JCPenney Targets Girls with Games

The department store chain has created an online game to lure young women to the brand

Consumers are becoming more evasive by the hour, it seems. What could easily be achieved with a simple purchase of cross-platform media is not nearly as effective anymore, as people spend more and more time on their cell phones and their laptops, which present a wide variety of ways to kill time. This truth is more applicable the younger you go, with teenagers being perhaps the most mercurial.

The JCPenney corporation knew this when they wanted to introduce a lineup of products for incoming college freshmen. The department store chain has sponsored the Academy Awards before, and that's all well and good for some audiences, but not the one they wanted to target for this campaign. So JCPenney turned to EVB and spread their message via the web and, ultimately, an advergame.

We talked with Kim Kline, EVB's VP of Account Management & Planning, and Ruby Anik, SVP of Brand Marketing for JCPenney.

JCPenney Gets Wired

JCPenney is among the older and better known department store chains in the U.S. The company has changed much over the decades, starting as a dry goods store in the early 20th century, and now it's known for brands like St. John's Bay and Arizona Jean Company in the early 21st century. Still, despite the changing brand orientations, JCPenney has always been more associated with moms as opposed to their teenage daughters, but the company is looking to alter its image to make itself more friendly to the late teenage set.

"[JCPenney] had been looking for a partner to work in the digital space," said Kline. "Most of the companies they had gone to said, 'Here's the widget, here's your MySpace page and you're done.' Ultimately, they reached out to us because we think there's a lot more you can do to engage your target and there's a wealth of techniques to leverage. When college age girls leave home, it's an exciting time for them where they get to meet new people and see new things, but at the same time, they also need furniture and other stuff, and that's where we come in. We pitched six ideas for connecting to young women and we think they all went beyond just a regular Facebook app. Dork Dodge was the only game-like one, but when we tried it out, the testers loved it."

"To create Dork Dodge, we actually started from our young adult target's vantage point (ages 17-19) and researched insights into what type of an engagement a young female consumer would find both entertaining and humorous," commented Anik. "We wanted to create something for her that she would feel strongly about and want to pass along to her friends. In fact, as part of the development, we briefed a test group of young women on our four initial marketing ideas, and Dork Dodge was by far their first choice."

"We decided to place the Dorm Life brand's interactive page on Facebook rather than build a traditional micro-site for the same reason," continued Anik. "The focus is to offer females something that is fun and relevant. In this case, she chose an interactive game, and we're very excited to deliver that experience for her to enjoy and share. As future opportunities emerge, we'll certainly look at games as one of a number of options to engage with our younger customers in a relevant way that is on their terms."

See a need, fill a need

Of course, the push behind launching the Dork Dodge game online wasn't for kicks and giggles – it's part of JCPenney's campaign for their new "Dorm Life" brand. This "lifestyle brand" is designed to appeal to fashion and price conscious freshman women, who are looking to "express themselves" with new clothing and furniture. Incoming college females is probably a smarter target than males, since guys of that age often look to the thrift store for clothes and to things like plastic crates and cinderblocks for furniture.

"Our goal is to position the 'Dorm Life' lifestyle brand as a relevant, attractive resource for young adults as they graduate from high school and head off to college," described Anik. "For many of them, this is a first opportunity to define themselves among new college friends, and through decorating their rooms, they can express their personal style and connect with others. At JCPenney, we want to be viewed by college-bound women as a relevant contributor to a very exciting time in their lives."

"We were absolutely targeting females with Dork Dodge. The first year you come into college is when you're going to buy the most of your stuff. Typically, when [girls] think of brands of high style, they don't usually put JCPenney in the top 10, since it's such a 'mom' brand but we're looking to change all of that," explained Kline. "EVB's very oriented towards listening to what young people want. There are a lot of people that I reach out to get their opinions, and we asked the girls about what they wanted. To them it's all about their own style and dealing with things on their own terms. We're big into engagement, and we wanted something with significant content that [a girl would] want to involve a friend with. We use it as a hook to promote JCPenney products."

I made a mix tape of my mixed emotions!

The main part of Dork Dodge bears a passing resemblance to the online social site Habbo Hotel. Interacting with the dorks, however, takes the form of a video. The various personalities in Dork Dodge had us men fluctuating between laughter and cringing because of their accuracy.

"It's very indicative of the men you encounter and we think the video format is critical to conveying the site's message. We actually ended up casting off of Craigslist; 80 people came in and did the characters and it ended up being very economical," said Kline. "The team that worked on it were all women, and we all had clear memories of going to college for the first time."

By contrast to many twitch-based advergames, actions in Dork Dodge are determined by choices made in a pop-up menu. In general, the way you blow off the dorks is very passive-aggressive as well, between giving out fake email addresses and the like. These elements struck us as being very particularly female, and Kline assured us that was not a coincidence.

"Women designed this for a teenage girl's brand; we felt it had to be very female," said Kline. "We ran a few other ideas for incoming freshman girls, like what if you got a creepy roommate? Ultimately, this one centered around the men you might encounter really clicked , and I think the game functionality raised it above the others. It really clicked with that generation of girls; what you're seeing is more women do gaming [today]. We find women that want to interact with each other online and be helpful or send emails out to each other."

It's all about reaching customers on their terms

Dork Dodge is a sign of how things are changing in the advertising front. JCPenney, almost as old and conservative a department brand as there is, is turning to the web, and games in particular, to try and draw out new female customers. As movements like this continue, brand marketers will have to seriously rethink how to reach their consumers.

"[JCPenney] deserves a lot of credit for doing this to try and change perceptions. It had to be something that went to where the consumer is; I give them a lot of credit for doing that. I think this is going to be the beginning of a trend," detailed Kline. "We have so much data that says they're living online. There's now a whole new consumer out there that experiences things in a completely different way."

"Companies are saying they aren't getting impact with their TV spots or magazine ads anymore; we tell them it's not about putting up big stop signs anymore, it's about getting in there with the consumer on their level; the brand doesn't belong to them, it belongs to the consumer. The days of buying a million impressions is over; these are the days of buying a hundred evangelists that influence a million for you," concluded Kline.

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