his golden touch to a struggling business. I would argue that JC Penney is suffering from a “mid-life crisis”, not whether Ron Johnson was able to wave his magic wand or not. Its identity is uncertain, the brand has lost its way and desperately needs to find its true self and be happy again.

So before any of the questions around sales or pricing can be answered, the brand needs to determine who it wants to be in its second life. The good news is, as with most people that suffer from a mid-life crisis, there is still time left. Virginia Postrel a Bloomberg News Columnist probably said it best in an April 10th article on Bloomberg View: “For all the operational incompetence this mistake suggests, it does offer hope for Penney’s future. Plummeting sales don’t necessarily imply an alienated customer base.”

It would benefit the JC Penney Board and executive team to pay as much if not more attention to the following areas:

1. Initiate some “co-creation” research with your customers. Partner with your strongest advocates creating the JC Penney of the future.

2. Look closely at what’s around you and carefully carve out your new space. JC Penney, will never be a luxury brand and shouldn’t be competing with Wal-mart so determine what the brand should mean in the hearts and minds of its customers. It has to own a space.

3. Capitalize on your strengths. JC Penney has always been known for home furnishings. Why not focus on and own the idea of making a consumer’s space more beautiful at a very reasonable price. Then supplement that idea with unique experience such as store associates that not only sell things, but help decorate, furnish and develop ideas for customers.

JC Penney recently attempted a re-branding, but they made the mistake that many companies do when the re-brand consists of mostly cosmetic changes. Yes the brandmark needs to change to signal change, but meaningful change comes when you clearly understand your position in the category and that position is sought after by your consumers.

Edward Fox, a marketing professor at the Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University and director of its J. C. Penney Center for Retail Excellence commented on what went wrong: “My belief is that they were losing trips, that their customers didn’t say, ‘Oh, I hate Penney’s.’ They just didn’t have a reason to go to the store….They retained their Penney’s card — they still use their Penney’s card — but the treasure hunt was gone.”

A treasure hunt is a great analogy for a great brand. It implies excitement, riches, intrigue and a story that’s worth telling time and time again. JC Penney has an opportunity to bring that excitement back to consumers, if the JC Penney Board begins to understand that the brand is bigger than the man.