Can participation in a TV show be beneficial to a retailer’s image or is it a gamble that can do long-term damage?

Within weeks of the 1999 Back to the Floor episode featuring Sainsbury’s boss Dino Adriano being broadcast, he had quit as chief executive.

Portraying him smashing jars and struggling with the tills, Adriano’s experience of reality TV did nothing to improve his image as an accountant without supermarket experience.

In the past year, Sainsbury’s has taken the plunge into documentaries again with Channel 4’s I’m Running Sainsbury’s series, and more recently John Lewis opened its doors to a TV crew for the BBC2 three-part documentary Inside John Lewis.

So is the free publicity and chance to communicate with millions of viewers worth the risk of giving the cameras unfettered access to your operation?

John Lewis head of press and PR Helen Dickinson explains that while she had reservations about doing the show, she was won round by John Lewis managing director Andy Street, who was sure it would be a good thing.

She explains: “It is fair to say a lot of us were very sceptical about it - but I did trust the producer.”

Dickinson says that Street made the decision to do the show and she feels his reasoning for taking up the offer has proved to be correct; Street said that he understood the show needed to be warts-and-all, but as any warts John Lewis had were so small that it would not be a problem.

For Sainsbury’s, its TV opportunity allowed it to show its customers an initiative that was taking place in the business anyway. Cheryl Kuczynski, a spokeswoman from the grocer’s press office, explains: “We didn’t want to do something contrived.” The Tell Justin initiative had already been planned and Sainsbury’s discussed it with the programme’s producers to take it on further, resulting in an employee scheme where chosen ideas would involve the idea’s originator all the way through their development.

She adds: “We thought it would be a good idea, as people are interested in how the supermarket works, to let them have a look through the back door.”

Across the pond, 7-Eleven boss Joe DePinto recently appeared on an episode of the CBS TV show Undercover Boss and successfully worked incognito in several stores, with the view being that he had positively raised the profile of the convenience retailer and everything it offers. But other businesses that have appeared on that series - notably chain restaurant Hooters and ecommerce services provider GSI Commerce - did not come away from it so well.

Quality control

Sainsbury’s says that it regularly gets requests from media organisations that want to do different projects with the company. And Dickinson agrees that John Lewis too is often approached.

She says: “We do get asked about the possibility of doing this all the time, but it tends to be buying rather than the whole operation - ie, they want to trace a product all the way to the shopfloor.

“We are also quite often asked to consider design competitions,” she continues, but explains that this could cause quite a lot of logistical problems as the winning entries would have to be sold in its stores.

Dickinson admits that the series John Lewis chose to be involved with could not be entirely planned, but says: “They put together an almost imaginary series of three programmes - so we could explain the style of the film to the chairman and management board. What came out was not entirely different from that which we imagined.”

Although John Lewis had no editorial control, Dickinson was given an advance screening of each episode once it had been edited and before it was aired. She explains that this was so she could correct factual inaccuracies, and could argue the case for the removal of anything she deemed completely inappropriate or too sensitive. Dickinson notes that the production team did listen but that it could not be compelled to remove anything just because she didn’t like it.

Alan Treadgold, head of retail strategy at marketing agency Leo Burnett Group, has advice for other retailers thinking of opening themselves up to the TV cameras: “The question to be asked is how comfortable you are in revealing everything about yourself - you can’t be prescriptive. If you don’t [reveal everything] there is a sizeable perception risk that consumers will think you have things to hide.

“In the case of John Lewis I thought that it was a good and appropriate thing for it to do. I think shoppers are interested in knowing about the businesses they engage with.”

He adds that John Lewis’s customers tend to be well informed on the business’ values, and will understand that the business sometimes has to take tough decisions. “If you feel that as a business you are making decisions ethically then there is an upside in having the confidence to show that.

“Customers are generally interested in the policies and practices of the businesses they support,” he adds.

Kuczynski agrees: “The viewer is our customer hopefully. We considered it a great way of communicating with our customers. We get asked so many questions about what products go on the shelf, etc, and thought it would be a good way to show them.”

For the John Lewis series, the programme makers were looking for characters to follow, so they did not know in advance of the start of filming who would make for entertaining TV.

“Hundreds and hundreds of partners were interviewed. Some were interviewed and then changed their mind, and that was absolutely no problem,” explains Dickinson.

Stories such as the fashion offer going online, or director of marketing Craig Inglis dealing with the retailer’s Christmas advertising were created off the back of the strength of the characters involved, and woven into the overall story of the Cardiff store opening.

The programme was well received internally at John Lewis. “Feedback has outstripped our expectations,” says Dickinson. “We have heard that it was motivational for a lot of partners.”

