In the latest Little Grey Cells interview, Claire Pointon, Customer Director for John Lewis, shares her views on the Metaverse, live shopping, and how keeping her teams motivated and inspired in an era of ‘doom scrolling’ news is a bedrock for great marketing. She also explores why the trust customers place in the brand to do the right thing matters more than ever.
What inspired you to pursue a career that embraces marketing?
Claire> I’ve always had an active imagination and a love for storytelling. From a young age I was immersed in books and stories. So, when I decided to go into business, brands and their stories had a natural appeal to me.
One of the areas that excites me most is how brands highlight innovation, and this attracted me to my first role in the telecoms industry.
I started in 1996, when the telecoms industry felt like the peak of innovation. It was full of change and progress, all having a big impact on people’s lives. At the same time though, the sector was still dominated by engineering, and there was a gap for marketing and customer thinking.
Even after leaving the tech sector, storytelling remained important to me. I moved to an Irish food brand business called Kerry Foods, who had bought brands from Unilever and I helped launch products like Fridge Raiders - meat snacking, a challenger brand to crisps - and Walls sausages into the pastry market. Kerry foods also owned Cheesestrings brand. While these might sound a world apart from cutting-edge technology, it still came down to creating a compelling story about innovation - and why customers should pick our products off the shelf.
What are the biggest challenges currently facing your marketing team?
Claire> I’ve been with John Lewis since early 2020. It’s a brand teaming with heritage and genuinely loyal customers.
Like any business though, demonstrating affordability is key right now. If we’re to retain customers’ trust, we need to show that we understand what they’re going through and are offering great value. This isn’t just about offering good prices, but also demonstrating that the John Lewis quality means products are made to last.
Elsewhere, we all need to be thinking about how we keep sustainability at the front of our agenda - even during the cost of living crisis.
Again, people put a lot of trust in our brand to do the right thing - so we’re creating new ways to help people shop sustainably. For example, we’ve recently launched clothing rental - both for children and women’s occasionwear - which are already proving really popular.
The last challenge I’d point out, which I think will resonate with a lot of marketers, is how we keep our teams motivated and inspired.
Marketers are a creative bunch but, especially when there’s so much doom and gloom in the headlines, we can all benefit from an extra little boost.
At John Lewis, we’ve been bringing in external examples of great storytelling to keep people inspired. It ranges from inspirational individuals to social media creatives. It’s all about providing confidence in what we do, and tapping into exciting ways to stay close to our customers.
Science vs Art: with scientific data-driven marketing at one end of the spectrum and genius creative ideas at the other - which side do you lean towards?
Claire> I’m in the middle on this one - and no, that’s not a cop out!
The beauty of data is that it can give you very clear insights, which are great for decision making. At its simplest, it can tell you what’s working vs what’s not working, but it can also help us understand our customer needs, how they shop, and where we’re best to connect with them.
What it can't do though is create big ideas - at least not very well yet. The same applies to sparking emotion - you need human input to evoke a human response, which is why we still have both sides working together.
I’ve seen brands - especially in the digital sphere - who’ve used data to really nurture their customers and build a business. But they’re still miles from reaching any brand love - which is what good brands need to do.
The Metaverse: are you ‘in’, ‘out’ or ‘not sure’? And please tell us why.
Claire> I’m firmly in the ‘in’ camp here, because it’s a new way for people to experience brands.
There are plenty of people out there who are up for trying new things, and it’s not just limited to the younger generation - although naturally this may resonate with them more broadly.
Yes, there’s still a way to go as the Metaverse develops, but there are lots of people who’ll want to own things and build a version of themselves - or even someone new - in the digital world. In fact, that element of escapism may be even more needed than ever in a world that’s dominated by gloomy headlines.
Of course there are potential pitfalls, and safety will need to be considered, but there are a lot of exciting opportunities. We’re already seeing big brands getting involved - I’m particularly interested in following Nike’s journey, for example.
How do you adapt a business and marketing strategy to embrace the latest trends and keep ahead of the competition?
Claire> Be really clear where you want to test and learn, and where you want to scale.
Live shopping is a great example of this. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s essentially a live broadcast via social media, often using influencers to help provide entertainment at the same time as shopping.
It’s huge across Asia but the UK market is still testing and learning. At John Lewis we were one of the earlier adopters and it’s been a really exciting journey.
We’ve used some of our John Lewis partners and presenters such as George Clark and Gok Wan, to help create ‘shoppable content’ which is landing really well with our customers. We’re still at foothills of this, and it’s still to be scaled, but we were one of the first UK retailers to give it ago.
With anything though, testing and learning should be encouraged. But it has to be about learning and amending, rather than trying and giving up.
What role does your company’s purpose and environmental strategy play within your marketing strategy?
Claire> Purpose should be absolutely front and centre of everything a brand does. In order for this to work, a purpose needs to be clearly defined.
Within the John Lewis Partnership, we’ve recently launched our new purpose: “Working in Partnership for a Happier World”. It’s more than a slogan, it helps influence every decision we make - from the products we sell, to how we act socially and environmentally.
Not only is it the right way for us to behave, it’s what our customers expect us to be doing and helps maintain trust.
Even when tough decisions need to be made, purpose is key - making sure they’re made in the right way, considering the factors that matter.
How important is storytelling when maximising your customers’ engagement with a campaign?
Claire> I’ve already said that I’m a huge fan of storytelling - so it won’t be a surprise to hear that I think it’s at the heart of engaging customers.
If you think about how we live our lives, we connect to storytelling every day - from the conversations with our friends, to scrolling through social media, to sitting down and digesting the news.
It’s often underestimated just how important it is for businesses, let alone in building a brand that resonates and inspires people. Brands take years to communicate what they stand for, but storytelling can help accelerate this - assuming it’s done correct.
And storytelling shouldn’t just be external; you need a clear shared goal for people to get behind. That golden thread is easy to get lost in a big, multi-layered business - but when you get it right, it can help pull people together.
One thing I would say though is that storytelling is an ‘always on’ technique. The job is never done and, if you take your foot of the gas, you’ll likely see the benefits ebb away.
Creative agencies rail against the time and resource spent working on pitches to win accounts: is there a realistic, fair alternative to the pitch process?
Claire> For me, the pitch process is still important as it does three key things. Firstly it shows the strategic thinking of the agency - brands will always want to test this.
Secondly, it ensures there’s chemistry and fit which are vital if the working relationship is going to work. On a more practical level, it also offers a chance to do due diligence - so discussing fees, and setting out how you’ll work together.
Given the amount brands spend on agencies, that reassurance is really helpful. It’s like how people might go through different rounds of job interviews.
From a marketing perspective, what’s coming up for your brand or business in 2023?
Claire> It’s an exciting time for John Lewis. Guided by our purpose of ‘Working in Partnership for a Happier World’ we’re continuing to invest in our brand.
A great and current example is the roll out of our new brand promise; which is being there ‘for all life’s moments’.
This isn’t just limited to the big milestones, but is about helping customers celebrate the little special moments too. From helping people prepare for a wedding, or the birth of a first child, through everyday events - like helping them host friends for dinner - there’s happiness to be found in all of them.
Claire Pointon was interviewed by Tim Healey (Little Grey Cells) in partnership with Worth Your While (www.wyw.agency).