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150 years of John Lewis – brand experience carried home

From the latest John Lewis 150th anniversary campaign

From the latest John Lewis 150th anniversary campaign (Source: ebiquity)

John Lewis has been celebrating its 150th anniversary, and has done so in its inimitable style, with a big showcase ad designed to boost those all-important positive emotional associations. Predictably, and inevitably, this sparks off a torrent of commentary from those in the industry. If you took a representative sample of marketers and related professions, I suspect you’d find very few with a bad word to say about John Lewis. And if they did, it might well be something facetious about how that bear would have eaten the hare.

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That’s me for this particular blog.

I swear to God I’m writing this with just my brain, my body and a laptop that is offline.

I don’t know how to prove that I haven’t looked anything up  during the production of this piece of writing.

Other than you warping the fabric of space and time, coming over here and watching over my shoulder. Which would put me off no end.  I just ‘looked it up’ in my noggin.

I love words and I love writing. I also love craft and craftspeople. But writing – any writing – takes skill and, crucially, knowledge. Even a bit of academic knowledge.


So here’s one for you copy warriors:


1.  Do you know three words that end in ‘eity’? What are they?

2.  What’s the definition of the ‘subjunctive’? And one example of its use?

3. Is ‘an hotel’ right or wrong? If you think it’s right, please explain why.

4. Should there be an apostrophe in ‘Mothers Day’ (sic)? If so, where and why?

5. ‘It’s just semantics’. Is this ever true?

6. Is there a difference between a hobo and a panhandler? No cheating please.

7. Deixis. Explain what this is in a few words. Like I say: no cheating.

8. Apostrophe use. Is it grammar or punctuation?

9. What’s a gerund?

10. In terms of grammar, please give an example of the imperative.

11. What is bathos? Clue: no need for soap or a loofah.

12. Internet. Uppercase ‘i’? Yes or no? If yes, can you explain why you think so?

13. How many trick questions are there in this quiz?

14. How do you define a trick question?

15. Do you need to know any of this stuff to write good copy for marketing, advertising or PR?

16. “Brevity is always best.” True or false?

17.  Have you used Google, Wikipedia or any website or book yet?

18. “Pedantry is not the same thing as a love of language”. True or false?

If you got the correct score (I’ve no idea what that is), then you got full marks or an A or whatever. Well done.

Are you sure you didn’t look at that new internet thingy on computers?

Either way, please see me.

In the pub.

We can have a word-off.

Or just a drink and half an hour’s silence…

I could do with a rest.

If you really would like the answers to these questions, tweet me @jonstart or email me:


When I recently asked myself which TV ads from the last thirty years had made a lasting impression on me and why, three ads immediately sprang to mind. Weirdly, all three were in black and white and they were all significant to me for the same reason. Read More »

Curry World. Pizza World.

Aunty Jane used to live in Stockwell. When we went to visit, I always looked forward to walking past the brilliantly named:

‘Curry & Pizza World – The Best of Both Worlds’.

Of course, in many respects, it was an absurd, messy proposition. Certainly no prissy pizza producer or self-respecting curry chef would likely want to find him or herself working there.  But the customers loved it: you want a Margarita, your brother wants a Chicken Jalfrezi, Pauline has Rogan Josh, and Granny will always go for a Quattro Stagioni. Brilliant; everyone is taken care of, no one gets left out.

Curry & Pizza World had looked at their potential customers, what they wanted, and decided there was a niche; a rich seam that they could tap. As a result, they did a roaring trade. Maybe they still do.

In 1990, Chrysler, GM and Ford had combined revenues of about $250bn.

They employed over a million people, and their total market capitalisation was around $36bn.

In 2012, Google, Facebook and Apple also had revenues of about $250bn. They employed just 130,000 people.  And their market capitalisation was $790bn.

I’ve written a lot about the pressure, disintermediation and commoditisation wrought on Western business by both the rise of Asia and the explosion of digital. But nothing, for me, has brought that macropicture to life as vibrantly as these Detroit vs Silicon Valley statistics: three companies that, in 1990, either didn’t exist, or – like Apple – were a bit of a joke, enjoying more than 20 times the market cap of their long-established Motown counterparts.

