Why John Lewis the plumber makes perfect brand sense
A view from Simon Glynn

Why John Lewis the plumber makes perfect brand sense

This is a smart bid to get ahead of a trend of consumers are becoming less interested in buying things for their own sake.

We’re used to seeing John Lewis taking over our screens over the Christmas period to demonstrate the value of giving to our nearest and dearest. Usually, a product sits as the centrepiece to these spots – a telescope, a stuffed toy, even a trampoline.

But the retail brand’s latest news suggests that, perhaps, its next blockbuster TV campaign will introduce festive plumbers, decorators or builders too – these are just a few of the services that customers will be able to commission from John Lewis’ Home Solutions service, and from stores around the country, as of 12 September.

The idea of commissioning trade services from the department store which brought us "Buster the boxer" and "The bear and the hare" may seem incongruous, but this is a smart bid to get ahead of a trend which is increasingly pressing for the modern retail industry: that consumers are becoming less interested in buying things for their own sake.

This trend is well-discussed but, to date, the industry response has been to make shopping an experience rather than a transaction. As a result, shops become destinations replete with bars and restaurants, events, concessions and stunts. While these tactics may differentiate a brand from its less agile competitors and may re-engage customers with the idea of shopping in the short-term, they belie the root of the trend away from product-focussed consumerism.

In fact, the shift is deeper than interest for experiences or things. Taddy Hall, who joined us at Lippincott earlier this year, sums up the crux of this trend with the term "jobs to be done". Writing on the subject in his book Competing Against Luck: The Story of Innovation and Customer Choice, Taddy (and his co-authors) explain that we as consumers don’t truly buy products or services at all. Instead, we hire them to help us achieve a particular job in our lives. In short, all ‘products’ can much more productively be seen as ‘services’ that resolve struggles, enable progress, and create desired experiences.

The template for this approach can be seen across some of the world’s most respected companies and fast-growing startups, against which long-established businesses like John Lewis are trying to maintain loyal custom.

Take Amazon, Uber, Airbnb – each of these companies has understood the underlying jobs that people are trying to achieve when they purchase items online, order a cab or search for travel accommodation, and they have used those insights to create a new kind of offering which has transformed each of those industries irreversibly.

Its latest announcement suggests that John Lewis understands what customers are really trying to achieve when they enter the department store to buy curtains, wallpaper, or new furnishings. Buying these products is simply a means to an end. In fact, if consumers could fulfil their jobs to be done without visiting stores, buying products, and managing installations, they’d likely be thrilled.

John Lewis has spotted the opportunity to take care of the rest of the "home improvements job", from inspiration to installation. This is what successful innovators do: they enable customers to "outsource complexity".

This is the great benefit of the "jobs to be done" model: it removes the barriers confining a business to selling a particular kind of product, service, or combination of both, and allows an offering to adapt in line with changing consumer behaviours.

"A well-articulated job performs like the two points on a compass," Hall explains, "with the externally-oriented point informing the dimensions of benefit that will perfectly enable the customer’s desired experience, and the internally-oriented point informing the capabilities and processes required to fill the customer’s job perfectly every time."

The flexibility afforded by this approach could be a challenge for some companies – after all, launching extraneous service functions could be the downfall of a retailer which spreads its resources too thin to do anything well. So how to develop the right solutions, and to do so in the right way? Focus first on the customer’s job to be done. Second, ask if your brand has permission to fulfil that job perfectly. Third, apply the strategic lens as to whether such an investment is consistent with corporate objectives.

For John Lewis, some of its strongest brand attributes are in quality and customer service – two areas the Home Solutions venture could enhance.

In the near future, we may yet see more services solutions to come from John Lewis and we will most likely see similar services from its rivals. Earlier this year, Debenhams’ new chief executive was said to be mulling a suite of beauty services to launch in the near future.

John Lewis’ Home Solutions may be the first stage of retail’s service foray, but as more and more brands explore this space, those that do so by using their brand strengths to solve our jobs to be done will come out on top.

Simon Glynn is senior partner at Lippincott