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I love John Lewis but why should I shop there?

11 Sep 2018  |  John Lowery 

The retailer's latest campaign is like an advert for communism, writes John Lowery - fabulous in principle but there are a few associated downsides...

Many years ago, well before I could afford to shop at John Lewis, I stood waiting for a tube train at Oxford St. station. There was a cross-track poster before me. It listed 20 or 30 facts that distinguished John Lewis from its competitors.

I let two trains go by, so that I could finish reading it.

There was a fact about their returns policy. There was one about the guarantees on white goods. And another about the small army of retired folk that John Lewis employed to visit the stores of BHS, Bentall’s, Army and Navy and so on to check their prices were not lower. By the end of it I’d made sense of that near incomprehensible line, ‘Never Knowingly Undersold’.

I remember the emotional response - “If I ever get a pay rise, I want to shop at John Lewis. It seems like a decent company; the service will be good and I won’t get ripped off”. And I can remember the many thousands of pounds that, following that pay rise, I subsequently spent on fridges, freezers, radios, tellies, pots, pans, crockery, children’s paraphernalia, moth-proofing and whatnot.

(Just in case Professor Byron Sharp has removed his blinkers and earplugs - that’s another example of perceptions preceding behaviour.)

In recent years, I’ve been bombarded with John Lewis Christmas ads and all of the surrounding razzmatazz. None of them had anything like the same effect as that poster.

I may well be sailing straight into the wind of all the forensic work conducted by Les Binet and Peter Field and of all the effectiveness gongs that John Lewis has garnered but I’ve always pined for a fact upon which to pin my emotions. You know, a fact like the one in the Aldi telescope advert. It doesn’t have to be about price. I suspect that the angular resolving power of the John Lewis telescope is way better, meaning I could actually see the bluish tint of the Sea of Tranquillity but that suspicion is based upon facts learnt in the past and not the emotions of now.

And so to the emotions of the immediate present - the rebranding addition of & Partners and the new extravaganza of a commercial that embraces Waitrose - both coming at a time when, as we’ve all heard, John Lewis is in big trouble. Profits being zero. Pensions being reviewed. Shops being downsized. Shops being sold, in at least one case to the purveyor of much cheaper telescopes - Aldi. And 270 partners being made redundant.

Hats off to a company that thinks marketing can dig them out of that hole and I have no doubt that hearts of the middle-classes will swell but...

What is the ad telling anyone about John Lewis that they didn’t know before? What is the benefit for the shopper that springs from & Partners?

It’s like an advert for communism; fabulous in principle but there are a few associated downsides.

In this case, there’s the downside of price. When the business is haemorrhaging sales to online competitors, which bit of the ad is going to stop someone going online and buying, for example, a Bosch Classixx WTE84106GB condenser tumble dryer for £13 less from Appliances Direct?

Perhaps I’m mistaken, however. Perhaps the ad is aimed at the staff. Sorry, the & Partners. In which case, it strikes me as a quite an expensive way of banging the philosophical drum.

In the PR puff piece that accompanied the re-launch a spokeswoman said: “We are currently speaking to a small group of branch partners about proposals within our back-of-house operations to ensure a more efficient way of working.

I wonder if they consulted the 270 people who have lost their jobs as to whether they should blow several million quid on that ad and the addition of & Partners. I’m guessing not and that sort of undermines the fact of & Partners.

With tumbleweed currently blowing down the high streets of Britain, please John Lewis, give me a meaningful fact so that I can turn my love for you into shopping with you.

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JonHoward, Planning Partner, Quiet Storm on 21 Sep 2018
“Agree with you on this one John. Not just misguided in their current situation, but as you say 'warm and fuzzy' isn't a reason why. If I didn't live 10 mins from a big JL I'm not sure I'd be quite so loyal.

Coming from the other end of the telescope, but the DMA makes similar points in this WARC article today: https://www.warc.com/newsandopinion/news/functional_factors_crucial_to_driving_loyalty/41069?utm_source=daily-email-free-link&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=daily-email-emea-prospects-20180921

The functional vs emotional question is just a continuation of the tactical or brand debates that have been there from my day 1 in advertising. But as Lowes showed back then with their original Every Little Helps price promo ads, tactical can be brand building.

Back to John Lewis. I am the first to stand up for the continued role played by fame building TV. But it feels like they are now so hooked on the awareness crack (whilst we the people are becoming ever more immune to their efforts) that they now have to turn up the volume more each time to the point where it's becoming annoying white noise - the brand advertising equivalent of living next door to Motorhead.”
PhilTeer, Founder, The Scenius Project on 19 Sep 2018
“Brilliantly entertaining piece, John. A bit like the ad, really. Is the implicit promise that I’ll get better service because the staff try harder a fact? I’m not sure. Audi’s driver assist tech is something tangible that I get when I buy the car. I pay the money and it’s mine. Good service every time is impossible to deliver. It’s not communism though, as it’s not about all of us. It’s more a smug clique that I’ll never be a member of.”
AlastairMack, European Media Manager, Honda on 18 Sep 2018
“Great article John and some very insightful comments. A few points:

