JC Penney Debacle

"I'm too pretty to do homework, so my brother has to do it for me."


For those who haven’t seen this story making the rounds on the internet, JC Penney caused a social media storm with a shirt for girls age 7-16 that reads, “I’m too pretty to do homework, so my brother has to do it for me.” Within hours, Tweets and Facebook posts condemning the shirt hit JC Penney, and they pulled the shirt from their inventory on their website. I’ve also seen some defense for the shirt on the Facebook comments to the tone of, “It’s just a shirt people, get over it! We’ve got bigger problems in society!” Obviously, this is causing some controversy and damage control, so let’s take a look at the good, the bad, and the ugly, shall we?

The Good

JC Penney’s response time was immediate, and they decisive action by pulling the inventory from the site. They recognized that they’d angered a lot of their customers, and took steps to immediately rectify the problem. This speed shows that they’re paying attention to their customers, and keeping up with the buzz about their brand. They’ve also come out with statements apologizing to their customers, and detailing how they plan to keep this from happening again. In all, I think JC Penney has done a great job responding to the public’s opinion.


The Bad

While JC Penney appears to be in touch with customers now, it seems they were way out of touch with customers when the shirt was printed and placed online for sale. They wouldn’t be doing damage control in the first place if they’d assessed their values and customer base prior to putting the shirt online. Their head of communications commented that she didn’t know how this happened, which means there’s some serious issues in their communications channels. They’ve also wasted time and money to bring this product to market, and now they must scrap all that inventory. Their time and money would’ve been better spent holding a focus group or developing other ideas to replace the message on this shirt.


The Ugly

This shirt sends a pretty controversial message to most people who read it. The sentiment that pretty girls don’t do homework, or that a boy needs to do a girl’s homework, tends to feed into the already overwhelming messages of body image, gender roles, and capabilities. Several Facebook commenters write that there are already too few women in STEM careers, and telling them from a young age that “pretty” and “homework” don’t mix will further alienate the “smart” girls. By suggesting that boys do their homework, some commenters state that it furthers the feeling that girls are not as smart as boys. In short, this message coincides with a lot of negative messaging, and JC Penney should think twice about promoting a message that could be considered offensive. Whether they meant to be cute or funny, the message was sure to hit a sour note among consumers.

Time will tell whether JC Penney will face more than just verbal consequences for this misstep, but I think they’re handling the response well. Hopefully next time they’ll spend more time on preventative measures, to produce a product that resonates with their consumers and their brand values. With the speed of communication and the widespread use of social media, companies need to be much more diligent when considering controversial messages on their products.

What’s in a Name?


Excedrin Migraine


Excedrin Extra Strength

Images via Excedrin website


On a recent trip to Wal-Mart, I noticed that Excedrin sells an “Extra Strength” capsule, and a “Migraine” capsule. As a migraine sufferer, I was interested to know the difference between the two. Turns out, the only difference is the packaging! The price is the same, the ingredients are the same, and the amount of active ingredients are the same. The products are identical, with the exception of the name on the front of the package. I thought this was odd, but on further reflection, I’ve come up with a few reasons it might make sense.

Superiority complex. As a migraine sufferer, I know the difference between a little ‘ole headache and a full-blown migraine, and there’s no convincing me that a regular pain killer is going to have any effect on my migraines. Thus, when I need migraine medicine, I need MIGRAINE medicine. During my last migraine, I didn’t have prescription pills on-hand, so I told my husband to go to the store and pick-up something specifically for migraines. This means I don’t want “extra strength”, I don’t want “headache”, and I don’t want “generic pain killer”…. I want “migraine”. So, if Excedrin has a pill that specifically says, “migraine”, it will win out over Tylenol’s “extra strength” or Bayer’s aspirin. The reality is that the active ingredients and doses are identical, but something about seeing the name “migraine” tells me that this pill is superior because my migraines are more intense than a headache.