They’re overvalued, of course. But that isn’t the point.  The point is that the iterative, focus-on-efficiences, refine-and-hone model that was for years the supposed source of competitive advantage for corporations and their senior  executives alike – ‘Operational Excellence’ – has now reached a tipping point where it offers only ever-diminishing returns.

The car industry is a fabulous example, but there are countless others besides.

Because of this, businesses in the West have to reinvent themselves; fundamentally, relentlessly.

Here’s the good news. That reinvention ain’t gonna come from the ‘tried and tested’ methodologies of the big management consultancies.  Those methodologies have been tried, been tested (not least by Detroit-based automobile businesses). Fresh thinking isn’t what the consultancies do.

It is, of course, with differing degrees of success, what agencies think they do – and so it should come from them. But agencies are not, typically, particularly switched on when it comes to really understanding strategy (despite talking about it endlessly), and certainly not when it comes to charging for the stuff – indeed often they give it away, in order to get the TV campaign, the website, the DM, whatever.

The real difference to clients will be made when grown-up, credible thinkers take needle-moving ideas to corporations; providing them with the fuel and the know-how for real, tangible and much-needed change – and crucially without the institutional expectation that such assistance will always, necessarily manifest in some sort of classic external advertising or marketing campaign.

That’s what the corporations want, and that’s certainly what they need. So that’s what we should supply.

Just like Curry & Pizza World.

Simply, Better

ballet shoesLast week, I went to the ballet and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. I love the ballet. It is not about the grace (and it is graceful) or the beauty (and it is beautiful); it is the effortlessness with which the dancers execute moves of tremendous strength, often in synchrony with many other dancers. It never ceases to amaze or surprise me. Among my many hobbies, I am a yoga teacher in training. I know (or at least can guess) just how much effort must be going in to making that hard work effortless and into making the difficult look simple. But it is all the better for looking so simple and so effortless.

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Jesus Games.

We don’t really do religion in our family.

Indeed, the catch-all, non-denominational, multi-faith, woefully inaccurate moniker that we afford to all religions is ‘Jesus Games’.

Some people like to go and play Jesus Games on a Sunday, some on a Saturday, and some on a Friday.

We don’t.

But as easy as it is for us heathens to take potshots at religion, as marketers there’s a huge amount to admire.

Purpose. Amongst all the abject bullshit spouted about ‘purposeful’ brands these days, here’s some that indisputably are. Religions know, to Simon Sinek’s point, ‘why’ they exist and, as a result, their employer brands are to die for. Literally, sometimes.

Visual Identity.  The redacted, nuanced sophistication of the cross is so powerful it is uncanny – the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost all neatly encapsulated in one infinitely reproducible shape. The ancient symbolism of the Seder plate would put a Michelangelo to shame, and – whilst the use of symbols is prohibited in Islam – there is no denying the importance of (easily recognisable) geometry in Muslim architectural expression.

Storytelling. Religions know how to spin a good yarn.  This week’s Freak-The-Kids-Out includes either a zombie or the ‘Angel of Death’ depending on how much ‘Jesus’ you like with your ‘Games’. And in 8 short months’ time, we can look forward to the self-styled ‘Greatest Story Ever Told.’ However bizarre, these stories have endured, and they work on many different levels. No mean feat.

Tech. Leveraging the latest technology has always been a strength. The printing press enabled, for the first time, scalable storytelling: the Bible, the Qu’ran. And the advent of television ushered a whole new cadre of telegenic, sparkly-eyed ‘GamesMakers’; from the Tora Bora caves to the churches of middle America.  As a result, the stories have gone viral.

Integrated. Above-The-(Tree)Line spires and minarets are visible in our landscapes, and – consciously or otherwise – remind us of the various ‘brand promises’, whilst the DM that pours through the letterbox is seemingly as endless as His Love. There’s sonic branding, in the form of song, and – for the really dedicated – ‘uniforms’ to ensure you can stay bang on-message 24/7.

All of which perhaps gives food for thought in our world  - courtesy of those who believe in the next.

Happy Easter. And a Healthy Passover.

