John Lewis & Waitrose customer chiefs talk brand partnerships, Brexit, Amazon & Christmas (kind of)

The John Lewis & Partners reveal

Despite being partner organizations for over 80 years now, John Lewis and Waitrose have only recently begun to form even closer ties to improve their customer offers, exemplified recently with their first-ever joint advertising campaign.

Speaking to The Drum after a no-holds-barred, but off-the-record, interview at an event organised by The Marketing Society is John Lewis and Partners’ customer director, Craig Inglis, who has also become chairman of the organization alongside Waitrose counterpart Martin George.

During the event, the pair discuss how well they get along together, and how similar they are in their beliefs for both brands. They sit together having a glass of red wine, ready to discuss how the two companies are working better in tandem, having both adopted the ‘& partners’ in September.

“It’s been four years in development in John Lewis and about 18 months ago we were very clear where we were going to position was around partners and the difference that they bring through the services that they deliver,” explains Inglis. “If you look at any customer insight, they are the thing that differentiates us the most and when we made that decision it instantly became a John Lewis and Waitrose conversation rather than just a John Lewis one because we are in partnership.

"Waitrose has embraced that 100% and what they bring is a different perspective based on the food market and the customer who is interesting in the joy of food. That perspective has made the work much better, they have challenged us, made it thought-provoking and been really supportive so we have ended up with a much better result.”

George continues: “When you talk to our customers about what the Waitrose brand stands for, they use very similar language to the way they describe John Lewis; it’s all about quality of service and they talk about the history and heritage and value for money and what they don’t necessarily associate Waitrose with is being a part of this partnership.

"Making the link between the two brands clearer - that we are both part of the same partnership - has benefit to both brands. There are lots of Waitrose customers who are not so familiar with John Lewis, so it has an impact on the John Lewis brand and vice versa. Just making the association more public has had a benefit to both brands.”

The launch of the rebrand and plans to promote the partnership culminated in a major advertising campaign featuring a school concert that aims to recreate the Queen classic ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ that received much acclaim upon its release in September. It featured the strapline; ‘For Us, It’s Personal’ but Inglis remains committed to the long-term John Lewis partner price promise ‘Never knowingly undersold’.

Later, when prompted further about what they think might have worked about the partnership, Inglis adds that telling the story at brand-level has allowed other channels to come into play to take the work beyond TV and out into digital channels like outdoor and social. For instance, the two brands are using Instagram to place short films featuring partners talking about their expertise.

“At every touch point the customer can see the story being told in a way that is right for that medium and that’s the clue to driving real effectiveness; getting every channel doing the job that they need to do but the whole is greater than the sum of their parts.”

The partnership is also expected to see the pair join up their loyalty schemes to work across both John Lewis and Waitrose after an initial trial period in recent weeks.

“I firmly believe in it, it’s right at the heart of our brand and rightly so,” he confirms. “It talks about something much bigger than just the price-point. It talks through what we stand for and customers see it as an underpinning of fairness and honesty which is prevalent in our brand and it has been since 1925. For me, it’s not something we would ever step away from, it’s critical to the brand.”

Meanwhile, Waitrose has recently begun the ‘Beautifully Simple’ campaign to highlight ‘quick and easy recipes’ online for customers to cook using the produce of its partners; “It feels to them to be authentic and true to the Waitrose brand because they associate us with great quality ingredients, simple to cook, enjoyable and tasty – that’s what it is all about,” explains George.

Over the future of the plans of aligning more, there's little the two share in terms of future plans, with JL notoriously secret about its plans for each Christmas campaign which tends to build hype ahead of the release of each advert every year.

“That’s the exciting thing. We haven’t ruled anything out,” offers George. “Because we're naturally collaborative - it’s not just because we get on. I genuinely believe that part of our combative armoury is the fact that we are part of the same organization and John Lewis brings a huge amount to make Waitrose and stronger business and I would like to think that the same applies the other way. That conversation is one that we have on a regular basis.”

Asked about how they retain a distinct brand from one another and not crossing over too much, neither seems concerned; “We are clear about our service offer, we have done some strategy work over the last six-months, so we are absolutely clear about the business that we are, and can identify the areas where it makes sense to co-operate and where it doesn’t.”

Will they remain committed to these plans despite the rise of Amazon looming over retailers the world over?

“We can’t compete with Amazon on their terms and they are brilliant at what they do but we are different and the things that make us different is alongside the brilliant rigor, the tech that we have, the brilliant fulfillment experience, is that we have this thing called partners which brings great humanity and amazing service which our customers really love,” explains Inglis.

“It’s the combination of those things that makes us special – we need to focus on that and pull away further by really differentiating – it’s no different for Waitrose. John Lewis needs to be more John Lewis and Waitrose needs to be more Waitrose.”

Finally, with the Christmas advert just weeks from being revealed, one last attempt is to get Inglis to reveal any elements. He remains stone-faced when asked how the recording session with Elton John (who has reportedly re-recorded Your Song as the lead track) went and smiles mischievously when asked for a one-word clue as to what can be expected.

“Snow” is probably less-than-a-helpful response.

Perhaps this is one-time John Lewis could justifiably be accused of underselling something.

More details about The Marketing Society's calendar of regular events can be found on its website.

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