Proxy for efficiency. Most pain meds will put a picture and a small description to help the afflicted quickly determine whether the pill is right for their needs. There’s pills for back and neck pain, headaches, muscle cramps, and any other variety of physical ailment. If you read the labels, most pills use exactly the same ingredients and doses. However, when you’re in pain, you want to make your decision about which brand to buy as quickly as possible. The names on the packages act as a proxy for efficiency, allowing you to grab “back and neck pain” instead of figuring out whether the generic pain med is applicable to your situation.

Perception of variety. By using different names on the packages, brands give the illusion of variety of choice. Thus, when you feel like you need a specific type of pill for a specific type of pain, you feel comfortable choosing a box from a brand that meets your need specifically. If I’ve got a migraine, I can use Excedrin migraine. If I’ve got a “bad” headache, I can use Excedrin extra strength. If I’ve got a “regular” headache, I can use the standard Excedrin. The doses may vary slightly between “regular’ and “extra strength”, but I’m more inclined to buy one of each type to have on-hand when my specific need arises. This perception of variety makes me buy “different” products to meet my needs, and keeps me coming back because I feel like the brand has exactly the right pill for me.

With identical prices, it makes sense for Excedrin to put different names on their products, even though the active ingredients and doses are identical. This variety helps the customer feel like their specific need is met, instead of lumping all pain-related issues into one category. Sometimes I wonder if the placebo effect comes into play, as I feel much more relieved to take “migraine” medicine vs. “regular” headache medicine. It seems like Excedrin came up with a pretty good strategy for selling more pain meds!

Play Nice With Others

My parents taught me to play nice with others, and I kind of feel like Business school is also about teaching us how to play nice with others in the office. Particularly, playing nice with the other functional business areas in the office. It goes like this:

Engineers: “We’re the most important, you wouldn’t have anything to tell customers about if we didn’t design it!”

Marketers: “We’re the most important, because engineers wouldn’t know what to design if we hadn’t given them the market needs analysis, and sales people would have no cohesive message and brand image to share with customers!”

Sales: “We’re the most important, because we actually get people to buy the stuff! We bring in all the money, so your design and message are worthless if you don’t have sales to make people spend money!”

Accounting: “We’re the most important, because we actually collect the money from the customers, and keep track of how all much profit we make!”

Engineers: “Yeah, and how’d you get all the software that lets you do that stuff, huh?”

Marketers…. sales… you see where this is going. I’ve figured out that it pays to play nice with the other business people. Here’s why I play nice!

Engineers/Programmers: These days, businesses use websites to market their products and enhance their brand identity. Personally, I’m not a whiz at websites, so I need to make sure that I’m on good terms with my programmer. I found out just how helpful he could be during our last website go live! He was helping me fix things on-the-fly, and he’s since helped me manage the more information and formatting on the website. I’ve also found that you’ll get much more realistic timelines and budgets if you are open to discussing the project with the engineers, rather than sending them a list of requirements and deadlines. The open communication and understanding that things may take longer or cost more is helpful in long-run planning.

Sales: Sales people are my direct link to the customer, so if I want to obtain strong market data, the sales people are a good place to start. They talk to customers all the time, so I’m constantly picking their brains about praise for the company, complaints about the products or services, and other general market information. Are customers busy or slow? Which magazines are they reading these days? Sales people take the message to the customer, so you want to make sure that you’re using their insight to present a cohesive brand image to your market.

Accounting: If the invoices aren’t paid, my ads don’t run. And, if my ads don’t run, I can’t stay top-of-mind for my customers. If they don’t pay the bill on my corporate card, I can’t book exhibit space for our tradeshow, and we end up stuck in a poor location because we registered late. In addition to the bill-pay function, I’ve found the accounting department to be a wealth of information about customer acquisition costs, customer profitability, and finding places to cut waste from our marketing budget. I’m not really a numbers person, but I’m figuring out that all those numbers the accountants have are really valuable pieces of information to help me improve my marketing strategies.

So, who’s most important out of all the business functions? I think the TEAM is most important, and a cohesive environment where all the functions play nice together. After all, if I take my toys and go home, how will the engineers know what to design? How will the sales people have a cohesive message? How will accountants have profits to post? It’s important to have a marketer in the sandbox 🙂

Finally Friday!