The Trust Trap strikes again

Last week, we were treated to another one of those surveys, listing Britain’s most trusted brands.  This time, the top 3 positions were held by the AA, the Post Office and Boots.  All famous names, to be sure, and all companies full of integrity.  So no doubt we should congratulate them for this momentous achievement.  But perhaps our praise should be somewhat muted.

You see, all the empirical evidence suggests that trust alone is actually a pretty poor predictor of commercial success.  The truth is that trust is clearly necessary for success but not nearly sufficient.  In fact, I’ve long believed that placing too much emphasis on this metric can actually be positively unhelpful, as it can lull executives into a false sense of security, suggesting that everything is well when it is not.

A much more telling measure is “brand fame”.  As Les Binet and Peter Field noted in their seminal 2007 work for the IPA (“Marketing in the Era of Accountability”), this is “not the same as awareness: it is a perception of authority in the category rather than a state of knowledge”.  According to Binet and Field’s exhaustive analysis, brands which adopt “brand fame” as a key metric are significantly more likely to report very large effects on sales and market share than those who pursue other measures (including “trust”).

Many other studies point to the same conclusion: that brands succeed where they have energy, drive and salience.  While the specific terms used may differ from one report to another, these are all forward-looking, positive dynamic descriptors – not just the retrospective absence of a negative.

So while we applaud last week’s winners, perhaps we shouldn’t trust trust too much.



How mobile is driving the native revolution

Piers North is strategy director at Yahoo


Native advertising is one of the buzz words of the moment and it generally provokes one of two reactions. Either a sense of confusion, or the feeling that it’s an over-hyped phrase which is just a new way of describing what we do already – creating advertising which is relevant to the editorial experience. Read More »

The Agile Consumer: new attitudes

Chris Chalk is global chief strategy officer at Cheil Worldwide


One of the most interesting discussions at Adweek Europe last week was around ‘agility’ and what it means for businesses, brands and agencies. We’ve been tracking the agile consumer for some time and believe they will fundamentally change the way we work as marketers and communicators. Read More »

Jefferson in Paris

I took one of my sons to Paris this weekend.

We had a good time.

But I was struck by the sheer volume of tourists in the city centre; many more so, it felt, than here in London.

Some say the centre of Paris is prettier than the centre of London. That may or may not be true. What is true is that physically Paris has changed a lot less than its British counterpart in the last 150 years.

Pyramide and Pompidou notwithstanding, Baron Haussman’s grand vision is remarkably intact, and so consequently attractive to tourists that, at times, the city can feel like one big theme park.  Irony upon irony then, that the uniquely French  ‘exception culturelle’ and so the concomitant instinct to preserve has in fact led to Paris’ Disneyfication. Quelle horreur!

London, on the other hand, is dirty and gritty, emanating not so much from a fastidiously planned top-down approach, but from the bottom-up. The result is, admittedly, not always pretty, but it is diverse.

And it’s not just in architecture or town-planning where we see this difference.

The French tendency to dirigisme extends to fashion (compare London’s embracing of ‘the street’ with Paris’ haute-couture), cuisine (it might well be the best in the world, but it has to be prepared – and consumed – according to a very strict formula; don’t dare order anything other than a Sauternes with your foie gras), wine (look at how silly the Aussies made the French look when they started labelling wine by the grape, as opposed to terroir); the whole kit and caboodle.

This goes deep – to each nation’s understanding of the rule of law, and nature of freedom. The underlying tenet of the common law of England and Wales is an assumption towards things being permissable unless they have previously been expressly prohibited. In France, and indeed most of the rest of the continent, informed first by Roman law and then the Napoleonic Code, the starting point is a list of things one cannot do. A nuanced, but hugely important, distinction.

For creativity, all of this has a profound impact.

Not only does the relative uniformity produced by France’s dirigisme rob creative minds of the diversity that inspires but also the implicit green light of individual empowerment that a bottom-up culture offers; the basic, instinctive freedom to express at every level of society.

I don’t hate France, or the French. I speak the language and spent a lot of my childhood growing up there.  And this isn’t a perfidious Englishman simply taking a cheap shot at the old enemy.

It’s a bona fide, one-time francophile lamenting the needless shackles that for too long have put a nation that once led the way, creatively speaking, in such a bureaucratic bind.

That, and the inexplicable, continued tolerance of these:



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