JCPenney looks to millennial males to save sales slump with online video series

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CNN's Great Big Story is behind the four-part series promoting fashion line Collection by Michael Strahan.

Department stores have had it rough lately, especially JCPenney. In February, the retailer said it will close 138 stores this spring, offering buyouts to 6,000 employees. In an effort to stop the bleeding, the company is broadening its product offering with household items like bathtubs and ceiling fans and looking to millennial men to grow its customer base beyond the female apparel consumer it’s known for.

This shift in strategy started in September, when JCPenney announced that the millennial male-targeted line, Argyleculture by Russell Simmons, was moving to the retailer from Macy's, which had carried it exclusively for eight years. The addition represented a break from the chain’s typical target audience, what it calls the "modern American mom." She's 33 years old and multicultural, and as a group, these women represent 45 percent of the retailer's sales. 

However, John Tighe, the company's chief merchant, said in a press release that "young men, ages 25 to 35, are driving big growth at JCPenney and represent a very important customer segment."

As a result, the department store chain, which typically speaks to 30-something females via TV spots, is now relying on digital video to reach this new male consumer segment. In March, it began promoting its underwear line "MSX by Michael Strahan" with the "Better Brief" online series, produced by Lorne Michaels’ company Above Average. Now, JCPenney is launching its second digital series for Strahan’s formalwear collection in a first-time partnership with CNN-owned Great Big Story. 

"Great Big Story provided a platform that really let us expand our connection with the male consumer by positioning our Michael Strahan brands within an intriguing storyline," Sheeba Philip, JCPenney’s vice president of marketing strategy and communication, wrote in an email. "Through these videos, we want to gain awareness and shift his perception of JCPenney by impressing him with the stylish, contemporary looks we offer."

The first episode in the four-part docu-style series debuted last week and centers on mentorship. In it, corporate executives participate in military exercises with American veterans via the nonprofit Project Relo. The idea is that these CEOs will hire former soldiers in the future after seeing what they can accomplish, and when they do, they’ll, of course, be wearing Collection by Michael Strahan suits.

These three-minute videos, Philip said, allow for a tug-at-your-heartstrings approach that TV spots and print ads can’t mimic. David Spiegel, Great Big Story’s SVP of Sales & Brand Strategy, agreed. "Audiences now, because there's so much messaging, gravitate toward things that have an emotional resonance with them," he said.

The episodes will air on Great Big Story’s platforms including paid social placements, via pre-roll on Turner’s digital properties, on video-in-demand for TBS and TNT, and via Bleacher Report’s Team Stream mobile app. Omnicom Media Group’s Content Collective aided in the campaign's development.

For its part, JCPenney is fairly new to online video. Internal research revealed that it’s a good platform with which to reach millennials, especially men, and in 2016, the brand used digital films to target plus-size female shoppers. Philip said the retailer is "looking to continue this momentum and continue to build awareness" of JCPenney’s exclusive Strahan brands.

"Across all our marketing at JCPenney, we have been using more digital and social media advertising than we have in the past," she said. "In fact, we found that although we decreased our marketing spend last year, our impressions were up, which shows that today’s consumer is increasingly online."

So far, the Great Big Story video has received more than 47,500 views on YouTube with comments like "THIS is exactly how product placements should be done."

Whether that changes JCPenney’s brand perception in the minds of millennial men and translates to sales remains to be seen.