It’s been an interesting week at work, and I’m pretty ready to kick-off the weekend. I’ve got boot camp, craft night (attempting to knock out 50 handmade Christmas cards tonight!), and helping my husband and his brother recover from their 100 mile cycling adventure, the Hotter ‘n Hell 100 in Wichita Falls. What are you up to this weekend?


In case you missed it, my article on The Daily Muse: 5 Extreme Behaviors to Avoid

For those considering leaping into the unknown, via The New Professional: Smart Risks and Looking Before You Jump

For those looking for some work-life balance, via Corporette: How to Keep Your Work Life Separate from Your Personal Life

For those wondering about the Apple and Steve Jobs Transition, via Forbes: Apple Has Momentum


Like the links? Follow me on Twitter for links and posts every day!


Proper Length

With all the Tweeting, blogging, academic papers, and business proposals I’ve been writing over the years, I still haven’t found an answer to, “How long should it be?” Thus, I thought I’d give some suggestions that I’ve heard over the years.

“The length of your paper should be like the length of a girl’s skirt: long enough to cover the topic, but short enough to keep things interesting.” Hilarious, a little bit off-color… but really true when you think about it! This advice was given by one of my least favorite college professors. This is probably one of two things I remember from that class, and the other is not nearly as funny.

“Executives don’t have time to read all your fancy writing. Make your papers 5 pages or less, or they don’t get graded.” This advice was given by one of my favorite college professors, amid a myriad of other great advice. I’ve found that brevity is much more effective in real-world business proposals, so while it’s not necessary to adhere to a strict page limit, it is necessary to keep proposals concise.

“This document gives step-by-step instructions for every possible question. If it can’t be answered by this document, it probably shouldn’t be asked in the first place.” I rarely agree 100% with this advice, but I’ve written several documents with numbered instructions, example scenarios, and screenshots. Thus, it really annoys me when I get phone calls that state, “I got this person’s information… what do I do now?” I generally try to respond in a helpful, non-annoyed way, but I direct them first to the insanely detailed document that I’d emailed previously.

“Don’t make your customers think too hard.” I said this phrase to one of my companies about their marketing material. They were using the same piece to target all of their unique segments, and it was cluttered and hard to parse. I suggested splitting the information for each segment into different marketing pieces, and on the rare occasion that a customer fell into more than one segment, we could give that customer all the sets of marketing materials. We talk a lot about being information overload in marketing, so help your customers out by ensuring that they don’t have too think too hard to figure out what you’re saying.

“Don’t ruin the content with the headline.” I think this applies to Tweets and press releases in particular. One classmate asked me for advice about her company’s Twitter feed, saying they had few followers, few re-tweets, and very little traffic to their website from Twitter. Upon viewing their feed, I saw that every headline gave away all the content in the articles, so readers had no motivation to click on the link for more information. Headlines should give just enough information to whet the appetite, but not so much that a person feels they’ve gained all the information.

So, to all the professional writers out there, how do you find the proper length? Is there a formula that works every time? I think it’s more about knowing your audience, so I rely on different lengths for different projects.

Contributor: The Daily Muse

I’m excited to be contributing at The Daily Muse today! My piece talks about extreme behaviors to avoid, so click over to read my take on balancing extreme behavior.

The Daily Muse is a great new site that explores all facets of building and maintaining a career, and I highly recommend browsing around the articles. Some of my favorites include handling criticism at work, working with a boss of a different gender, and motivating your team.


Good-bye Summer and Grades Are Up!

