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27Sep/1218

Never Knowingly Undersold

Never Knowingly Undersold. This is a slogan that I've puzzled over for some time. If you weren't already aware, it's the John Lewis slogan and it's fairly aggressively pushed, as if it's of vital importance to the brand's strength.

The thing is, I don't see how it can be. For a start, exactly how many people know what this means? Never Knowingly Undersold. What is underselling? A soft sell? Like they don't try to make you buy things too much?

"Never Knowingly..." is a bit of an ambiguous slogan too, isn't it? It's like a bit of a disclaimer: "Well, we didn't knowingly dump all that depleted uranium on a nursery in Baghdad but as it transpired that's what happened. Sorry."

Never Knowingly Undersold. Just ponder those words and their meaning. There are two things - in isolation from John Lewis - that I might assume this meant. The key word is 'undersold'. A derivation, I'd guess, of the verb 'to undersell'.

What meaning might we attribute to this word? If you undersell yourself you don't value yourself sufficiently - or promote yourself in line with your talent or ability. Is John Lewis suggesting that it doesn't (knowingly) undervalue itself? Unlikely. So we can discount that line of reasoning.

Secondly, although I've never heard it used in this context, I'd hazard a guess that undersell might mean to undercut competitors. But is John Lewis really saying that it doesn't (knowingly) sell its goods at a lower price than competitors? Again, this seems so unlikely as to be impossible.

So, what does it mean? I looked it up and, according to John Lewis, it means that John lewis will refund the difference if you see a lower price elsewhere for something you buy in the store. If you consider that 'Never Knowingly Undersold' is prefaced with an elliptical 'We Are Never' then it makes a kinda-of sense - if you're aware of the rather archaic meaning of 'undersold'.

But without this clarification it could actually appear that John Lewis is saying that its own goods are 'Never Knowingly Undersold' - the direct opposite meaning of the actual meaning. Assuming that anyone has got this far in the first place.

What this amounts to, then, is a slogan that is likely to baffle consumers or, even worse, make them believe that John Lewis is a really expensive place to buy their decorative bottles of olive oil with chilis in them.

The slogan used to refer to the John Lewis promise to refund the difference if shoppers found a cheaper price for goods bought in the store elsewhere, but even that isn't true anymore - as of 2011 it will not offer a refund on products for which it provides a longer warranty than High Street rivals which, as it turns out, covers rather a lot of goods sold at John Lewis.

Underlining all of this is a survey from 2003 that found barely half of high-street shoppers could understand what the promise actually meant:

21% of respondents thought that it had the exact opposite meaning than the one intended, and that the company never purposefully charged lower prices than its competitors.

Nearly one-fifth thought that it meant that John Lewis never deliberately charged more than competitors.

The survey found that nine out of 10 people polled would not use the word "undersold" in common usage.

Can any of this add up to a strong marketing proposition? A largely misunderstood slogan that is rather fudged by small print?

Well, John Lewis certainly thinks so as it's made the slogan the keynote of its latest ad. Of course, this being John Lewis, we're legally obliged to blub whenever they come on our TVs and associated devices.

Perhaps the slogan works better in relation to these ads actually. These lengthy, mawkish ads have become the store's stock-in-trade - whatever else you might think of them, they're certainly not undersold.

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  • Sam Hamer

    1 in 10 people commonly use the word “undersold”? They’re either lying or mindlessly quoting the slogan…

  • Sam Hamer

    1 in 10 people commonly use the word “undersold”? They’re either lying or mindlessly quoting the slogan…

  • Youradsareshite

    Bear with me I hope this makes sense (it does in my head).

    A lot of products John Lewis sells other retailers will not, so they will have a brand for example WMF lots of shops sell WMF, however the stock sold will be different, John Lewis will have ranges A-L and House of Fraser will have M-Z, you will not find two products the same because HoF will not be allowed to sell the same stock as JL. The same goes for TV’s, computers, handbags…

    • rabbit

      pffffff!!! what on earth are you banging on about? “I hope this makes sense.” NO! It really really doesn’t! I can’t even work out what youre trying to say!

      • You sound really angry. I’m glad I’m not your friend.

  • Youradsareshite

    Bear with me I hope this makes sense (it does in my head).

    A lot of products John Lewis sells other retailers will not, so they will have a brand for example WMF lots of shops sell WMF, however the stock sold will be different, John Lewis will have ranges A-L and House of Fraser will have M-Z, you will not find two products the same because HoF will not be allowed to sell the same stock as JL. The same goes for TV’s, computers, handbags…

    • rabbit

      pffffff!!! what on earth are you banging on about? “I hope this makes sense.” NO! It really really doesn’t! I can’t even work out what youre trying to say!

      • You sound really angry. I’m glad I’m not your friend.

  • Tenpasenta vicar

    My friend with tourettes never knowingly says cunt to his Grandma, but it happens.

  • Tenpasenta vicar

    My friend with tourettes never knowingly says cunt to his Grandma, but it happens.

  • The Lizard

    It is really a case of shit grammer :
    “We are never knowingly undersold” makes sense of it I think.
    I used to ask my mother what the lazy slogan meant when we had coffee at Peter Jones in Sloane Square. I do not recall getting a clear answer from her. All she had to say is that no-one sells it cheaper. Mabe she did not really understand the meaning of the shit grammer -who does?

  • The Lizard

    It is really a case of shit grammer :
    “We are never knowingly undersold” makes sense of it I think.
    I used to ask my mother what the lazy slogan meant when we had coffee at Peter Jones in Sloane Square. I do not recall getting a clear answer from her. All she had to say is that no-one sells it cheaper. Mabe she did not really understand the meaning of the shit grammer -who does?

  • Paul C

    So they’ll refund the difference if it’s cheaper elsewhere? Hmmm… John Lewis own Waitrose, the most ridiculously overpriced supermarket in the western hemisphere. There must be a way of cleaning up here and taking them for THOUSANDS….

  • Paul C

    So they’ll refund the difference if it’s cheaper elsewhere? Hmmm… John Lewis own Waitrose, the most ridiculously overpriced supermarket in the western hemisphere. There must be a way of cleaning up here and taking them for THOUSANDS….

  • The Ad Hater

    I was in John Lewis the other day and I saw a Wii priced at £219.95. Considering that most places now charge around £80 for one of these consoles, that is insanely OVERPRICED! ‘Never Knowingly Undersold MY ARSE’ more like!

    • samsite

      So the point is you can buy it there and then claim a refund for the difference if you see it cheaper somewhere else

  • The Ad Hater

    I was in John Lewis the other day and I saw a Wii priced at £219.95. Considering that most places now charge around £80 for one of these consoles, that is insanely OVERPRICED! ‘Never Knowingly Undersold MY ARSE’ more like!

    • samsite

      So the point is you can buy it there and then claim a refund for the difference if you see it cheaper somewhere else

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