It is a Sunday night in late September at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham. Fireworks are exploding, lasers are dancing across the ceiling and loud music is pumping out while the crowd of 8,000 goes bonkers. Former Big Brother presenter Davina McCall is making sure of that, constantly whipping them into a frenzy.
By the time a procession has marched through the auditorium, followed by a series of tableaux from the past 150 years and star turns by singers Fyfe Dangerfield, Gaz Coombes and Paloma Faith, the audience is almost beside itself, clapping and shouting and hooting in delirious abandon.
It is not exactly traditional British reserve. But with its references to the Olympic opening ceremony and Apple product launches, topped with a sprinkling of celebs, it clearly appeals and it seems to be a pretty accurate reflection of what the British are about today. Which is exactly what John Lewis comms director Peter Cross was hoping for.
Cross secured one of the plum jobs in British PR when he joined John Lewis in June 2013. One of his first tasks was to organise an event to mark the retailer’s 150th anniversary. The Birmingham staff jamboree was his response. "The question was how to get the organisation behind it and get them excited," he says. "History can be dull, who cares about the past? But the past here set up the company as it is today. I saw it as a big opportunity to engage the partners. I thought that if we can instil a sense of pride then we’ll be set up for the next 150 years."
If that sounds a little like over-claim, it is because the partners (John Lewis employees are partners because they own the business and share all distributed profits) are the foundation not only of the John Lewis brand but also its comms, he explains: "They are in our mind the whole time because the democratic process is so alive here. I call it partner comms and in some ways it is even more important than external comms. In this company so much starts with the partners.
Getting them inspired by our story helps them as storytellers throughout the year.
"Just imagine," he says, "the power of 29,000 articulate, knowledgeable enthusiasts, living, talking and walking your brand values every day."
Cross joined John Lewis from retail consultancy Yellowdoor where he spent nine years as managing partner and minority shareholder alongside Mary Portas of Mary Queen of Shops fame. He gave Portas away as best man at her wedding to her partner Melanie Rickey last year and denies the two fell out: "I generally don’t fall out with anybody. It would be flippant to say it was fine. It is significant when a partner does something else. But she will always be an extraordinary personality in my life and we remain best friends."
If things were going so swimmingly, why did he leave a glamorous consultancy where he had a share of the action for a retailer where he doesn’t even have a seat on the board? "I had done a lot of the sparkly stuff. We had spent 11 years together and done interesting things. Was I looking? No. Could I have worked for another retailer? Probably not. The reason I left was the uniqueness of this brand.
"This role is one of the most interesting in retail comms, first because of the ownership structure. I am genuinely values-driven and it appeals to work in a values-driven business." And, he says, he was also drawn by the breadth of activity in a department store: "I do internal comms, external comms in anything from food to tech to furniture and I also manage corporate comms."
The transition from fast-moving agency life to the more considered environment of a large retailer has not been entirely smooth, however. Last year Cross was suspended without public explanation over what he called at the time "an extremely private matter". He was reinstated soon after following an internal investigation that cleared him of any wrongdoing.
He refuses to comment further, saying only: "What happened last year was an internal matter and I believe it should remain so. Retail has been going through fundamental changes. JL is not immune and that brings challenges."
Reading between the lines it sounds like he came in, sweeping as vigorously as only a new broom can, and was perhaps a little too spiky for at least one of his staff. However, he says it is all over now and he works happily alongside the person involved.
But one can understand the attraction John Lewis held for Cross. It feels like the zeitgeist retailer of the high street. It has not lost its way like Marks & Spencer; it has not become embroiled in scandal like Tesco. It seems to have a very clear idea of what it is and where it is going.
Cross is absolutely right; much of that comes from its heritage. John Lewis has been the preferred supplier of fabrics and homeware to a stratum of stolid middle-Englanders ever since John Sedan Lewis transformed his family-owned business into the John Lewis Partnership in 1929. His vision was of an enterprise where success should be measured "by the happiness of those working at it and by its good service to the general community".
For decades the store attracted largely suburban and Home Counties matrons whose tastes were too demanding for local shops but did not quite reach to the pricier and snootier environs of Harrods and Selfridges. This was a very conscious and deliberate positioning, says Cross. He pulls down a book by John Sedan Lewis from a shelf in our 12th floor meeting room overlooking Westminster Cathedral and reads the great man’s words: "I am very anxious indeed that no shop should make such an impression of wealth and grandeur on such a scale as to make the individual feel uncomfortable." John Lewis was always aiming for the middle middle class.
