How John Lewis created a brand from just three 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.
A Happy By-product
It was never meant to be this way. That the line "acts as a reminder to all customers of our pricing policy" was a nice side-effect of an internal proposition.
Its "nearly 100 years" existence refers to when John (Spedan) Lewis (the son) first used the phrase internally in 1925. But it didn’t become customer-facing for another 30 years, when it started to appear on vans and livery in the 1950s. Even in the '80s - according to their own timeline - its main purpose was to summarise the pricing policy for their buyers.
Ironically, it’s this pricing policy that causes the main problems for the brand. For a decade or so, the Ts&Cs have been brought out of the small print, raising arguments about online and offline competitors and questioning the definition of value.
As for the phrase itself, 21% of respondents to a 2018 survey thought it meant that the company actively aimed to be more expensive than its competitors. (To clarify for those in the back, it means the exact opposite.)
In our current culture of paranoia - where we greet offers or deals with instant cynicism and won't rest until our mistrust has been ratified - retailers can quickly get themselves wrapped up in the detail. Potentially losing sight of the 'why' by defending the 'what'.
But dealing only with Terms and Conditions readers and dumb survey responders takes you down a path too narrow. Any Price Promise message isn’t really about price, it’s about trust - appealing to those who have better things to do than fight for their 'double the difference'. At its most basic, it is a statement of intent.
Never Knowingly Undersold goes further than just an intent in the area of pricing. It frames John Lewis' entire perspective on the world. They could have emblazoned bags with The High Street's Cheapest. Give or take a caveat, it says pretty much the same thing about their policy. But does anyone think of Posh Shop John Lewis (Daily Mirror) as cheap?
For the average, middle-aged, Middle Englander - of which there are many - the retailer is posher than Marks and Spencer, but less posh than Harrods. Using a John Lewis carrier bag for your Aldi shopping is something rarely done without conscious thought. It's a demonstration of affluence...that is attainable. Arguably there's no other High Street store that has equivalent connotations.
This is where the real value of the phrase comes into play. Put aside the small print and look at the subliminal impact behind each extra word.
The Building Blocks of a Brand
def. at no time, ever.
Strong, definitive and unerring fact. The emphasis on Never overshadows the whispering caveat that immediately follows.
def. with full awareness, deliberately.
Remember, it is the 'knowing' that is 'never' done (not the 'being undersold'). The implication is that staff may enter cheaper stores wearing blindfolds and with fingers in their ears. It is, after all, the knowledge they never have.
The use of Knowingly also adds an elite formality. A perfectly acceptable adverb, that we usually replace with simply "not knowing". Though in literature, it is more commonly seen as one of those unnecessary words used by authors to explain subtext behind a spoken line (he typed, snobbishly).
And then, of course, there is the "word that never was".
def. did sell something at a lower price than (a competitor).
The third-person indirectness would make Undersold feel at home in the mouth of Boris Johnson. It’s not difficult to hear his voice squirming as he shirks responsibility and avoids blame by stating "he may have been undersold on the true nature of the pandemic". It is as though the preposition and verb have been drawn together to act as curtains covering the truth behind them.
If John Lewis really want rid of the phrase, they should pray Johnson uses it.
Until then, the word's strangeness, its lack of use almost anywhere except here, gives it an almost otherworldly formality and its appeal is strengthened by the singularity of its use.
Never Knowingly Undersold
Other retailers are happy to own their versions of grand declarations - "WE won't be beaten on price", "The ASDA low-price guarantee"; "CURRY's Price Promise" - but John Lewis raise themselves above such brash boasting by giving it a wrapper of passivity.
If someone speaks of themself in the third person, they get a slapping. With John Lewis, it seems natural.
So, drawing that together and removing any cause for confusion, it would read something like this.
Their carrier bags are big. But that may be pushing it somewhat.
Never Knowingly Undersold isn't just a slightly punchier way to say this. It isn't just an offer in a headline, a promise of action or a commitment.
Never Knowingly Undersold is an aspiration, a way of thinking, a belief. It isn't telling us what they do, it's telling us what they would like to think they do. It's best intentions.
It says they're nice, polite - typically British - people. And they want to live in a nice, polite - typically British - world.
And who doesn't? (Britishness quarrels aside.)
Treating Never Knowingly Undersold as just a slogan, tagline or product proposition is to misunderstand its true purpose, value and meaning. Derailing it because of the literal issues in the small print or the confusion of the stupid, feels short-sighted and foolish.
If Never Knowingly Undersold really does disappear into brand history, it will be because the stores themselves cease to exist. It is possible we could see them killed by an avalanche of product and taglines.