In particular she explains that it has been positive for partners in stores to see so much of Street, and see his personality as well as having him explain a lot about the business. She adds that they would normally only see him maybe once every six months when he comes to their individual store.

Kuczynski agrees that the experience was also a morale booster at Sainsbury’s. “We kept people involved with what was happening. Anecdotally, colleagues were really interested in watching it - it was a water-cooler moment.”

John Lewis believes its show has also provided a sales boost. “Sales figures are running about 20% up, although we had weak comparatives it is still good trade,” explains Dickinson, adding that she can’t believe the programme hasn’t had an effect on sales, and not just in the new Cardiff store, but across the chain.

In particular, there has been an uplift in sales of certain categories shown. “We have had a huge increase in the sales of fitted kitchens,” points out Dickinson, saying that many customers didn’t realise that John Lewis sold them before watching the show.

She adds: “The two things I am delighted the documentary has done is shown that the fashion offer has moved on miles, and second shown that the business is modern and vibrant - not soft.”

And Sainsbury’s says that customers called and emailed its customer care team, as well as talking to staff in stores, off the back of I’m Running Sainsbury’s, as they felt quite passionately about the new business ideas presented.

However, Treadgold says retailers that try to push marketing or other publicity initiatives around a TV programme they participate in may well find it backfires. “I think you shouldn’t push that too hard. Letting the customer find out new information about you themselves is more effective than building a PR and marketing campaign around the programme.”

Of course, the TV programme itself can generate negative publicity.

John Lewis has witnessed some fairly uncomplimentary TV reviews. One repeated comment was that the series had come across as an advert for the retailer. But Dickinson says: “I think they were a bit hard on the BBC - they filmed what was there. I thought it was rather harsh saying it was too favourable as they were able to film what they wanted.”

Treadgold agrees that the TV reviews a retailer’s programme might receive can be the principal downside, but they are unlikely to be anything worse than you would see reported about the company in other media. And he believes that if you are getting a hard time in the press then doing this kind of programme can actually be helpful to putting across your point of view.

Despite the press criticism, John Lewis appears to be pleased with the publicity its show has generated. Meanwhile, as Sainsbury’s two quite different experiences prove, picking the right opportunity, and featuring the right staff members, can make all the difference.

Inside John Lewis: What the critics said

“At one of the very few moments where the presence of a film crew threatened to be revealing - when Mr Street was rehearsing for a press conference and took an unexpected question about redundancies in the solar plexus - the cameras were obligingly turned off at his request. And elsewhere the highlights consisted of… a woman excitedly recalling the arrival of the first multi-decker lorry into the new Cardiff branch loading bay. ‘I felt quite emotional about it,’ she confessed. Strangely, I didn’t, but I was touched by the quixotic and vulnerable idea that fairness and equity should be part of a company’s spreadsheet.”

TV review from The Independent

“Inside John Lewis was an hour-long promo for the Never Knowingly Undersold commercial commune whose unique selling point is that everyone who works there is ‘a partner’ and gets a share of the profits… But though the theory was mildly interesting, Inside John Lewis was deadly dull, unless shopping strategy is your particular bag.”

TV review from Metro.co.uk

“There is an interesting programme about the forces at war within and outwith John Lewis - capitalism versus ethics, conservatism versus innovation, compromise versus commitment to an ideal that is increasingly difficult to sustain - struggling to get out here, signalled by the occasional presence of economics lecturer Dr John Thanassoulis. Perhaps it will emerge over the next couple of weeks. At the moment, however, apart from the amusing customer vignettes, it is in large part amiable puff.”

TV review from The Guardian

“Getting this access to John Lewis was a golden opportunity, but the programme wastes it. The focus on the recession and how John Lewis launched a new ad campaign is totally missing the point. It does not get to the heart or soul of the business. It does not explain what makes John Lewis successful, what makes us love John Lewis. I want to know how the buying team choose a John Lewis product, how human resources select a John Lewis employee. In short what makes John Lewis the retail success that it is.”

Mary Portas writing for The Telegraph

“As someone who currently works in John Lewis I can honestly say that the programme gets nowhere close to showing how truly ‘odd’ it is to work for John Lewis. The partners included in the programme are the mildly eccentric ones that are fit for public consumption, the rest of them were kept well away from the cameras. The programme makers must have been fed up by the smell of fresh paint by the time they had finished making the programme.”

Anonymous post on Retail Week’s Retail Day blog

2.1m

Viewers for final episode of Inside John Lewis

9.2%

Percentage of viewers that evening who watched the episode