John Lewis ‘& Partners’ rebranding – making a difference to customers or not?

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Rebranding during difficult times
For the first time in John Lewis’ history, the 83,000 partners who work for the company have been incorporated into the company’s two retail fascia’s brand names (John Lewis and Waitrose). According to the press reports, the rebrand aims to ‘highlight the company’s partnership business model and culture’.

This rebrand comes as a brave move given their recent financial performance, including a reported 99% profits fall for the first half of 2018. The owner of the department store chain and supermarket, Waitrose, posted underlying pre-tax profits of just £1.2 million for the six months to July 28th. At John Lewis department stores there was an operating loss of £19.3m and same store sales were down 1.2%. According to the FT, discounting and matching competitors’ prices because of its ‘never knowingly undersold’ promise cost it £40m of profit in the first half of 2018.

Bricks and mortar retail continues to be challenged
Traditional retailers have been squeezed by online competition, an excess of retail space, increasing rental and staff costs. Compounded with the long-term effects of discounting and waning footfall, stores are struggling, and we have seen surging closures, profit warnings and even insolvency.

In August this year, House of Fraser went into administration to be rescued by Mike Ashley’s Sports Direct. It is now in the course of closing three of its 59 stores. Another 31 stores were on the brink of closure, but new rental terms have been agreed for at least 20 stores, protecting around 3,500 jobs.

Debenhams continue to issue profit warnings. They were recently forced to deny it was planning to use a company voluntary arrangement (CVA), a form of creditor protection, to ensure it didn’t collapse.

Fenwick confirmed at the beginning of September that it was cutting 408 jobs after a 93% dip in pre-tax profits. This is part of a restructuring plan involving the centralisation of management and back-end roles at its department stores, which to date, have been run autonomously.

What’s the difference with ‘& Partners’?
Since the last brand update, 15 years ago, for both John Lewis or Waitrose, retailing has changed beyond recognition. Customers now shop in an entirely different way, driven by online retailers and ecommerce.

John Lewis is still the top brand among UK consumers in YouGov’s brand health rankings, ahead of BBC iPlayer and Marks & Spencer. Its overall score has dropped from 43.5 in 2017 to 41.9 and its lead is diminishing. Time would appear right to make such a significant brand change.

With the addition of ‘& Partners’ to fascias, communication and all brand livery, has come an own-brand womenswear collection of 300 designs, created entirely in-house, as part of the overall change.

Waitrose’s own-label product ranges will see the introduction of a programme of change from this month.

Staff are being trained to become ‘Customer Service Ambassadors’ in the department stores. We will see a warmer and more personalised customer service front of store, the introduction of healthy eating specialists, and delivery of a concierge-style service. There will also be personal stylists to share daily fashion talks. Staff at Waitrose will become food specialists and ambassadors who share their knowledge and experience with customers.

At a time when retailers need to be able to establish what sets them apart from competitors and what their relevance is to customers, The John Lewis Partnership is focusing on what it believes to be its unique strength.

JLP chairman Charlie Mayfield has been quoted as saying: “The John Lewis Partnership is a unique business with different ownership, a different purpose and a different outlook to any of our competitors. As retail changes we need to tread a path that enables us to thrive as a business while building on the qualities that make us different. The measures that we have outlined today are an important next step in our strategy that will ensure we emerge stronger from this period of profound change.”

Another spokesperson emphasised that this is more than a cosmetic change. “It symbolises something bigger, expressing what’s different about our business and signalling our intent to make that difference count for even more: committed, knowledgeable partners who care about the business they own, sharing their love of food and offering great customer service.”

Customers opinions appear to be positive by large with one commenting: “Great to see an old-fashioned common sense and human approach to service delivery at John Lewis-Waitrose & Partners”.

Waitrose & Partners managing director Rob Collins added: “This moment is far more significant than simply adding words and changing the design.” So will this be the case? Will customers perceive a real difference when they are interacting with either Waitrose & Partners or John Lewis & Partners, on a day to day basis?
What will it take to make the change a successful development?
The John Lewis Partnership is well positioned compared to other traditional bricks and mortar retailers; two fifths of its sales are already online – this is greater than its rivals. What’s more, 50% of its stock is own-label or exclusive lines so what they put on their shelves (virtual or physical) is genuinely different to others.

To make a successful long-term change, the brand change needs to be more than a façade or veneer and more than putting different products on shelves.

Marketing Week columnist Mark Ritson sums it up really well: “In brand architecture terms, John Lewis Partnership is moving from a house of brands, in which almost no consumers would have drawn a link between Waitrose and John Lewis, to an endorsement structure in which the two companies’ linked names ensure that the brands are now more closely and explicitly aligned in the minds of target consumers.”

“The new brand is a really clear statement about the core of our business – our partners at the heart of everything we do.” This move is claimed to be about putting partners at the heart of what the company does. What about its customers? How are the two aligned? Have customers been consulted in the lead up to this change?

The change could be a really clever move at a time when it’s clearly needed. If the experience of the employee (in this case partners) and the customer are aligned, this development could be of real value to customers. The customer experience is where the brand comes alive physically, emotionally and virtually in its interactions with the customer. If the brand’s proposition is now being more explicitly rooted in its ‘Partners’ emphasis, this must be intimately connected with the experience. The John Lewis Partnership will need to tell its authentic story in a coherent way; and the customer experience in both Waitrose & Partners and John Lewis & Partners must adhere to that brand story, consistently across all touch points.

Aligning Brand and Customer Experience
The customer’s experience is the ‘reality check’ of the brand i.e. it’s where the brand directly meets the consumer. The acid test of the brand, where the expectations that the brand has set, are either met or not. If I were advising a client in this situation, I would counsel them to prioritise:

• Auditing how the current brand is experienced e.g. Instagram to visual merchandising to instore displays
• Mapping the end to end customer journey across all touch points, across all parts of the mother brand
• Establishing the brand promises that will be made to customers across this journey
• Determining experience design principles which become a brand filter to ensure that the desired experience is consistently delivered
• Developing an experience blueprint that focuses on an experience that is rooted in the brand proposition
• Creating a roadmap that will deliver on the basics but also innovating to elevate the experience as consumers expectations keep rising

Let’s not forget those partners
The John Lewis Partnership is enhancing its emphasis on its community of partners. These partners now need to be engaged and empowered to deliver an experience that customers will perceive to be different.

It is well recognised that people want to be part of a community and to spotlight themselves as individuals at the same time. Employees or in this case Partners, in an organisation are no different.

• Employees want to be part of the customer community.
• Employees want to be actively involved in something.
• Employees want to know what’s in it for them.
• Employees often want to make a personal statement.

If an organisation can create a platform that effectively harnesses both the need to be part of a community and the need to be an individual and align it around the customer, it is sure to have a successful customer centric ‘movement’ on their hands with a better employee experience than it had before. This move by the John Lewis Partnership, makes an ideal opportunity to do this.

Here’s hoping …
… that as the retail market becomes ever more competitive and challenging, the closer alignment of the two brands, and the focus on the unique ‘Partner’ proposition can be effectively delivered through marketing, staff, stores, overall customer experience and relationship.

As Deb Bee from Harvey Nichols was recently quoted as saying: “The high street is in a very tough situation and I think it’s very hard for retailers to have a point of difference from each other.”

Let’s hope that this will be a positive change for this market leading British ‘institution’ and it will deliver a best-in class experience that customer desire and that’s so needed as an example to bring our high streets back to life.

Images courtesy of Flickr and Pixabay

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