School officially starts on Wednesday, but since I’m taking classes on Monday and Tuesday nights, I get a few extra days off! It’s been a wonderful 3 week summer break, filled with time at the gym, time with my family and friends, and adventures with my husband. We attended “’til Midnight” at the Nasher Sculpture center this weekend, where we enjoyed live music and the movie “Up”, surrounded by sculptures! If you’re in the DFW area, I HIGHLY recommend attending September’s event. We’ve taken the DART train to downtown a couple of times this summer, and we enjoyed another date night at the Dallas Comedy House. The Dallas Comedy House is a collection of semi-professional and amateur comedians, with shows at 9:00 pm and 10:30 pm. If you go to the 9 pm show, you can opt to stay for the 10:30 show for $5 more! After some great laughs, we stopped in at Tucker’s Blues. We were a little pressed for time to make sure we caught our train home, so we only stayed for one song. However, we both agree that we need to go there for the evening, as the atmosphere and music were great! We’re heading on a backpacking trip over Labor Day weekend to the Lonestar Hiking Trail. I’ve never been backpacking before, so it’s been fun to buy our gear, work on planning the route, and figure out food and necessities. We’ve also spent many weekends grilling and hanging out by the pool, and we’ve attended several weddings and parties this summer. I’ve enjoyed my productivity at work, but it’s been nice to enjoy a lot of events this summer outside the office. Work-life balance… it’s important to corporate success!

Grades are officially posted, and I had a 4.0 for my summer classes! This makes me happy, as I was pretty concerned about Economics at the beginning of the summer. On another, I don’t have to take Economics ever again! This also makes me happy, as I’ve taken 3 classes for Economics, and it’s not my favorite subject. This summer semester puts my new GPA at 3.93… which is probably going to take a hit when I finish Statistics this semester. It’s a little funny, because my overall GPA in grad school is actually a little higher than my GPA in undergrad. I suppose it’s because the majority of MBA classes for the first 25-30 hours are similar to my undergraduate courses. A lot of my classmates are engineers, so the business courses are new to them. It’s been fun to share different perspectives, goals, and work environments, and I’m looking forward to having a few former classmates in my upcoming semester.

So, good-bye summer, and hello busy fall semester! In addition to my MBA pursuits, I’m reprising my role in a musical from last year, coordinating and attending our company’s biggest tradeshow of the year, and hopefully managing go live for 2 websites by the end of the year! How are you guys taking a break from corporate life?

Happy Friday!

It’s time to kick off the weekend with some links! Here’s what I’m reading:


For those considering their options, via Corporette: A Lawyer’s Salary to Paying Tuition – Six Ways to Deal (the comments are particularly interesting on this article)

For the marketers interested in branding, via Forbes: Abercrombie & Fitch Picks a Fight

For the freelancers, via JeremyandKathleen’s blog: Managing Your Client

For those going through corporate changes, via Kate Nasser: Show Your “Change Ability”


Like the links? Follow me on Twitter for links and blog post every day!

Golden Hand-Cuffs

A perfect storm of discussions and blog posts has inspired me to write this post. My husband and I have been talking about finances, career milestones, and life goals a lot recently, and over on Corporette today, there’s a guest post about someone who left their BigLaw salary and starting paying tuition at a theatre conservatory. I (along with my husband) also read several frugality/early retirement blogs, including Early Retirement Extreme, and a recent addition, Mr. Money Mustache. So, needless to say, I’ve got the Golden Hand-Cuffs on the brain this week!

What are the Golden Hand-Cuffs? Essentially, it’s the feeling that you’re dependent on your job and your salary to support your lifestyle, and you can’t leave, no matter what. You’re chained to your job, and even if the cuffs are gold-plated (ie: big salary and fancy lifestyle), you’re still not free. As an ambitious, career-oriented person, this concept is pretty hard to swallow. How could I be imprisoned by something I enjoy? I remember my first reality check during a family lunch, in which we were discussing career, money, and happiness. My uncle jokingly asked, “So, who do you think will make more money, Ashley or her brother?” Unanimously, the vote was “Ashley”… even my brother said that I would definitely make more money than him. The follow-up question was, “So, who do you think we be happier, Ashley or her brother?” Unanimously, the vote was my brother… even I said that he’d be happier than me in the course of his life. I think back on that lunch sometimes, and it makes me wonder whether the fancy titles and big salaries are really worth it. I enjoy working, and I actually love a good stressful day, where I’m hyper-productive and moving fast. But then I think about traveling and hanging out with my husband, having completely new experiences all over the world, and I start to understand why some people think careers aren’t the end-all be-all.

