Some Decisions are Forever

by Steve McKee

No Turning Back Liz ClaiborneEarlier this year I commented on a decision by Panasonic to rein in R&D investment in flat-panel televisions and instead expand its reach into the entry-level market (see “Is Panasonic Kissing Its Future Goodbye?“).

The company appeared to be eyeing significant market share opportunities offered up by the 2009 conversion to digital TV in the U.S. It was a bold move, because while it’s easy to cash in your brand equity and go down-market, once the decision is made it’s nearly impossible to reverse course.

Last month another famous brand made that fateful choice. Liz Claiborne, Inc. agreed to license its namesake brand exclusively to J.C. Penney, ending decades-long relationships with department stores like Macy’s, Dillard’s and Bon-Ton. The Claiborne brand has long been in decline, and a Macy’s spokesperson said the retailer could no longer justify expanding the line because of customer confusion between it and the “Liz & Co.” sub-brand that was being sold exclusively at – you guessed it – J.C. Penney.

The Claiborne brain trust may have created their own problem by overextending the brand, a common manifestation of the loss of focus that afflicts many stalled companies. That said, this new decision may work out. It’s not the first time J.C. Penney has partnered with respected, high-profile designers (Polo Ralph Lauren and Nicole Miller, to name two), and Penney is doing better than many of its rivals in this tough economy.

As with Panasonic’s decision, however, this one will be interesting to watch, and will serve as yet another object lesson for any company struggling with stalled growth. Going downscale – where all the value-conscious buyers are these days–can be extremely tempting. But if you do it, make sure you’re extremely comfortable with your decision. There’s no turning back.


Steve McKeeSteve McKee is a BusinessWeek.com columnist, marketing consultant, and author of “When Growth Stalls: How it Happens, Why You’re Stuck, and What To Do About It.” Learn more about him at www.WhenGrowthStalls.com and at http://twitter.com/whengrowthstall.

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