The Nike Swoosh. McDonald's Golden Arches. Apple's -- well, apple. Corporate logos are the proverbial picture worth a thousand words. Or millions of dollars in sales.

As the recession recedes and companies return to business as usual, they're back to tinkering with their looks. J.C. Penney (JCP) announced this week it will introduce a new logo and brand identity as part of its effort to regain stature in the department-store sector.

The new look will appear first on ads during Sunday's Academy Awards broadcast, but Penney's is already getting flak over the design change. "JCPenney's Logo Is Changing, Bet You Won't Notice," was the Advertising Age headline. "Like a U.S. Senator that sends out tweets using 'omg' texting lingo, it's just kind of lame," blogged the marketing site Brandchannel.com.

"Our new logo honors our legacy while reflecting the modern retailer we've become," said CEO MIke Ullman, in a conference call with analysts. "We think it's an evolution, not a revolution."

A Hard Sell

Like Penney's, companies often change logos to communicate excitement and a shift in strategy, said Rob Scalea, CEO-North America of The Brand Union, a branding and design agency. But he acknowledged shoppers can be a hard sell.

"The logo is a way to identify quickly what the consumer is looking for, " said Scalea. "The logo represents the brand. That carries a lot of connection."

Penney's is only the latest of several retailers to tinker with their looks recently, with varying degrees of success:

Starbucks (SBKS): To mark its 40th anniversary this year, the coffee chain removed both its name and the word "coffee" from its logo. The new symbol kept only the mermaid icon and gave her a facelift. The reaction has been mixed. But since not everybody goes to Starbucks for the coffee anymore, why advertise it in the logo?

Target (TGT): Like Starbucks, Target has been quietly dropping the type from its logos and letting the red bull's eye logo do all the talking in most of its ads and displays. But the red-and-white design was already so ubiquitous in stores, hardly anyone has noticed the missing verbiage.

Seattle's Best: If Starbucks' new logo was streamlined, its down-market Seattle's Best brand went downright minimalist with its new identity. Several respondents to a Seattle Times poll noted the logo looked like it belonged on a blood bank, but Seattle's Best is sticking with it.

Gap (GPS): Gap made a big splash in October with its new logo, but not the kind of splash it wanted. Critics said the design was bland and unimaginative. Comments online were merciless, saying the logo looked like it was generated by a computer program, among other insults. Gap tried to smooth things over by going on social media to ask for better ideas -- and what it got was more backlash. It surrendered after a week and went back to its old logo.

Tough Customers

Consumers can be tougher critics than designers when companies switch logos: Witness Tropicana (PEP), which until the recent Gap follies probably held the record for the fastest makeover about-face. Critics said the 2009 repackaging of this orange juice brand made it look like a generic. The design replaced the orange-with-a-straw logo on the carton with a close-up of a juice glass that was so close-up shoppers couldn't tell what it was. Sales dropped 20%, and Tropicana went back to the old packaging after two months.

People can become very attached to logos as a stand-in for the company they represent, says Richard Bates, chief creative officer of The Brand Union in North America. "That's partially why they get so upset when it changes," he says. "You're signaling that what they perceived that brand to be has shifted."

Gap's problem was partly that shoppers didn't see a shift in the store to go with the new logo. "You don't want to use a logo change as a Band-aid," says Bates.

If a logo change is part of a true overhaul, it will survive, even if the initial reaction is negative, he says: "If you've done that properly, then sticking to your guns is fine. People always have a reaction to change. It dies down pretty quickly."

Instant Reactions

But expect plenty of comments after the Penney ads appear in the Oscar telecast. The Internet has given these brand identity crises a life of their own, warn the admen.

"The same reactions happened in the past, but it wasn't so effective when it took two weeks to write a letter to the home office," says Bates. "Now everybody can flame online."


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33 Comments

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JCW

I think changing the logo is a huge mistake. I grew up with JCpennys not JCP with a red box. I think they are messing with a good thing by changing the recognizable logo to something unknown. Plus, have you seen the commercials? They are the most annoying things on TV yet! All they are is screaming! Just leads me to not go to Penny's, take my family there, or encourage anyone to go there! I hope they rethink this idea!

January 26 2012 at 2:33 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Rick

It looks fine to me. Unlike the Gap travesty, this is rather subtle. It's the same typeface, same color scheme, and same basic overall look-- just an emphasis on the "JCP." Changing the "JC" from uppercase to lowercase is cleaner and more attractive. They also went from a bolder Helvetica to a lighter weight. I prefer that anyway.

It won't create as much fuss as Starbucks or Gap, because of its subtlety. Good job, JCP.

March 01 2011 at 1:32 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
James

25 years as a "journalist" and Mercedes Cardona is generating this drivel?

February 28 2011 at 5:24 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
msteel3rivr

who cares?

February 28 2011 at 4:52 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to msteel3rivr's comment
mikelarys

You read the article, loser.

February 28 2011 at 6:41 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
undrgrndgirl

seeing the other logo changes would have been nice...

February 28 2011 at 1:37 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
jesuaphn

The logo does not really matter. What is inportant is that in times like these they lower their prices, sell American made merchandise, and provide variety or relevant items.

February 28 2011 at 12:11 AM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to jesuaphn's comment
mikelarys

And you probably drive a Kia or Hyundai, like all the other "american made" losers.

February 28 2011 at 6:40 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
conniembz

I like the new look a lot. AND now it will be much easier to get to the website jcp.com. It was not easy finding it before.

February 28 2011 at 12:07 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Paul

Maybe JCPennys needs to stop catering to the mexticans and the illegals! I stoped shoping there here in San Diego when all you here is them announcing deals all in Spanish! Ill shop at a store that appreciate Americans shoping in there stores!

February 28 2011 at 12:03 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Paul's comment
undrgrndgirl

mexticans?

February 28 2011 at 1:37 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
vaboy1960

HUH? What was JC Penney thinking? How about staying built on Tradition and showing strength by a Symbol known over the decades.......I don't know seems after one aquires lots of money it makes them make dumber choices

February 27 2011 at 11:28 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
beemerwaags

As a school teacher what kind of message are we sending come on use capital letters for proper nouns.

February 27 2011 at 11:13 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply