OPINION: Mills on ... John Lewis

You've got to hand it to Nigel Cassidy, the Today programme's sometimes-bumptious business reporter. 'So,' he inquired last week of the chief executive of the John Lewis department stores, 'people are saying you're the next Marks & Spencer' - an observation he did not mean as a compliment. The poor guy, who obviously thought he was there to plug his wonderful range of products, spluttered indignantly before mounting a stout defence.

You've got to hand it to Nigel Cassidy, the Today programme's sometimes-bumptious business reporter. 'So,' he inquired last week of the chief executive of the John Lewis department stores, 'people are saying you're the next Marks & Spencer' - an observation he did not mean as a compliment. The poor guy, who obviously thought he was there to plug his wonderful range of products, spluttered indignantly before mounting a stout defence.

Let's be clear: John Lewis is not M&S. At least, not yet. But there are a lot of parallels, not least in its middle-class client base and in the fact that it too, after years of shunning advertising, is new in the market with a 48-sheet poster campaign promoting its wares.

A couple of weeks ago in Private View, Gerard Stamp, while professing his deep-rooted love for all things John Lewis, dismissed their new posters as 20 words too long and utterly incomprehensible.

Hmmm. Well, I also know what he means. I adore John Lewis. There's something indefinably wholesome and decent about the place. It stands for value and trust. Indeed, I know several people who kit out their entire lives in John Lewis stuff - from curtains to bedlinen to leather gloves to pots and pans and food from Waitrose. But I know what he means about the posters.

I've seen them in several locations, not least at Hammersmith and Leicester Square tube stations. Even allowing for the extra time one gets while waiting for a Piccadilly line train, I found them hard to decipher. So heaven only knows what chance a roadside passer-by would have.

Based on the fact that the average consumer isn't going to give these posters more than two or three seconds, Stamp is right to say they are incomprehensible. However, speaking as someone who has read them all the way through, you can certainly understand them. It's just that the reward for making all that effort - John Lewis has a fabulous stock of toasters, pushchairs etc and you're bound to find one you'll like probably at a reasonable price - is paltry.

Nonetheless, it's not difficult to figure out the strategy. As its latest profit figures show, John Lewis' problem is not generating footfall and sales which, on a like-for-like basis in the department stores, are up 6 per cent. Its problem is getting people to pay a decent price for the products. In the vicious ongoing price war on the high street - described as three years of deflationary prices (that's falling in plain English) - the only way John Lewis can stay in the game is by cutting its margin. Now that's fine, but you don't want to do that forever. Hence an advertising campaign that tries to sell to customers on the basis of choice but slides round the issue of price.

This is where it gets interesting. For years, as most of its customers know, John Lewis has traded under the slogan 'Never Knowingly Undersold', a pledge to match the price of any competitors including those on the internet. But why don't the ads mention this? It's certainly a clear unique selling point, but I guess making this the centrepiece of its campaign could have an even more ruinous effect on margins. So, instead, the ads concentrate on another virtue - the range and breadth of product lines.

The trouble is that, however on-the-button the strategy is, it isn't worth a row of beans if the execution lets you down. And there's no medium like posters to expose that. You only get a nano-second and if you miss that it's sayonara.



Would these ads make me buy from John Lewis? I do anyway, but if I wasn't a devoted customer, they'd try my patience.

Any role models for John Lewis? Yep. Look at the Heals work. Blindingly simple, visually attractive. Ditto Waitrose. Campaignable idea? Not as it currently is.

And the chairman's wife? She may well have written them.



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