The fact that it was a social enterprise owned by its employees probably was not an irresistible proposition to the women of middle England. But its ethical stance and shared ownership allowed it the luxury of not maximising short-term profits. That in turn allowed it to make the claim "never knowingly undersold". Now that is an irresistible proposition. It made Middle England feel very comfortable indeed and it secured John Lewis a small but distinctive place in British culture.
"There’s no doubt our customers have a very special relationship with John Lewis. For some it’s connection and empathy; for others it’s about the shopping experience and a sense of trust. Much of it is due to our courteous service ethos," says Cross.
It was in the recent past a little bit sleepy and perhaps a touch Are You Being Served? But John Lewis has changed radically over the past seven or so years, since the current chief executive Andy Street came in. That is reflected in gross sales, which rose 46 per cent between 2008 and 2013, from £2.8bn to £4.1bn.
Setting the pace
True, it is still less than half the size of M&S with its £10.3bn in gross sales. But you can tell the force is with John Lewis, not least from the reaction to recent Christmas ad campaigns. Even more telling is the fact online sales reached £1bn in 2013, nearly a quarter of John Lewis’ total. By comparison M&S online sales were around £800m, less than eight per cent of the total. Who is the modern retailer now, eh?
Somehow John Lewis has managed not only to keep up with the pace of change, but to become the pace-setter. "We call our approach omni-channel retailing. It’s very different from multi-channel. It means our customers use all the channels and they use them seamlessly, 24/7," says Cross.
So some browse online and buy in-store, others browse in store and buy online. Others buy online and pick up from the store. The permutations are many and this has informed how John Lewis communicates, he explains. The company set out to show leadership in its understanding of the new shopper years ago.
"One way we demonstrate this is by using our sales data to paint a picture of modern British life with annual reports called How We Shop, Live and Look.
"So many surveys are based on a survey of 100 people. Journalists want content these days. This is genuine, authoritative, insightful sales data." The point is to position John Lewis as an expert on Britain, he says – although of course it would be very un-John Lewis to actually make that claim.
One thing the reports have shown is that John Lewis customers are a far broader bunch than expected. "They are more male, younger and less affluent than you might think," says Cross. "Forty-two per cent have household incomes of under £30,000."
Another surprising insight is how shopping habits are changing: "We see early shopping, lunchtime browsing on a desktop and then buying with a tablet or mobile. So in the course of the day customers are using different technologies. The really big surprise insight is that over Christmas 2013, mobile traffic overtook desktop traffic for the first time."
Rather than focusing on particular sectors with many different product launches, the report allows comms activity to be focused around one event about future consumption patterns. Cross says: "We established a series of overarching lifestyle trends that people will be doing in the future and the products that you will be buying in each of those trends."
It tells you how Britain will be living next season. It is a different and innovative method of communicating in a much more content-rich way, he argues.
They form key elements of the Christmas campaign, which is of course the centrepiece of JL’s comms calendar. "It is so important to us that it takes nearly a year to put together," says Cross. "We are already talking to the marketing department. Christmas starts publicly in July when JL shares ranges with the public and we give an idea of how the nation will shop. Last year we declared it a click and collect Christmas.
"Then in October we have a dinner for the media that precedes the launch. Two years ago we did a premier that was accused of hype. That is so un-JL that last year we shared it in a series of one-to-one appointments with journalists using an iPad." Tellingly, it was the first time peak downloads came as a result of social media activity rather than the TV.
It may or not be coincidence that John Lewis’ rise seemed to coincide with the disgrace of much of modern business following the economic downturn. How much of the improvement in its fortunes can be attributed to its cosy comforting Englishness and its resolute integrity in the face of a changing world, growing economic hardship and shameful behaviour of financial institutions?
It is a soft question, giving Cross the chance to extol John Lewis’ virtues. Surprisingly he doesn’t. "It would be very un-John Lewis to talk about competitors and other firms," he says. "You may draw those conclusions. We don’t."
There is a John Lewis way of doing things, he explains. It is considered, it is informed and it is humble. Just as John Lewis products are never knowingly undersold, the John Lewis brand is never knowingly oversold, he seems to say.
"It is only in recent years that the company has engaged more fully with the media. PR here was once a phone in a cupboard that nobody dared answer. Social media mean you have to engage. But I hope that people would say we do it in as transparent a way as possible and we try to avoid spin."
There seems to be a contradiction here facing Cross. How do you wave and shout and make a fuss when your brand is about not waving and shouting and making a fuss?
"That’s why I am here," he says. "That’s the dilemma – or brilliantly interesting opportunity. We could just get out there and sell. But that would be very un-JL. If the brand is defined by doing the right thing, then we will continue to do the right thing. It will continue to be our guiding light."