A mark-maker discussion on the John Lewis/Waitrose and Debenhams rebrands

Here at mark-making* we know a thing or two about branding and the recent Debenhams and John Lewis rebrands did not go unnoticed by the mm* team, sparking quite the discussion.

Given the current precarious nature of the UK high street, the fact that two of the biggest players, Debenhams and John Lewis have invested in their branding is a clear indication of how valued branding is as an effective business tool in challenging customer perceptions and helping to keep a competitive edge. We were particularly interested in the Debenhams and John Lewis/Waitrose rebrands and the implications they have for their future.

(If you missed all the hype, firstly, where have you been? Secondly, check out Debenhams’ and John Lewis’ new branding.)

Here are some thoughts from the mm* team on the rebrands so far:

First impressions on the rebrands?

Em W: We talk a lot about brand purpose and I think the recent new campaigns/rebrands convey the reality of evaluating whether what you’re saying and doing stacks up to what your business needs and does.

What I find particularly interesting about these rebrands is that they’re reinforcing their heritage and looking back to what they had set out to do.

As Harry Pearce suggests they’re ‘bringing a semi-buried story to the surface’.

Sometimes we are so focused on finding the ‘new’ we forget about restoring and re-shaping what is already there.

Fran: Whilst John Lewis has looked to their past to evolve and inspire their future, reinforcing their values and commitment to their partners, Debenhams appears to have taken a very progressive foot forward – leaving their unchanged identity of 20 years firmly in the rearview mirror in a bid to introduce a ‘modern and approachable twist to the store’s 200-year-heritage’.

So did ‘Do a bit of Debenhams’ succeed? Or has Debenhams missed the mark?

Fran: To me, Debenhams’ new identity seems somewhat superficial. I didn’t understand their values before – what they strived to bring to the market, or even who their intended audience was? And whilst I can’t deny that the brand’s new identity certainly carries the ‘pizzazz’ of the more modern twist it undeniably needs, it’s lack of substantiation across its touchpoints (bar its website and a few social media posts) still leaves me with many of the questions I had before.

Em W: I’ve never been a fan of Debenhams, and I can’t help but feel that this new campaign, whilst fantastically executed, is a glamorous, well-considered front to mask the less favourable reality of the in-store experience and rest of the brand. It’s a credit to the agency team in campaign delivery, they’ve evidently brought much-needed energy and vibrancy to a fading brand, but I just can’t believe that this marketing injection will give them the longevity they need.

Hannah: For me, the Debenhams rebrand, on the face of it, is less rooted in strategy and more cosmetic. Don’t get me wrong, it looks great, it’s playful and fun but currently doesn’t sell ‘social shopping’ to me and ultimately, even if it did, I’m not convinced that’s what people actually want? I’d much rather try on a new dress in the comfort of my own home than in the glaring lights of a changing room…and I’d prefer to see my friends at brunch than on the shop floor laden with bags. So my question is: did they get the ‘joy of shopping’ positioning right?

Is there potential for Debenhams to come through?

Fran: Possibly. There are announcements of phased rollouts across touchpoints and complete store redesigns to ‘reinvent the shopping experience for customers’, but it feels like they’ve missed an opportunity to really engage and set the tone of the experience that consumers can hope to have with the brand in the future. (An opportunity that John Lewis has seized with both hands.)

Hannah: I’m not convinced…but I’m happy for Debenhams to change my mind.

Laura: Without any real substantiation, this rebrand feels more like a campaign. But good luck to them, I hope for the benefit of the UK retail market that they have success with it.

What about ‘John Lewis & Partners’ and ‘Waitrose & Partners’, did they get it right?

Laura: I couldn’t understand why John Lewis would need to rebrand: their stores are inviting, their offering and position in the market seemed clear, they provide good service and, generally, people seem to enjoy the experience of shopping there, whether that be online or in-store.

To quote Jim Prior:

‘It feels like an expensive way to announce what we already know’.

But then when I considered the rationale and reflected on the message, I realised that maybe they don’t need a traditional reason to rebrand, they need to continue doing what they do best and remain authentic to who they are. And maybe the genius of this whole thing is actually to ‘announce what we already know’ loud and proud.

Hannah: I find it surprising that John Lewis hasn’t previously emphasised one of their key points of difference: that all employees are automatically a partner (an idea set up by its founder in 1929). All in all, I think it works – as a consumer, I feel warm & fuzzy towards their philosophy. It’s backwards-looking (but not holding them back) and forward-thinking (not just heritage for heritage’s sake). The fact that the initiative is part of the brand’s heritage gives it a genuine authenticity – something that might seem like a cheap trick if it was a new idea.

