Will Barr give John Lewis the marketing focus it’s lacking?

GillBarrDepartment store chain John Lewis has appointed top retail marketer Gill Barr as its first board level marketing director (www.marketingweek.co.uk), but some wonder whether she will be able to clear up the marketing confusion besetting the company.

Insiders say Barr’s high-profile appointment following a five-month interim period as acting marketing director marks the organisation’s first tangible commitment to its marketing strategy and should give a focus it has been lacking.

Barr’s appointment follows the promotion of former managing director Charlie Mayfield to chairman, and former director of personnel Andy Street’s appointment to replace him.

In her interim role, Barr, a former board director of Woolworths, took the decision to review the retailer’s marketing strategy and hired brand consultancy Circus to develop it. At the same time, the company delayed a TV campaign that had been produced by Lowe London and originally planned to launch in Spring. This has raised questions about Lowe’s future on the John Lewis roster but is also a blow to the retailer’s credibility with the advertising industry. To commission a campaign then cancel it at the last moment indicates a lack of strategic direction.

Marketing at the forefront
Robert Ffitch, managing director of Manning Gottlieb OMD, the agency that handles the John Lewis media account, thinks Barr, who joined from home-dining service Deliverance after the resignation of Andrew Woodward, is set to bring John Lewis’ marketing strategy to the forefront. 

He says: “As successful as John Lewis is, marketing has never been its central focus. It is the first time a marketer has been appointed to the board, which reflects just how important marketing has become to the company.” He adds this is the first time the retail giant will adopt a “proper” marketing strategy instead of carrying out separate marketing campaigns without an underlying focal point.

Suki Thompson, formerly of the Haystack Group, believes the Circus appointment could reflect negatively on Lowe but says this depends on exactly what remits Circus and Lowe have been assigned and that the addition of external agencies does not necessarily call into question Barr’s abilities as a marketer.

Nevertheless, no clear marketing direction has yet been indicated by the retailer leaving Lowe on the back-burner while the company develops a strategy with Circus.

Ben Perkins, senior European retail analyst at Mintel says the department store’s marketing strategy has evolved in recent years with the launch of TV advertising and stronger branding for John Lewis and Waitrose. “Years ago it relied heavily on word of mouth for coverage but now it is acknowledging the retail market has become more competitive and it needs to revise its marketing to sustain its position. It seems to be developing a corporate marketing plan,” he says.

One source believes the retailer’s integrated business marketing strategy was nearly non-existent before the arrival of Barr, who was able to convince the board to give her time to consider where the company’s marketing budget should be spent.

A bright future
According to market research company Mintel, the retail leviathan has 17% of the UK department store market. It operates from 27 stores and has recently unveiled a £350m ten-store opening programme in addition to the 11-store programme underway. Perkins believes that the retail business’ development plans, including the ongoing expansion of Waitrose, could lead to a doubling of group sales over the next ten years.

With such an optimistic forecast the retail giant will undoubtedly need to ensure its marketing strategy is up to scratch.

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