John Lewis has a history spanning 150 years and more goodwill from consumers than perhaps any other British brand – whether that is for pushing innovation through its technology startup incubator JLab or for its legendary Christmas campaigns.
However, that does not mean maintaining the retailer’s reputation is always an easy job for communications director Peter Cross, who joined John Lewis in 2013 after nine years as the business partner of retail consultant Mary Portas. The move marked a return to the client side for the former global communications director of both Alfred Dunhill and L’Oréal and, as Cross tells Marketing Week, having responsibility for promoting John Lewis internally and externally entails meeting high expectations from consumers and staff alike.
Q: Is there a certain amount of pressure to be in charge of communications for such a well-loved brand?
Peter Cross: There are pressures in all communications jobs that did not exist before because of the 24/7 nature of the discipline. The expectation of John Lewis in terms of how we behave is extremely high. The challenge of looking after a brand that is so trusted by consumers is a privilege, but it comes with the responsibility of never letting the side down.
Everything we do is very considered. We have a reputation to uphold, which is extremely precious to us, and we are co-owned by different people in the company, so I treat internal and external communications the same.
Q: How does communications differ from the marketing function at John Lewis?
Peter Cross: Communications covers anything from public relations to experiential communications and social media. The marketing director [Craig Inglis] and I have an extremely close relationship and it’s interesting in today’s world that where one discipline starts and the next one ends is not rigid.
Collaboration is important largely because of digital and social media. It is my job to promote the business in innovative ways through the media to the consumer and to be hand in glove with marketing
Q: What advice would you give others working in communications for heritage brands, in relation to keeping a brand fresh but sticking to its ethos?
Peter Cross: Last year was our 150th anniversary so we did a huge amount to tell our story in an authentic and innovative way. You have to be true to the story and to the brand.
The second thing is how you tell the story because history can be dry, so ensure the story of the brand is truly woven into the DNA. Sometimes in brand storytelling in the UK we can leave the story on the shelf to get dusty, but the key thing is to make it come alive.
Q: How do you use data to understand what customers expect and want from the brand?
Peter Cross: The John Lewis ‘Shop, Live & Look’ report [an annual sales data report] told us that, despite the digital revolution and online sales growth, 85% of sales still involve the shop in some way. That may mean browsing, click-and-collect or ordering a fabric swatch. So the roles of the channels are reshaped and the roles of the shops are not just transactional. The implications of having this data and understanding it are enormous.
Q: Prior to joining John Lewis you set up the agency Yellow Door, later renamed Portas, with retail consultant Mary Portas. What did you learn from that experience?
Peter Cross: The ‘Mary’ journey was extraordinary because we were quite fearless in wanting to create the best retail marketing agency and to attract the best clients in the world, such as Westfield and Mercedes.
We were both community-minded, so to take that belief and go through creating a television programme and the Portas review of the high street [for the Government] was an incredible journey. It was a privileged and exciting time and that fearlessness propels me to do more.
Q: Have you carried any of that fearlessness over to John Lewis?
Peter Cross: You have to be brave to work in retail today because the marketing and communications are constant, as people are shopping all the time; you are always on. There is a considered nature to John Lewis but to stay ahead demands bravery.
Q: What projects have you worked on that could fall into that brave category?
Peter Cross: To celebrate our 150th anniversary, we created a limited-edition experience for 10,000 partners [staff at John Lewis, who all co-own the business]. We tried to tell the story of the brand to bring pride to our staff by taking over the LG stadium in Birmingham for an event. We had a parade of each shop: a 100-person show telling the story of the founder with the extras from the Olympics ceremony and artists who have sung on John Lewis adverts over the years.
We released the ‘150 for all’ DVD, which is only for staff and goes behind the scenes at the event. It’s quite difficult when you do something like that – you want to tell the world about it but it is equally pleasing to keep it to yourself.
Q: What experiences do you gain from being a mentor on the brand’s technology startup incubator, JLab?
Peter Cross: Mentoring isn’t new but it’s brilliant to have. I have always tried to keep mentors and to mentor others. My first boss at L’Oreal took me out of my comfort zone in London and said “You are travelling, you are going to Paris and New York”, so mentors can really push you.
Last summer I was also asked to advise on an NHS project. Occasionally government asks for experts from the private sector to help with capability reviews so I was asked to be part of a review into marketing and communications for the NHS. For us to go in and make recommendations on how it is structured and how it performs was extremely flattering.
Q: What direction is John Lewis taking in the next 12 months?
Peter Cross: The 150th anniversary was a good anchor for the past year. For 2015 we have a lot planned in the product space in categories customers expect but also those they may have heard less about. Maintaining our leadership in innovation and in the omnichannel space will remain our priority.