Then there’s the question of “enough”. What title is enough? How much money in the bank is enough? How many vacations, cars, and houses will be enough? Quite frankly, I’m not that tempted by the houses and cars, but the title and vacations are my downfall. My husband and I enjoy adventurous vacations, like scuba diving, hiking, and generally exploring our surroundings, but gear and certifications cost money. We also frequently discuss living abroad, and what it would take for us to be able to go overseas if our day jobs don’t accommodate that. Maybe we could freelance, take an unpaid leave for a few years, or just own a snow cone shop. Essentially, we feel like we’ll always be able to make money, but we won’t always be able to have strong and able bodies. It seems like most of my generation feels this way, and the tide is starting to shift away from money and titles toward time and flexibility. We’re realizing that it’s pretty backwards that we waste our health sitting in front of a computer for 30-40 years, and then try to enjoy this huge world when our bodies and minds are failing us later in life. My husband and I are starting to realize that what we don’t have “enough” of, is time.

We’re still in the “work really hard and save as much as you can” mode, so that later in life, we can have the freedom to do whatever we want. Maybe that time will come sooner, rather than later. I focus so much on building my career and education, that sometimes I forget that there’s a whole life outside of the office. As a family member told us, “Don’t get so busy making a living that you forget to make a life”. I wanted to take this post to remind myself to make a life, and I hope you’ll take a look at the links above for some different perspectives on careers, salaries, and “retirement”.


Package Alterations

Oreo Package Instructions
Oreo Package Instructions

While opening a package of Oreos the other day, I came across their explicit instructions, “Open With Pull Tab on Top!” It made me wonder how the company came to the decision to change the packaging.

The Impetus. First, I have to wonder what initially prompted them to consider swapping the traditional tear-open side for the pull-tab top. I assume there was some customer feedback indicating that the traditional opening method was frustrating. But how did they collect that? Did they conduct a focus group to ask, “How could we improve the Oreo experience?”, and several panelists suggested altering the package? Maybe they used survey, with specific questions about the Oreo packaging. Or, maybe they used observation in their daily lives, noticing that every time they had to open and close a package of Oreos, they were annoyed with the process. Whatever, the discovery, I think packaging is a natural place to look for updates if the product is relatively successful. Oreo has made some product changes by introducing Double Stuff and other creme flavors, but there’s little room for improvement on the product itself. Thus, the Oreo experience might be improved by making the package easier to open and close.

The Convincing. After making the discovery that the packaging should be changed, I have to wonder how the marketing or design genius convinced Oreo to invest in the new packaging. The company would have to tweak their machines, inks, and presses, to accommodate the new design, so there was definitely some money involved in making the update. Maybe they used one of the focus groups or survey data to show that customers would enjoy the Oreo experience more. Maybe they made a prototype and let the decision-makers try it out for themselves. Somehow, the responsible parties had to make the case that this change was necessary and beneficial for growth.

The Impact. After making the discovery and convincing the bosses to make the change, I’m wondering how they’re measuring the impact to show that the alterations have added value. Are they just measuring sales and volume growth? Did they repeat the surveys and focus groups? Marketers usually have a hard time measuring their impact, since there are so many different variables. I don’t recall a new campaign to praise the new packaging, but a lot of products run new commercials or ads when they alter the packaging. Thus, it begs the question: was it the packaging that increased sales, or the new ad campaign that increased sales? The timing of the release can also have an impact, so it’s hard to give numbers on the actual impact of just the packaging alteration. How do they know that the time and money spent to research, develop, and launch the new packaging was worth it?

I’d love to be a fly on the wall during Oreo’s decision to make this packaging update. I think there are a lot of elements involved in creating a superior Oreos experience, and I find the steps to tweaking these elements to be fascinating. Am I the only Marketing nerd who thinks this would be a fun case study? 🙂