* Totally agree on 'Audi Clowns'. Test market of one - I loved it when it came out for the reasons you mention, it clearly shows tech features in an emotional, fun and funny story. Test market of our own online survey database of 1000s of car buyers we use to analyse our own and competitor ads - it was a smash.
* At Honda we talk about "fact based emotions" so your analysis of most current ads rings true for that reason and for the over-indulgence on short-term tactical and generic brand purpose creative I see every day and has been written about extensively
* My favourite ad/campaign of all time is Avis "we try harder", the print copy is magic. Another example of fact-based emotion, perhaps with a bit of poetic licence
*On JLP - I agree with Tess on emotion driving initial impact/captivation but have JLP got the balance right? I seem to remember reading an article linking xmas ads to incremental store traffic to prove success...but flying in the face a bit of Binet & Field/ebiquity studies, was it a short term emotional impact? Would the same level of emotion plus why should I shop there worked better long term?
*Tess & you are also right on the bigger picture, as an estimate media affects their business by 15-20% so pricing, discounting, new entrants, economic trends, competitor activity etc etc will all be playing their part in affecting revenue, profit and bonus/staffing”
gordoneuchler, head of planning, bbdo duesseldorf on 17 Sep 2018
“i think we all can easily agree, that we should aspire to: meaningful truth well told.

it is much harder to agree how to get there.”
johnLowery, Consultant, Malatesta on 16 Sep 2018
“Tess,

It may be fairer to look at JLP vs. House of Fraser, etc. but the world of retail is no longer ‘fair’.

Amazon’s tax arrangements are not ‘fair’ but, unless there’s the political will to do something about it, that’s the future.

On the High Street it’s not ‘fair’ that Aldi is family owned and so able to take loses that allow it to rampage across the grocery landscape but that’s how it is.

I agree that & Partners is a fact. In my original piece, however, I was careful to use the adjective ‘meaningful’.

Sure, some people will intuit that & Partners means better service and a few of them may be able to pay a bit more money for it. But in the current retail environment, which I suspect is almost certainly about to get worse, & Partners is but a straw fence in the face of a tsunami.

The staff are not partners at Aldi. Moreover, if you’ve ever visited one, you’ll have discovered that it’s almost impossible to find someone to show you where the Bramwell’s ketchup is. And yet, Aldi is now 50% bigger than Waitrose. (As I said, Aldi is buying a Little Waitrose store in Camden. Was anything more symbolic?)

Stepping back, I think the problem with so much advertising today is that it falls into one of two camps:

1) Factual and emotionless

2) Emotional and factless

Facts need not get in the way of emotion. If they’re meaningful they can be the springboard for the liberation of emotion.

Here’s my favourite advert of all time:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VojePSOrnYw

Thanks to 120 safety features (facts) the Neese family survived (fact).

What could be more emotional than the difference between life and death?

I don’t believe JLP has quite reached the point of life or death yet but I would urge them to consider that it could just be over “the crest of the hill”. That way they might land on a strategy that saves them.

J

PamelaLyddon, CEO, Bright star digital on 14 Sep 2018
“Firstly John Lewis don’t do a Xmas ad that features a scary monster at Xmas it really doesn’t work ...
As your primary customer my youngest went nuts in store every time he saw it
Secondly focus on customer service
Dwindled massively in the last years
It’s no longer a great destination place for us time poor parents so we go to Amazon ... sorry Justin Welby ....”
TessAlps, Chair, Thinkbox on 14 Sep 2018
“Ha! I really didn't mean to imply that your observation was in any way Jurassic, John. Was just wondering whether the incident was from a pre-internet world. If we're going to look at JL's financial performance as some sort of result of its marketing (as we should) then surely it would be fairer to look at it versus its High Street competitors. House of Fraser (and various others) are no longer in business but JL is. As for facts, nothing wrong with including some as long as they don't get in the way of the story, but I'd say the latest JL does include a competitive fact: that it's run as a partnership and hence you get better service from motivated partners. That fits with my experience of the company and is often a reason I'm happy to pay a teeny bit more compared to an online retailer.”
johnLowery, Consultant, Mr. on 13 Sep 2018
“There was a triceratops standing next to me on the platform Tess. As far as I remember, it only read the first three or four facts on the poster before heaving itself onto the train.

One of the problems with this new-fangled thing called the interweb is that if I go online, not only I can find that John Lewis is often undersold, but I can also see that the & Partners bonuses over the last 5 years have proceeded as follows: 2013 17%, 2014 15%, 2015 11%, 2016 10%, 2017 6%.

And, this morning, that group profits for the first 6mths of the year sank by 98.8% to £1.2m. (I think we can guess where the 2018 bonus will end up.)

Sadly, for all of us devoted to the brand and in receipt of newsletters, it seems that something about the John Lewis model is malfunctioning in the current retail environment.

Of course, this can’t all be laid at the door of the advertising (apart from anything the new campaign has just launched) but I don’t see what’s wrong with facts. Why is it ‘surely a good thing’ that brand advertising doesn’t include them?

A little while back I wrote, admiringly, about the Audi ‘Clowns’ commercial. (I’m not alone in liking it; it won a pencil.) It brilliantly demonstrates the facts of the car’s driver-assist technology.

I’ve always thought that a fact, as long as it’s meaningful, can liberate great brand advertising not hamper it.

Perhaps John Lewis & Partners should give it a try.”
TessAlps, Chair, Thinkbox on 12 Sep 2018
“Hi John,
"Many years ago..." I wonder how many years ago that was. You're right that people need rational reasons with which to post-rationalise their emotional instincts. But, these days, they don't have to be included in the same ad - or even in an ad at all. Having been seduced by an engaging ad to visit the John Lewis website they will find out all those things there. And devoted customers like me receive regular emails letting me know eg the start date of their clearance sale or a new range being stocked. The internet has in many ways liberated brand advertising from the need to include all that stuff, which is surely a good thing.”
VicDavies, Course Leader and Senior Lecturer, Bucks New University on 12 Sep 2018
“Agree with John on this. So why did the client sign this off ?”
SimonMorris, Advertising creative., TBWA on 11 Sep 2018
“Very smart. Yet blinding flipping obvious. Well said sir.

I wonder how long before people wake up to this and start asking these sorts of questions?”