Martin George knows brands, marketing, and, above all, customers. His career spans more than 30 years as a customer experience and brand innovator. And he’s no stranger to firsts and breakthroughs. Years ago, George led the team at British Airways that introduced the first lie-flat beds in business class — today an industry standard, but at the time a radical customer-led innovation.
Of course, the bigger the breakthrough, the greater the internal resistance. “Many people thought we were utterly mad. Putting beds into business class had never been done before. I remember there being massive resistance, but the customer voice helped push that through.”
Today, as Customer Director at Waitrose, one of Britain’s largest grocery retailers, he relies on that same customer — and employee — voice to create thoughtful change inside the company.
Waitrose is part of the John Lewis Partnership, the UK’s largest employee-owned retail business that also includes Britain’s beloved department store, John Lewis. The brands “have carved out a powerful bond with customers, both of which have unveiled big innovations in branding, merchandising, and e-commerce,” writes Fast Company co-founder Bill Taylor in a January, 2018 piece for Harvard Business Review. With nearly $14 billion in annual revenues, and profits that exceed $630 million, the Partnership, George concurs, “has been the absolute foundation of the organization since its inception. It is incredibly powerful.”
As Customer Director, George dedicates most of his time to customers, talking to them in-person and online to understand what they think about Waitrose — what’s working, what’s not, and ideas to make it better. He also spends time with colleagues (who are extremely passionate because they own the business) — discussing their ideas, understanding their perspectives, and learning and what they, too, have heard from customers.
That closeness, George insists, is the biggest difference between being a Customer Director and a traditional marketer. His role is to ensure that the customer’s voice is heard and acted on at all times. “It gives me and my team license to get involved in any conversation about anything and make sure it’s customer-focused,” he explains. Whether that’s making changes to an IT system or rethinking the way products are arranged on store shelves, “We try and create a line of sight into everything we do in the business and every investment we make, and what it means for customers. I think that is an important difference from what you might see is a classic marketer.”