Boston Patriot Ledger

Tuesday, August 2, 2005

J. Jill gets help tailoring its image: As competition heats up, company hires ad agency to study logo, slogan

The Patriot Ledger

QUINCY - J. Jill Group has hired an elite San Francisco ad agency to sharpen its image as it fends off growing competition in the over-35 apparel market.

Landor Inc. is studying the Quincy-based women's clothing chain's image and preparing a new slogan or logo.

J. Jill is seeking to further define its core customer, which it historically has defined as affluent suburban women who are between the ages of 35 and 55.

"When you think about a company, Talbots is classic. Ann Taylor is career," J. Jill Chief Financial Officer Olga Conley said. "What is J. Jill's positioning? They are going to help us make sure it's right and help us really find two or three words that will position us clearly in the customer's mind."

The image makeover is needed because J. Jill Group faces two distinct challenges as it attempts to grow from 160 stores into a major national chain with more than 800 stores.

J. Jill wants to draw in younger shoppers without alienating its traditional clientele of over-35 women.

And competition is heating up, with Gap Inc. and other chains eyeing the segment that some research pegs at 40 percent of all women's clothing sales.

"This used to be a niche market, but now a lot of big companies are looking to say, 'There's an area where there's big money,"' said James Chung, president of Reach Advisors, a market strategy and research firm in Belmont.

The Fort Myers, Fla.-based Chico's chain is the leader in the category with 705 stores, but other leading chains are preparing to jump into the picture.

Gap Inc. is opening five stores this fall in Chicago and New York under the new Forth & Towne brand, which is designed to appeal to older women.

It's a common but tricky balancing act for retailers trying to attract younger customers without scaring away longtime clientele.

The Ann Taylor chain created the Ann Taylor Loft division to sell lower-priced, casual clothes to a younger audience 10 years ago, and The Limited added a step-sister Limited Express to appeal to the youth market.

"It's a question a lot of retailers, particularly new and female fashion stores, run into," said Mike Tesler, a marketing professor at Bentley College. "As your customers age, do you age with them?"

Hingham-based Talbots experimented with trendier styles in the 1990s and paid the price in slumping sales.

"They really ran into a bad period because customers didn't want any kick or energy or fashion from Talbots," Tesler said.

Landor's recent projects include designing new packaging for Tropicana's British products and designing Microsoft's Macintosh Business Unit's exhibit at the Macworld Conference & Expo in San Francisco in January.

Landor is spending the next three to five weeks researching a new image for J. Jill.

Executives at J. Jill say the chain's core customers -- have responded negatively to slimmer and sportier fashions.

The first phase of the project - researching J. Jill's target market, shoppers' behaviors, and perceptions of its brand and competitors - is complete, analysts were told during a conference call last week to discuss the company's second-quarter earnings.

Conley ruled out the possibility of changing the J. Jill name or a "brand extension" like Ann Taylor Loft.

"There's a tremendous amount of brand equity built into the J. Jill name," she said.

Steve Manning, managing director of San Francisco-based branding agency Igor, agreed that name changes can be risky. A possible acronym for Gap's new brand has created unflattering associations even before the stores have opened, Manning said. So has the Sag Harbor women's clothing line.

"J. Jill's competitors are shooting themselves in the foot with bad names anyway," Manning said. "When you're up against FAT (Forth & Towne) and Sag Harbor, I'm guessing that J. Jill is going to leave well enough alone."

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