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Could James Dean save J. C. Penney?

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
updated 6:51 AM EDT, Mon August 19, 2013
Legend has it that James Dean's iconic T-shirt is from J. C. Penney. Penney's should use that association, says Bob Greene.
Legend has it that James Dean's iconic T-shirt is from J. C. Penney. Penney's should use that association, says Bob Greene.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bob Greene: J. C. Penney is in trouble; could James Dean be the answer?
  • He says urban legend was that Dean wore Penney's plain, white Towncraft T-shirt
  • He says Penney should use that; adopt Dean as face of its brand, win back customers
  • Greene: Penney's, a stalwart of American retail, could break from pack with Dean's help

Editor's note: CNN contributor Bob Greene is a best-selling author whose 25 books include "Late Edition: A Love Story"; "Chevrolet Summers, Dairy Queen Nights"; and "When We Get to Surf City: A Journey Through America in Pursuit of Rock and Roll, Friendship, and Dreams."

(CNN) -- The answer to J. C. Penney's endless woes is right in front of its corporate eyes.

The answer is wearing a plain white T-shirt.

And the answer has a name:

James Dean.

Penney's -- the century-old chain of midmarket department stores that were once a solid downtown presence in big cities and small towns in every state -- is floundering.

It seems to be in utter turmoil, and has been for a while. Some members of its board of directors have been at each other's throats; one of those directors, William Ackman, resigned last week after publicly upbraiding the others. The CEO's office might as well have a revolving door. Last fiscal year, according to The Wall Street Journal, Penney's lost $1 billion as sales dropped 25%.

Bob Greene
Bob Greene

After a previous CEO was fired, the company took out advertisements apologizing to its customers for what the shopping experience had become. The in-store staff was reported to be demoralized and confused as the once steadfast and prosperous chain struggled to figure out what it even is.

What Penney's needs right now, more than anything else, is some defining.

Enter James Dean.

He died in an automobile crash in 1955 at the age of 24. He had made just three movies: "Rebel Without a Cause," "East of Eden" and "Giant."

But his mystique and glamour have only become bigger over the decades. James Dean, now and forever, is the very picture of youthful cool. He never grew old -- so he never grows old.

What does this have to do with J. C. Penney?

For years after Dean's death, there were young men all over the United States who went to Penney's for one reason:

They believed -- the rumor was widespread -- that the T-shirt for which Dean was known was a Penney Towncraft T-shirt.

Plain. White. No logo. No words on it. No special tailoring.

It was what James Dean -- born in Marion, Indiana, smack dab in the middle of J. C. Penney country -- favored.

Or, at any rate, that was the legend -- what today might be called an urban legend. It was passed from one guy to another, without anyone being quite sure where he'd first heard it. Back then -- I can vouch for this -- young men fervently believed it, and it brought them to Penney's. Penney's, at least in their minds, was James Dean Land.

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Their conviction about Dean and the Penney Towncraft T-shirt was like the unshakable conviction among young Americans in the early 1960s that the lyrics to "Louie Louie" were dirty. Because of the pervasiveness of the belief, it became accepted reality. To quote from "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" -- which starred another beloved James, James Stewart -- "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

Penney's should aggressively embrace this. It should print the legend. It should pay whatever it takes to the estate of James Dean to purchase the rights to an image of him in a classic white T-shirt.

And he should become the face of the chain.

What has it got to lose? Nothing else is working. It has struggled with various strategies to lure shoppers, especially young shoppers. It all has failed.

But James Dean is everlastingly young, perpetually rebellious. "Live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful corpse" is a phrase often associated with him, although he did not originate it. If Penney's were to make Dean the consistent image of the company, the stores themselves might find a fresh chance at life in the victory lane.

Let Walmart and Kmart and Target and Sears and Macy's and Sam's Club and all the faceless stores in all the faceless malls be just that: faceless. Penney's needs to separate itself from the pack.

James Dean, and that T-shirt, are the antithesis of, even the antidote to, so much of what ails contemporary culture. Frantic self-promotion and garish logos and slogans plastered on every surface and the "look-at-me" attitude of modern life -- what is a more stark rejection of that than a plain white T-shirt?

If you can get customers into your store to buy one thing, they just may stay to buy other things. The trick is getting those customers to come back through the front door. James Dean did it once for Penney's, without even trying. The chain ought to roll the dice and see if he can do it again.

As it is, the recent face of Penney's has been the face of its feuding board of directors, bickering with each other as if they are auditioning for a movie called "Rebels Without a Clue."

As James Dean once cried out from a movie screen: "You're tearing me apart!"

That has to come to an end. The stores deserve to survive and thrive, to be the reliable part of American life that they were when they were steady on their feet. Right now, J. C. Penney's problem is that no one really knows what it stands for.

Let it decide it wants to stand for that which is eternal and cool. And let it turn for help to He Who Is Eternally Cool.

Would it be a risk for Penney's? Would it be taking a big chance?

Sure.

But, as Dean himself once reportedly said: "Dream as if you'll live forever. Live as if you'll die today."

That goes for businesses, too.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

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