While the retailer faces an unpredictable year, its marketing director has several innovations up his sleeve
The evils of marketing as expounded by the late, great comedian Bill Hicks expressed many people's prejudices about an oft-derided industry.
'You are Satan's little helpers ... kill yourself,' said Hicks in his infamous diatribe. If the profession were looking for examples to counter the negative stereotype, John Lewis would surely be top of the list.
The department-store chain's mix of uplifting and tear-jerking marketing messages helped propagate perceptions of it as a model of how a business should behave.
It has been lauded by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who has proposed a 'John Lewis economy'.
However, even this brand, the darling of retail and the marketing industry, is not immune to the effects of a recession that has put the high street under pressure. John Lewis will report its annual financial results next week, with analysts predicting a decline in profits.
Marketing director Craig Inglis, the 43-year-old Scot whose four years at John Lewis have put the brand's marketing on the map, acknowledges the uncertainty.
'Despite our great trading results in December, it's a volatile environment, and none of us really knows what the year ahead is going to be like,' he says.
Inglis argues, however, that if John Lewis continues to build its marketing around its core 'Never knowingly undersold' message, it will still resonate with consumers looking for value.
'The way our customers are feeling now is almost the same as they were in 2008, post the previous recession, when Lehman Brothers had just gone down,' adds Inglis, who joined the retailer that year.
'Physically, they had no less money; they probably had more, as interest rates were so low. But psychologically, there was a strong feeling that they had to spend less and invest well. That is what is playing out now. It is this strong sense of needing to watch the pennies and make sure they buy well.'
Fall in profits
The significance that is placed on John Lewis' expected fall in profits by the wider business world is testament to the incredible brand image that has, arguably, never been stronger in its 148-year history.
Inglis, alongside his 30-strong team and the retailer's ad agency, Adam & Eve, can take the credit for that achievement. He has overseen the UK's most talked-about ads two years running, and John Lewis won The Marketing Society's Brand of the Year award in both 2010 and 2011.
However, Inglis is not about to sit back and await the next big campaign and the column inches that will, he hopes, follow in the press. He insists that the retailer must innovate to keep the magic of the brand's marketing alive.
Music has become a central part of John Lewis' ads, with the use of covers from classic songs by The Smiths, Billy Joel, Elton John and Guns N' Roses, which all featured on a charity album it released last year. It is now building on that with its first foray into sponsoring a music event, 'Kew the Music', a series of summer concerts in Kew Gardens.
Inglis also reveals that the brand is carefully eyeing growth of its beauty spa offering, which it soft-launched in Cheadle, Cheshire, last September. It already hosts 14 Clarins skin spas, but is now considering how and where to roll out its own-brand beauty spas after gauging customer reactions from this and other trial spas, in Newcastle and Reading.
'Beauty spas are very much linked to our beauty product and we have a heritage in that. We've got a great proposition in beauty halls, so there's a natural link,' he explains.
Although not an immediate priority, Inglis also says that loyalty cards form an area at which John Lewis needs to take a serious look. In addition, the retailer is seeking to make its content go further through the adoption of technology such as near field communication (NFC) and augmented reality (AR). A successful trial of Aurasma's AR technology in its catalogues last Christmas has persuaded Inglis that it is worth further experimentation; the brand is now exploring the useof AR to show customers how furniture and electrical products would look in their homes.
John Lewis is well placed to deliver interactive contact experiences to customers through their mobiles, because it has already begun the installation of free wi-fi in its stores. The roll-out began in October and is now operational in two-thirds of shops, with completion set for the spring.
This will pave the way for more sophisticated NFC, using sensors against which mobiles can be swiped to allow contactless transactions and data exchange.
Inglis hints that John Lewis is in talks to deliver NFC to its stores, but will say only that it is 'exploring what we can do with NFC to bring our product proposition to life'.
Shaking off some of the restraints that come with a brand steeped in tradition has been vital for modernising John Lewis' image. Inglis says 'there was an inherent scepticism about marketing' when he joined as head of brand communications in 2008.
'There is often talk about not over-promoting ourselves, and we are naturally a conservative business,' he adds. 'What we have done is demonstrate to the partners that you can market yourselves without being boastful, but (we must) root what we say in truths about the business.'
While the growth in store sales might be slowing, online is making significant gains, up 28% year on year for the five weeks to 31 December. Online and mobile transactions now account for 21% of total sales.
Speaking to Marketing two years ago, Inglis admitted that the company didn't have a social-media strategy. With a few campaigns under his belt that have gone viral on social media, has that changed?
