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Why retail needs to stop trying to create culture: dragons versus steak bakes

2011. A big year.

The year that bin Laden and Gaddafi were both killed. The year that Kate and Wills tied the knot. And the year that John Lewis cemented their place as purveyors of an annual festive advertising treat with ‘The Long Wait’.

The formula was set. A big track, a heart-string-tugging twist, high production values - all neatly wrapped up in a bow around the core insight of the power of giving. Since that endearing small boy, we’ve had snowmen, bears and hares, monsters, dogs and even a man on the moon.

This year’s offering faithfully followed the same successful formula. It was heralded as ‘eagerly anticipated’ by The Sun but I wonder, ‘eagerly anticipated by whom?’ The media? The ad industry? Dare I ask, the great British shopper?

As an industry, we have to realise that advertising alone is no longer enough to change retail fortunes in a meaningful way. John Lewis' ad this year was beautiful, filmic, epic, adorable - but it wasn’t enough to fire up Christmas shoppers, with sales falling 2.3% year on year. And it wasn’t enough to save Paula Nickolds, John Lewis’s first female MD in 152 years, who quit last week.

With the death of analogue viewing, Christmas became the national water cooler moment for the advertising industry. A regular fixture every Christmas alongside the Queen, Bond and re-runs of Morecombe and Wise. But while the way we advertise at Christmas hasn’t changed for almost a decade, the world of retail has changed beyond recognition. Bricks and mortar retailers are hurting everywhere you look. Black Friday, Super Saturday and Cyber Monday have exacerbated the shift to sales online. The high street is battered and bruised.

So, what is a traditional retailer to do?

It’s time to be brave. To re-invent. And it’s time to get meaningful. It’s no longer enough to rely on an advertising proposition at Christmas. You need a strong brand idea to propel your business around the clock.

Success lies at the intersection of two things: a clear, unchanging brand purpose, and strong audience insight. All that needs to be underpinned by fearless ambition and an appetite to innovate, to reinvent, to test and learn as you go. It’s no longer enough to sell people the things they want - you need to be able to anticipate the things that they might not even know that they need. Retailers can’t afford to sit back and expect people to buy, they need to be chameleon. It’s the innovators who will survive, and the institutions that will die.

Take Greggs for example. The UK’s biggest baker.

They could have carried on serving up Floured Bloomers to the nation, but, in 2013, they realised that they were being quietly suffocated by the supermarkets. If they wanted to survive, they needed to change. So, they switched from selling loaves to selling lunches (& breakfasts, and dinners, and snacks in between). Food for the desk, food for the street, food for the van.

They opened earlier and closed later to make sure that they could feed and fuel Britain’s workforce. Now there are drive-throughs, stores open 24 hours, and even a partnership with Just Eat.

But they haven’t just been brave - they’ve been insightful. In 2016 they launched sourdough pasties. In 2019, they flexed to the flexitarian fashion and launched a vegan version of their famous sausage roll. And in January 2020, they rolled out their meatless steak bake. And they didn’t even have to advertise. It was spotted in-store and quickly became an Instagram and twitter sensation.

While John Lewis are investing heavily in trying to ‘create culture’ with a blockbuster Christmas ad, Greggs has become culture. Greggs now serve 6 million customers a week through its 2000 outlets. So, while John Lewis is likely to announce to its staff that they won’t be getting a bonus this year for the first time in over half a century, Greggs is handing back £7m in profits to its staff.

UK retailers need to start thinking differently. Holding onto the coat tails of a reassuringly familiar formula, just won’t cut it. It’s time to bring the swagger.

Those who dare, will sell.

Clare Hutchinson is executive strategy director at Havas London

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