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Bringing numbers to life

Truth, one of three finalists in the 2013 Prosper Riley-Smith Qualitative Effectiveness Awards, was tasked to help John Lewis develop a customer strategy, "humanising" its customers and making them heroes.

In the beginning

John Lewis holds a privileged place in hearts and minds, prospering in a sector experiencing intense competition and where many struggle just to stand still. Yet standing still is rarely an option. Evolution is essential to survival.

A central part of the John Lewis strategy development process was the creation of an extensive and detailed picture of existing and potential "customers". Moreover, it was imperative that these customers were made tangible and that everyone within the business, from boardroom to shop floor, could engage with and understand them. Growth would be fuelled through richer engagement with customer worlds.

Making humans

On the back of extensive data our question was: "how do we bring these numbers to life"? And as important, "how do we engage partners from boardroom to sales floor"?

The business is rooted in an intuitive understanding of its customer base that has served it extremely well. This intuitive intelligence can also present challenges when potentially differing realities emerge. We needed a process that was illuminating and credible, even among seasoned observers. Perhaps more importantly, we needed a process rooted in a human realness that would be felt, as well as thought, to be "right".

At times it can be easy to forget that people — human beings — remain at the heart of what we do as professionals. As much as we use terms such as "the consumer", "the shopper", "targets" and "loyalists", we should always recognise that real people, with real lives, are central to our work. We set ourselves the twin tasks of making "customers" into real people and of helping JL Partners, from board to sales floor, to be touched, informed and inspired by them.

Multi-stranded ethnographies

We crafted a multi-stranded ethnographic process that fused "skin ethnographies" (face-to-face encounters and immersions), "digital encounters" and "autoethnographies", the last of which are designed to "train" participants to look at themselves in a broader, more multi-faceted way. By including this strand we hoped to encourage participants to become increasingly reflexive and sensitive ethnographers in and of their own lives.

In effect, we sought to create living human icons, with a freshness and realism that would touch lives (and minds) and re-enchant an iconic British brand.

Over 70 people were recruited for pre-stage interviews, each one completing a simple life story one-pager plus a visual personal "dossier". From this base, we selected 16 for deeper ethnographic immersion, trimming these down to a final eight who would receive additional focus and become our John Lewis customer icons.

This group lived the brand for over three months. We asked them to visit stores, think about their experiences and craft their ideals. They filmed themselves, created life-stories, reflected and speculated. Personalities grew and became increasingly tangible and fascinated those to whom we played back their lives. More could be achieved, however. Face-to-face contact with the John Lewis board was the next step.

Out to lunch

We joined the John Lewis board when they met our/their customer icons, a rather surreal occasion. We had played video of their lives to a diverse audience, from the buying directorate to marketing heads and category teams. We had seen and heard "Jamie" talking about the importance of detail and about the way he loved to see his life as an on-going act of curating. Now he sat deep in conversation with a board director discussing what he wanted the future of John Lewis to be like. Another director was in conversation with a mother of young twin girls about how difficult it was to find swimming trunks that were fit for purpose for the "smaller man".

The lunch was a roaring success. Each director came away feeling energised and challenged. Importantly, each of our eight icons had made a lasting impression; their names have become lasting currency and their thoughts and observations have sparked ideas and new ways of thinking. Moreover, the event has added a priceless validation and credibility to the strategic intent. "Our people", the eight icons embraced at the top table, have now been "taken on tour" across the Partnership.

The legacy

Post-lunch, the customer strategy and customer icons were unveiled to the top 100 Partnership executives. The strategy and the segmentation chimed with the assembled business leaders but the strongest connection has come through making the whole process more human. In a business crafted from the ethos of partnership and respect for human qualities, unlocking and presenting the humanity of "customers" brings a wonderful truth and intuitively "right" stickiness.

John Lewis is now rolling out an extensive internal roadshow to all Partners and it has proved to be the "human-ness" of the "human icons" that ignites the desire to do something different. So "our people" have helped lift the strategy out of the boardroom and into the hearts and minds of those who work within the business on a daily basis.

Stories to tell

Our challenge, was to cut through into a deeper realm where our stakeholders felt rather than simply thought and observed. Doing this isn't easy; it can take time Our experience suggests that success also requires the observation of meaningful stories that aid connection.

Creating great stories and unveiling lives in more human ways takes a lot of preparation and planning. While we advocate people as heroes, it is also important to choose those people who are able to become heroes. Thinking about every aspect of the recruitment process, as well as making sure there is room for "failure" to be absorbed, is essential. Finally, we need to think about what it is that makes meaningful connection between people. What are the sparks within our human-ness that make us sit up and take notice? Moreover, what is it that fills us with a sense of belief and, at times, so enchants us that we leave behind once tightly held beliefs?


Mark Thorpe
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2014