What does John Lewis' search for a brand experience manager mean for retail?

John Lewis
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These are testing times for bricks-and-mortar retailers in the UK; the post-referendum deflation of the pound, rising inflation and threats from digital-first players risk putting the High Street on the back foot, especially for those brands that cater to the ‘squeezed middle’.

However, John Lewis appears to understand the importance of the in-store brand experience. From its ‘National Treasures’ campaign this summer (which intended to make the chain a year-round destination), it’s clear that John Lewis is making bold moves to become the most ‘experiential’ retailer this country has.

This is an observation backed-up by its new Oxford Street-based appointment: the brand experience manager. Whilst this isn’t the first brand experience manager role ever, it is the first dedicated in-store role I’ve seen – so much so that it gained national press.

But this is far from being a stunt to gain column inches; the fact this position even exists tells us a lot about the state of the retail sector.

Destination or showroom?

The USP of the John Lewis Partnership has always been customer experience and it has worked hard to cement its reputation since it was formed nearly a 100 years ago. The new role plays into that. The theory is that event curation and experiential marketing will bring the John Lewis ‘experience’ to life for everyone passing through its doors.

Creating an emotional connection between a brand and a shopper is more important than ever – and that’s where the bricks-and-mortar experience is key. Apple has demonstrated this through its own retail strategy. Even Amazon has now opened bookstores, through which they have sought to redefine the retail paradigm by integrating digital interactions into a physical retail environment.

How people shop is changing, and all too often one of the reasons people visit physical stores is to get a tangible feel for a product before buying it online. It would be very unwise to discount the huge significance of digital, but for multi-channel retail businesses it would be equally short-sighted to neglect the physical experience.

Measuring the joins between channels and experiences

What’s perhaps even more significant is how an on-the-ground view will better merge the online and offline channels. It’s a failing of the sector overall that the default approach to customer experience has been siloed; dividing responsibilities between department heads - website, digital, CRM, and store managers - means a piecemeal system has become the norm when actually a cohesive strategy is required.

Creating an emotional connection between a brand and a shopper is more important than ever – and that’s where the bricks-and-mortar experience is key.

To use an analogy, it’s almost like rehearsing a band, but never listening to it play together.

Working in silos doesn’t measure the joins between each channel. After all, each may appear to be performing brilliantly in isolation but what when you pull them together, you are still likely to find customer complaints moving from one channel to the next. An objective overview of brand experience will allow businesses to identify where the gaps in their provision are.

A role for diplomats

One thing’s for sure, whoever takes on the brand experience manager role will be working closely with multiple teams, from website to floor design. Not only will they need to be an all-rounder, they may also need to be an accomplished diplomat to align teams used to working independently.

By making this a front-line role, John Lewis is essentially taking a customer-first approach. Having someone making observations within the store every day will really help them to understand what works and what doesn’t from the customer perspective, however that customer is buying. Although the metrics might not have an immediate return, a holistic view of the in-store experience could be much more valuable than commissioning third party research on particular aspects.

And while it’s true that retailers have plenty of high-level thinkers that set out strategy remotely in head office, having someone on the ground should on the face of it be a powerful way of defining the in-store experience. There’s a lot to be said for maintaining both a business-wide strategy and allowing individual outlets to differentiate to some extent.

Never knowingly underinformed – seeing the details, not just the high-level metrics

Regardless of the level of independence that comes with the role, it will be important that whoever is chosen will obsesses over the minutiae of the customer experience. After all, the devil is in the detail and what head office won’t be inundated with is feedback on exactly how you should open a conversation with a customer, or the best way to lovingly wrap an expensive purchase.

These are the types of insights this role should be looking to reveal. It’s the detail that customers remember and impacts brand perception.

If the brand experience manager role is such a great idea, then why has it taken so long for anyone to come up with it? The main hurdle stems from being able to justify it.

While I’m clearly a big proponent of the brand experience manager role, the big question is, if it’s such a great idea, then why has it taken so long for anyone to come up with it? The main hurdle stems from being able to justify it.

In these data-centric times, measurement is everything. It’s easy to set sales targets to a department or allocate KPIs to website engagement or online advertising effectiveness. However, measuring someone’s ‘experience’ is more of a grey area – it is much more difficult to get hard business metrics from this.

That’s why at Wunderman, we recently launched a searchable database of customer experiences - known as Elements of Experience - which allows marketers to cross-compare and benchmark the world’s best experiences across different sectors. In this case, the customer journey is treated holistically, with all the elements that comprise it fully incorporated, comparable and measurable.

We can be sure that customer experience is what is going to define physical retail in the twenty-first century. We’ve reached a point where we can all shop online and have a functional experience, but really that’s the sum of what digital can aspire to. Bricks and mortar retail needs to embrace both experiences and the individual shopper’s experience across all channels if it’s to flourish. John Lewis’ new appointment may well be the first stepping stone towards defining what that future could look like.

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