As John Lewis promotes Craig Inglis, are we witnessing the rise of the customer director?

John Lewis joins a raft of brands in creating a customer director role. As this title sweeps across industry, could we witnessing a new customer-focused era in the multichannel age, where the term marketing director could phase out? Or is it just a passing fad?

John Lewis: Craig Ingles has been promoted to the board
John Lewis: Craig Ingles has been promoted to the board

Yesterday John Lewis annonced a shake-up of its senior managament team that saw its marketing director Craig Inglis promoted to the newly created role of customer director and elevated to the board. 

At the same time, the retail stalwart - famed for its advertising and strong, emotional brand credentials - scrapped the title 'marketing director'.

John Lewis follows a raft of brands, including Tesco, Asda and British Airways to scrap the traditional job title. What, if anything, does this mean? And could we be witnessing the decline of the marketing director role? Marketing asks a series of industry experts.

Michael Gazala, director, customer experience, Forrester Research

"Ultimately there is no right way to be organised. No reorganisation or creation of a specific title like chief customer officer ensures customer experience success.

What matters is that successful companies are focusing on becoming customer obsessed - on aligning their strategies to win, serve and retain customers in an intensely competitive world.

Engendering long-term loyalty requires obsessing over your customers and building differentiated experiences

What also matters is that a culture of customer-obsession exists from top of the organisation, and that all employees understand the role that they play in delivering the target experience.

In terms of this specific announcement at John Lewis, given the blurring of the lines between brand and customer experience, it makes perfect sense to put the responsibility for customer experience with someone who already owns customer insights and marketing. 

Elevating or creating a specific title like chief customer officer might be a fad. But aligning your company's strategy, design efforts, hiring, training and culture to better understand your customers and win their loyalty is not - it's a requirement for success.

Especially in markets where customers have freedom of choice - like retail and travel - breaking from the pack and engendering long-term loyalty requires obsessing over your customers and building differentiated experiences."

Letty Edwards, founder at The Mind Collective and former marketing director at Fox's Biscuits

"John Lewis, like Asda, British Airways and Tesco, are more than consumer brands. Being consumer-centric is at the core of their business proposition and success.

The introduction of the new customer director role in these organisation encompasses the need to go beyond the traditional marketing mix and focus on a wider customer agenda within this omnichannel age.

One thing I am certain about, regardless of his title, is that Craig will continue to be a great asset and success for John Lewis."

Marie Anderson, director at Maran and former trading and channels insight at Sainsbury's

"I think that the rise of the customer director – or chief customer officer as they call them in the US – is long overdue in the UK. Customers in an omnichannel world have high expectations of brands. They expect propositions to be built around their needs and expect businesses to deliver this seamlessly across all channels.

The customer director’s job isn’t about ‘broadcasting’ to customers, it’s about making sure that the customer is at the heart of the business and that every element of the customer experience demonstrates this.  

Without someone actively shaping the business around the customer,  key elements of the customer experience risk falling into siloes and crucial insights into customers can be diluted or lost

I do think it is part of a wider change: companies are realising that to continue growing in today’s market, they need to be fully focused on customers. Having a board-level executive with the mandate and the power to ensure that a business is centred around customers sends a pretty clear message to investors and colleagues alike.

Earlier this year, I heard Richard Thaler, co-author of the behavioural science classic, Nudge, describe to a London audience how he and his colleagues at Chicago Booth Business School were gearing up to train the next generation of chief customer officers, thinking about how to equip their MBA students with the customer skillsets they would need to operate at board level. This suggests to me that the roles of CCO and customer director are here to stay.

I don’t see the role as a fad, as long as customer directors are given the authority to reshape the proposition and ownership of the relevant operational levers to make it happen. I think without someone actively shaping the business around the customer, key elements of the customer experience risk falling into siloes and crucial insights into customers can be diluted or lost."

Jemima Bird, CMO at JBird Consulting and former Moss Bros, Musgrave and Co-op marketing director

"The recent decision by John Lewis, following similar moves by Asda, Tesco and BA, to replace the marketing director role with a customer director - John Lewis indeed promoting the role to a board position -  poses the obvious question: just because "customer" wasn’t in the title before, were these retailers admitting the customer wasn’t central to their thinking?

This is less about an internal need for change but an external need for positioning

I would hazard a guess that John Lewis and others absolutely believed they were customer-centric organisations - and therefore this is less about an internal need for change but an external need for positioning.

With the rise of the discounters, and the insatiable need for value, even from the middle class shopper at the heart of the John Lewis customer base, reinforcing customer needs, wants and desires is possibly a key reason for retailers adopting the hyperbolic naming change. 

There is much talk about omni and multichannel marketing, but hasn’t the customer always been at the heart of the matter? Just because there are multiple ways in which consumers can now interact and shop with brands, doesn’t mean this has changed. Perhaps some brands kinda forgot, in the maelstrom of fighting for market share, who exactly was the ‘market' fighting for?"

Tom Hings, founder at Betterbiz and former Royal Mail brand marketing director

"John Lewis is a customer facing business. One of the key John Lewis' differentiators is the importance of frontline engagement, its customer service and the value that customers place on it.

In the ‘age of the customer’ where they are becoming even more demanding it is the marketers who understand these demands better than anyone. It makes perfect sense that frontline facing businesses recognise the breadth of the marketer's role as it should include everything that touches the customer from the delivery of the customer journey to the promotion of the brand proposition and its offering. 

Inglis' promotion to the board clearly acknowledges this and recognises that marketing, (sorry the customer) has a seat at the top table."