John Lewis: Nothing is Certain

2013-0-16

Signs in the John Lewis department store by Oxford Circus assure me that they are "Never Knowingly Undersold." This has been their corporate slogan since 1925, which explains the use of the antiquated "undersold." But what about "knowingly"? Why isn't the slogan simply "Never Undersold"?

One possibility is that it is a kind of mealy-mouthed defense against irate customers. "Sorry sir, we didn't know." (Unlike the US where it is de rigueur, no one in British retail has ever called me "sir"). The fact is, John Lewis is often knowingly undersold (e.g. by online retailers), so the part about not knowing isn't strictly true. In such cases, John Lewis makes use of the fine print they added in 2011. This leaves the consumer in a state of uncertainty, having to speculate on a case-by case basis if the claim is true or false (John Lewis knows, but they are lying to me). If John Lewis simply claimed that they were "Never Undersold," would it be significantly worse?

A second possibility is a lack of confidence on the part of John Lewis in the knowledge of their own products. A Rumsfeldian fear of the unknown prevents John Lewis from taking a bolder stance. In this scenario, the consumer must make a judgement about the accuracy of John Lewis's knowledge. By avoiding the more confident "Never Undersold," John Lewis can expect customers to reciprocate the revealed self-doubt (John Lewis is telling the truth, but doesn't know very much).

Both scenarios generate slightly different kinds of uncertainty. In the first scenario, it is uncertainty about our own expertise. In the second, it is uncertainty over the expertise of John Lewis. In both cases, the inclusion of "knowingly" has seemingly gained John Lewis very little while increasing the level of doubt. In management-speak John Lewis's value-proposition has become confused. A better slogan for John Lewis might therfore be "Nothing is Certain."


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