How John Lewis created a brand from just 3 words
Back in August 2020, John Lewis announced its plans to "improve and reaffirm" (their) reputation as a "socially responsible" retailer and to "shout more" about its values.
So far, so meh.
This PR-spun guff would usually be ignored by anyone not working in retail or marketing, but here it made headlines in the likes of the Daily Mail and Sun. Why? Because it would also mean the end of Never Knowingly Undersold.
It's tricky to do justice to Never Knowingly Undersold if you try and explain it to someone who has just arrived in the UK. And who has never heard of shops. The August headlines referred to it as a slogan, a pledge, a vow, a promise, a catch phrase (their typo, not mine) and many other derivations. This sort of highlights just how unusual - and powerful - these three words are to the brand. And why we may well see this decision being reversed in a year or so.
You could call it a phrase - an adverbial phrase to be specific - but some may argue its technicality. It isn't a clause because it isn't complete. It's more a 'sentence fragment', but that sounds a bit librarian.
From a marketing perspective, calling it a caption feels too small. Proposition seems too grandiose. Vows, promises and pledges are all too tactical. Slogans are too '80s. Catchphrases are too, well, too Roy Walker.
And that's just looking at the construct.
The words themselves lift the (for sake of simplicity) 'phrase' outside of conversational normality. Other lines exist that may be more famous and that may have stronger brand associations, but they almost always come with an accepted non-capitalised use.
For example, you wouldn’t bat an eyelid if, when dawdling on a task, you were asked to just do it. Or if a charity collector pleaded for your small change because every little helps. You would just about accept the compliment if told you’re worth it.
Now try and think of a similar scenario using never knowingly undersold. Without referencing John Lewis.
Difficult, isn't it?
Never Knowingly Undersold is more than just an associated tagline. Though underlying the words is a simple policy about their pricing - the main reason, one suspects for the retiring of the line is the confusion of the policy details - the words are much more than that.
Never Knowingly Undersold defines the John Lewis brand emotionally. It is the blood flowing through its veins... if we meant the man himself. As it is, maybe it's the Egyptian cotton running through the stitching of its bedsheets.
Removing something so intrinsic will take a lot more than just burning the words from the white and green bags.