The Power of BrandToday we begin a three-part series (posting Monday, Wednesday and Friday) looking at brands suffering from identity crises and what banks and credit unions can learn from these situations. The first stop is JCPenney. This series was originally included as a feature-length article on iMedia. While this series may not feature any direct examples from the bank and credit union world, financial institutions face brand crises with equally deadly results as any other corporate entity. Studying the mishaps and shortcomings of brands outside the financial industry enhances our knowledge and helps prevent something like this from happening to your bank or credit union.

If you're a fan of classic television shows from years past, you might remember more than a fair share ofthem featured, at some point, an amnesia plot twist. Gilligan from "Gilligan's Island," Samantha from "Bewitched," and Tony from "I Dream of Jeannie" all suffered bouts of the mysterious, memory-wiping condition. Conveniently (especially for a 30-minute sitcom), the solution was usually a simple (if painful) knock on the head and all memory was instantly returned.

Corporate brands can also suffer a type of amnesia if those charged with protecting them are not vigilant. When brands forget factors like why they exist, who they are, and the nature of their competition, corporate amnesia could be just a bonk on the noggin away. The lessons we can learn by taking a closer look at the brand crises of three companies can serve as valuable takeaways for safeguarding our own corporate identities.

Specific brand amnesia: Mixed marketing messages

Patient: JCPenney
For millions of people in my generation, an annual rite of passage was the inevitable stop at JCPenney during a torturous back-to-school clothes shopping experience with mom. And if JCPenney wasn't cool back then, it's dipped into negative coolness territory now. The JCPenney brand has suffered mightily in the last couple of decades, with market share and stock shares falling precipitously in just the past year. A key culprit in this decline is its decidedly mixed marketing messages in the face of an onslaught of demographic change. JCPenney continues to struggle in finding its niche when going up against strong competitors like Macy's, Target, and Kohl's. And its hodgepodge of marketing messages, combined with somewhat of a revolving door in executive management, certainly doesn't help. Taglines in the last few years include "When it fits you, feel it," "It's all inside," "Every day matters," and "We make it affordable. You make it yours." Dizzy yet?

Taglines aside, JCPenney also struggles with the in-store look and feel of its brand. In its stores in recent years, JCPenney has featured Martha Stewart Living wares, Walt Disney products, and a variety of other private labels. They also dickered with an "Every Day" pricing structure. Confusingly, this pricing competed for consumer bandwidth with their "Monthly Value" pricing for specific items every month (in lieu of sale prices) and a "Best Price" scheme that applied to select items the first and third Fridays of every month. Confused? Plummeting sales figures seem to indicate consumers certainly are.

So, what exactly is JCPenney? Is it reasonably priced, off-brand clothing for the family? Is it the Walmart of department stores, with something like "everyday low prices" on pretty much everything? Is it a higher-end boutique store with housewares in addition to clothing? Your guess is as good as mine, and as the JCPenney empire continues to crumble, signs are pretty bleak for a recovery at this once proud mall mainstay.

Prescription: brand consistent messages. Your marketing message must be consistent for all consumers, across all channels. The JCPenney marketing message has gone through so many iterations in the last few years, it's no wonder consumers are confused and turning more to the competition. JCPenney (and similarly, your bank or credit union) would also do well to realize that no one entity can successfully be all things to all people. In order for branding to work, you must identify what it is you do well and couple that with the audience that you reach well. Combining these elements greatly increases the chances of marketing and branding success. For JCPenney, a confusing mixed bag of marketing and branding messages is hastening the demise of a store that anchors malls across the country.

Be sure to check out the blog Wednesday when we continue our look at brands facing identity crises with an examination of RadioShack.