Are the John Lewis and Waitrose rebrands a cosmetic fix or a strategic move?

While marketing alone is not enough to turn around a business, if the two retailers can use the rebrands to help propel more strategic initiatives, aimed at bolstering the business in the long term, it can help them prepare for challenges and opportunities in the sector.

John Lewis and Waitrose rebrands

The rebrands of John Lewis and Waitrose to add the ‘& Partners’ suffix is an interesting move by two of the UK’s biggest and best loved brands.

On one hand it is a brand architecture move. The two have, until very recently, operated as separate businesses with very little link-up. That slowly started to change when it became possible to pick up John Lewis click-and-collect items at Waitrose, and the move to put both their creative accounts with adam&eveDDB a few years ago seemed to signal that joint marketing campaigns could be coming down the line.

There are clear benefits to being more closely aligned from a brand and marketing point of view. There should be a halo effect, and they now need only one creative platform for the two brands – both of which should make media and creative spend more efficient.

As Marketing Week columnist Mark Ritson puts it: “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.”

READ MORE: Mark Ritson – Google, Coke and John Lewis mark a big week for brand architecture

But there is more going on here than a drive to cut marketing costs. It is more than 15 years since John Lewis and Waitrose last updated their brands and in that time the retail sector has undergone seismic change.

The rise of ecommerce has disrupted the traditional high street business model, leading to a slew of new rivals and impacting customer behaviour. The economic challenges of the last 10 years have also changed the way people shop, with consumers reining in spending on clothing and household goods and becoming more focused on value. Changes to business rates, the minimum wage and weakening pound have all made it harder to generate a profit from the large high street locations department stores have been reliant on.

It is amid this backdrop that both John Lewis and Waitrose decided something must be done. Their owner, the John Lewis Partnership (JLP), is pumping up to £500m a year into refurbishing stores, revamping websites and developing new products and services. This on the back of a warning profits would be substantially lower this year due to the tough trading environment and programme of investment needed to ensure the retailer is fit for the future of retail.

The strategic initiatives include the extension of John Lewis’s own-label fashion and retraining staff to offer a more personalised and useful service. At Waitrose, staff will become food specialists and ambassadors, encouraged to share their knowledge and experience.

Ensuring a rebrand is more than just cosmetic

Given the shift in emphasis at both John Lewis and Waitrose, a rebrand makes sense. The businesses are changing and there is no better way to highlight those changes than through an eye-catching rebrand and marketing push that shouts about their points of differentiation.

Aligning the rebrand with more strategic initiatives ensures the changes are more than skin deep, according to Neil Saunders, managing director of retail analysts GlobalData.

“The fact that the rebrand coincides with more strategic initiatives suggests that this is more than just a cosmetic exercise and that the renaming is part of wider activity to bolster the fortunes of the business and ready it for the challenges and opportunities of the next 10 years,” he explains.

There are also signals the brands could do with a refresh. While John Lewis was the top brand among UK consumers in YouGov’s mid-year brand health rankings, there are signs of challenges. For example, its Impression score has declined from 51 in August 2016 to 46 now, a statistically significant decline. The Value score, meanwhile, has fallen to 16, from 23. It is a similar story at Waitrose, where Impression has declined from 37 to 32.

To ensure the rebrand is more than cosmetic the implementation will be crucial. Consumers need to see and feel it in-store, while staff need to feel part of the changes.

“The proposition will live and die on the shop floor, day in and day out, not in a beautifully crafted launch commercial or reworked logos,” says Justin Cernis, founder of branding agency The Cernis Collective. “How you instil (and sustain) the spirit, energy and enthusiasm of being an owner/manager in 27,000-plus people and how that manifests as tangible customer benefits will be critical to the success of this work.”

The fact that the rebrand coincides with more strategic initiatives suggests that this is more than just a cosmetic exercise and that the renaming is part of wider activity to bolster the fortunes of the business.

Neil Saunders, GlobalData

With that in mind, adding ‘& Partners’ to the brand names makes sense. The aim is to enthuse staff, remind them that they are valued even as jobs are cut.

And it serves to highlight the special nature of the JLP businesses and the benefits that brings. Most consumers won’t know or be interested in JLP’s business structure, but this should encourage more to find out.

“As far as the customer is concerned, the Partnership is on-point in stressing that it is an inclusive business that puts all of those that work there at the heart of decision-making. This is a message that resonates well and that both John Lewis & Partners and Waitrose & Partners can authentically communicate and make their own,” adds Saunders.

This is also a rebrand for the long-term. While John Lewis and Waitrose will be hoping for a bump in brand equity, and of course sales, in the short term, equally as important is to deliver on their brand promises five or even 10 years down the line.

As the grocery market becomes ever more competitive and department stores face a challenging landscape, aligning the two brands more closely and focusing on what makes them unique and communicating that effectively through their staff, stores, customer experience and marketing is a smart move.

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