'The question is more: do we have a strategy for how we use social media? The answer is yes, of course, but we don't have a separate digital agency,' he explains. 'We have a simple agency structure, using Adam & Eve on creative, Manning Gottlieb on media and Kitcatt Nohr Digitas on direct marketing - those three work as a virtual agency. Any time we brief any piece of work they come back together and respond.'
He adds: 'A couple of years ago it felt to me like there were too many people jumping on the social bandwagon for the sake of it. Entering into social media never replaced having a big idea, and that still stands. The heart of our success is having big ideas that can bring the proposition to life.'
Some 300 press articles were written about John Lewis' Christmas ad in 2011, with Guardian columnist Charlie Brooker sparking something of a Twitter storm after speculating that the gift in the box held by the child was a dog's severed head.
The ad even usurped biblical tales in some schools, when it was used to illustrate lessons in virtue. 'I had an email in the build-up to Christmas saying "your Christmas ad was used in my son's school as part of the assembly teaching kids about the importance of giving",' says Inglis.
'Beyond an ad'
That was no one-off; Inglis says he heard that an organisation responsible for providing teachers with material for assemblies resulted in the ad being used in a quarter of primary schools and 80% of secondary schools in England and Wales as part of December assemblies.
'That says to me that the advertising has gone beyond just an ad about a shop,' says Inglis. 'You only have to look at Christmas to see it almost became part of popular culture - we entered public consciousness in a way that I would never have been able to predict. The responses we had were incredible.'
James Murphy, founding partner at Adam & Eve, contends that Inglis' success is down to his no-nonsense approach.
'He's very direct,' says Murphy. 'He works in a busy environment, so there is no game-playing, no secret agenda; he's upfront about what's required and will tell you when it works and when it doesn't.'
The partnership between Murphy and Inglis was forged during the latter's tenure at Virgin Trains, a role that involved modernising the brand.
'I moved from London to Birmingham and expected it to be an entrepreneurial Virgin company,' says Inglis. 'The reality was that the vast majority of the people had been there before privatisation and were essentially civil servants. We had this huge challenge of trying to turn it into an innovation-driven culture.'
That innovative spirit has clearly served him well at John Lewis. However, while Inglis is exploring new areas of growth for the business, will his drive for change also apply to future ad campaigns?
'That's the $64,000 question,' says Inglis. 'I have been asked by people in the company whether we were setting ourselves up for a fall by having such prominent campaigns.
I think it is a fair question. I aim to keep moving it on but not moving it away from that tone of voice just for the sake of it.'
Inglis is in the process of detailed planning in terms of creative output and media strategy. Last month, he met Adam & Eve to have his 'first chat' about this Christmas. He insists they are yet to work out what the next stage will look like.
'We have obviously struck a chord. I think the challenge for me is to make sure that we continue to build on what is a strong "handwriting" in TV. We simply didn't have that four years ago. It will never be "job done". John Lewis is an amazing brand and there is potential to deliver great things. That generates restlessness to do more, in me and the team.'
Inglis is open to what the future may hold, be that in marketing or a move to general management, but gives little away.
'I'm only 43 so I think it would be a bit presumptuous to assume that John Lewis would have me for another 22 years. Having said that, I can't think of many brands I'd be as proud to work for.'
THREE CHALLENGES FACING INGLIS
- Repeating the success of recent TV campaigns while ensuring the tone of voice does not become stale.
- Driving sales to counteract plunging profits brought on by it matching rivals' widespread discounting.
- Seeking out fresh business sectors that are a good fit for the brand.
- Product manager, Thomson Holidays (1992-1996)
- Round-the-world trip with his future wife (1996-1997)
- Sales and marketing director, Virgin Trains (1997-2007)
- Head of brand communications, John Lewis (2008-2010)
- Marketing director, John Lewis (January 2010-present)
Family: Married with three children.
Lives: Ealing, West London.
First experience of John Lewis: 'Oxford Street and moving into my first flat 20 years ago. I can't remember what I bought, but I imagine it was a sofa bed.'
Hobbies: 'Running, snowboarding, cooking, travelling and golf. I did the London Marathon last year. I go snowboarding every year with the family and I try to get a sneaky trip in with the boys if I can. I thought working for Thomson would satisfy my travel bug, but I was spending my time in places I didn't really want to travel to. I've been to Mallorca more than 30 times and Tenerife about 20 times.'
THE CAMPAIGN: GOOD TIMES FOR JOHN LEWISThe chain blew rivals out of the water with 'The long wait' - its 2011 Christmas ad, focused on the joy of giving.
Creative was set to a cover of The Smiths' song Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want by singer-songwriter Slow Moving Millie.
Total sales and year-on-year rise in the five weeks to 31 Dec 2011
Operating profits dived in the first six months of 2011 after 'Never knowingly undersold' pledge hit its bottom lineSource: John Lewis
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