Michael Boylson, JCPenney

It’s another blustery day this past February, and J.C. Penney’s evp/CMO Michael Boylson is addressing a group of fellow marketers and agency executives at the annual Retail Advertising Conference in Chicago. Boylson is speaking intently about his company of 26 years, highlighting his plans to make J.C. Penney’s Internet operation a key facet of its image rebuilding process.

A week later, Boylson is working a room packed with New York’s glitterati at the Four Seasons restaurant. He is using the fashion show portion of the evening to unveil J.C. Penney’s nicole by Nicole Miller designer collection and six saucy new TV spots that aired on Feb. 27 during the Academy Awards telecast.

One might not expect a J.C. Penney marketer to have much to say on the subject of technology, fashion or branding. But this is not the vanilla J.C. Penney we grew up with, or the humble Midwestern retailer our kids may know.

A staple of the American department store landscape for more thin1 100 years, J.C. Penney is where shoppers went for value packs of Hanes underwear or a pair of sensible shoes. For those bargain hunters,J.C. Penney’s “brand” was of lesser concern than the price shoutouts on its Sunday circulars.

“Today, consumers who are not yet sold on the “new” and more fashionable J.C. Penney may step onto its floors to find an inviting selection of merchandise and a well-edited assortment of clothing” that promises both style and value. There are still good deals on Dockers and BVDs, but young women in particular are more likely to be drawn to that animal print halter top from the flirty Bisou Bisou collection, slim-fitting Mixit velvet jacket or a pair of trendy Arizona jeans.

As J.C. Penney continues to sell America on its hip new look, it has racked up consistent mid-single-digit sales increases at its department stores in an age when growth in that channel is increasingly difficult to come by Comparable store sales for the year ending Jan. 29, 9005, increased 5% over the previous 19 months on total revenues of $18.4 billion. The company continued its momentum with a similar 5.4% overall sales increase in the second quarter of this year.

Much like Target did for big-box retailers in the ’90s, J.C. Penney is propping up the midscale department store by offering affordable luxury to younger, style-conscious customers. In contrast to the wave of consolidation that spawned the Sears/Kmart mega-merger and Federated’s recently completed $11.9 billion takeover of May Department Stores, J.C. Penney’s comeback is arguably a triumph of marketing over the notion that lower prices are the only answer to Wal-Mart.

“We are a promotional retailer, and although we like to lessen our dependence on sales promotion, that is a critical part of driving store traffic,” cautioned Boylson. However, he added, “We’re trying to change the perception of a 103-year-old brand, which is the most strategic thing.”

When he became CMO in April 2003, Boylson’s challenge was to transform the company into a modern retailer that relied not only on sales and promotion, but on branding.

With a budget in excess of $1 billion, Boylson has seamlessly executed a turnaround plan that began in 2000 under CEO Allen Questrom (who was replaced in January by Mike Ullman). Having watched its stock price plummet below $10 per share that year (it’s now close to $50), the company centralized operations and streamlined inventory management, closing more than 100 underperforming stores, remodeling others and opening 10 new off-mall formats. Last year, it sold off its Eckerd drugstore chain, using some of the money to eliminate $1.7 billion of debt.