John Lewis and M&S go toe-to-toe in Christmas ad stakes – but Royal Mail fails to deliver

The heavy artillery of the Christmas advertising barrage formally began over the last few days with both M&S and John Lewis launching their offensives. Both have had wide media coverage, with both sets of senior management being interviewed by various media channels.

The Sunday Times provided insights on both companies with a full page on M&S in the Business section and a three page article on John Lewis in the magazine.

I thought the M&S piece was on balance negative whereas the JLP piece was quite gushing. The headline for the M&S piece was “Bolland puts his faith in Santa” whereas the JLP piece led with “You just know Wills and Kate will kit out the palace with John Lewis stuff”.

The challenge for M&S is the decline in their clothing ranges and a fall in profits; the City analysts are waiting for the curve to flatten and show signs of a turnaround. Further, the observation of the competitive pressures from above and below M&S are both accurate. The Christmas offensive is very important for M&S because a further decline in sales could be difficult for the longer term plan for the brand.

Meanwhile JLP claim 1.2m new customers over the last two years have been tempted to enter a John Lewis store. CEO Andy Street says “They’re younger, more urban, more socially aware, they probably travel the world and have more liberal attitudes”. He goes on to say “We know our customers”.

I think this last point is the key to these two major retail brands. JLP appear to be connected to their core audience whereas M&S have a more difficult problem with a shifting customer base. As the piece suggests in the ST Magazine JLP “has positioned itself in the upper middle market where there isn’t so much competition”.

I’ve suggested in the past that the bulls-eye target audience for JLP is late 30’s, early 40’s professional couples with young children. Their advertising manages to capture emotions via various triggers such as the music tracks they use; not trying to be cool appealing to a young audience – tracks that are probably on the iPods of the customers. It’s now Britain’s second-largest seller of furniture, third-biggest seller of electrical products; half year figures showed in-store sales were up 6.6 per cent and online sales shot past the £1bn mark, a year ahead of schedule.

It is very clear that both M&S and JLP have spent a fortune on TV production, plus a big budget for airtime. Both are class productions and deserve the attention they receive. The obvious question is about effectiveness. M&S is trying to claw back customers whereas JLP is warming up an already pre-disposed audience. They are very different challenges.

I did notice a whiff of arrogance from JLP CEO Andy Street when talking about the brand he suggested John Lewis is “the authoritative voice of Christmas”. I would advise not to be cocky; it isn’t how I see the personality of the brand.

A Christmas PS

Another big production number on TV over the weekend was for Royal Mail. It is my current early turkey for Christmas. To the background of a re-record of The Beatles “All you need is love” (how much did that cost?) we see jolly postmen delivering to smiley, happy customers. Sorry Royal Mail and their agency, just not credible and potentially an own goal.

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