Tom: Has the John Lewis novelty started to wear thin with anyone else – or is it just me? Don’t get me wrong, very few brands come close to conveying a heartfelt story that manages to excite and allure consumers to believe in a brand, as John Lewis has for numerous years now. Yet, using an emotive advert during the Bake Off (could it get any more British) to announce a rebrand and reassert their positioning amongst other department stores, well that felt like a step too far given the recent profit and jobs cut headlines.

At first glimpse, I was quick to dismiss the rebrand. Days later the full case study was revealed. and I soon bought into it. Who’d have thought an in-depth rationale – not forgetting those silky mock-ups of transport livery and typography cast into concrete – could convert a designer so rapidly! Pentagram has managed to unify a coherent identity and, through enabling ‘& Partners’ to become more prominent, given extra truth and value to a brand that is already so well respected.

Restraining from playing with a typeface that has stood the test of time was a decision I felt worked, especially where the trend of major brands seems to be producing custom typeface, believing they display ‘more personality’. Adopting a monochrome colour palette for John Lewis and enhancing the options at Waitrose works as well individually as it does collectively.

Yet, I’m left questioning whether Pentagram played it safe, for a project that was three years in the making it appears to blend in with its main competitors. I can see how the prominent line-based graphics device used to highlight text and imagery creates patterns and shapes unifying the brand and formed a flexible system, but I’m slightly underwhelmed. Did it need a little more of the energy that’s portrayed in its packaging design? Or maybe crops of giant letterforms instead of the heavy bar patterns would have formed a more unique and ownable visual language?

Perhaps then it’s not just the execution, but the delivery that has frustrated me. A few weeks prior to the John Lewis Partnership, Fashion house Burberry revealed a massive overhaul of their identity. Avoiding a multi-million-pound empowering advert, they instead opted to share a dialogue between prestigious designer Sir Peter Saville and Burberry creative chief Riccardo Tisci on Instagram.

What would make these rebrands a success?

Fran: My whole career has focused on customer service and experience, so it’s no surprise that I’m really interested in how consumers experience a brand in every sense across each point of engagement.

From the website to the shop floors, the Christmas TV ad to a loyalty card, the email to the individual service of every sales exec – a brand manifests and expresses itself through all of these. To deliver an experience that is authentic, it’s imperative that brands like John Lewis and Debenhams achieve consistency across all points of engagement, so I’m really intrigued to see how this is delivered by both brands.

What are the implications of the success or failure of the rebrands?

Em W: What we can’t ignore for all these rebrands is the fundamental business requirement for them to do this. With House of Fraser narrowly avoiding administration, well-documented store closures for M&S and continuing redundancies across brands – retail still has a bleak outlook.

So what can we look out for over the coming months?

There are mixed feelings among mark-makers on the rebrands; the new Debenhams branding, in particular, has been met with a rather sceptical response. The reception of the John Lewis/Waitrose rebrand has generally been more favourable among the team (slightly less so with Tom).

But I think it’s worth bearing in mind our existing biases regarding Debenhams may be influencing how we are viewing their rebrand and have us condemning them before they’ve had the chance to execute their rebrand fully.

Likewise, the more positive engagement with John Lewis (even Tom admitted that John Lewis is, and will remain, his department store of choice) cannot help but create a more favourable view of John Lewis’ rebrand over Debenhams’.

In fact, if you looked at the rebrands without any preconceptions about either company, then the two brands might appear completely different: John Lewis would probably feel the colder of the two, and Debenhams, with its more editorial approach, the warmer and more welcoming.

Perhaps, we do need to put our preconceptions aside, quash our scepticism and reserve judgement for a little longer…just until these rebrands have played out.

Our expert opinions aside, only time will tell whether these rebrands come off or not.

With the most important time of the year for retail fast-approaching (inwardly cringing at referring to Christmas being so soon in September), these next few months could potentially make or break many high street stores.

As Cristofoli from Debenhams says:

‘At times like this my firm belief is you’ve got to come out fighting and that’s what we’re doing… let’s signal the change and say to consumers, “we’re not standing down, we’re coming out confident and believing in what we’re doing”. Because fundamentally we believe what we’re doing is the right thing’.

It will be interesting to see how Debenhams and John Lewis/Waitrose fare over the Christmas period and whether their rebrands lead them to success…or not.

About markmaking*

mark-making* is an award-winning creative agency specialising in branding, campaigns and communications