M&S’ advertising rethink will not see it target 'Mrs M&S'

M&S' Christmas ad offers a glimpse into how the brand now wants to talk to customers.

After hiring a new creative and digital agency in Grey six months ago, Marks and Spencer (M&S) is taking its advertising in a new direction, basing its strategy on “attitude”, not age.

The high-street retailer has had its fair share of us and downs in recent years, and while its food business continues to perform strongly, general merchandise is lagging. It’s now one year since chief executive Steve Rowe introduced a five-point plan to reverse its fortunes and, more importantly, reignite passion for the brand among its seven million ‘Core’ customers.

Dubbed ‘Mrs M&S’, this segment was categorised as females aged over 50, but it also needed to go after the 22 million ‘Occasionals’ (aged under-35). However, as Rob Weston, ‎global brand and marketing director at M&S said, “categorisations of 40, 50, and 60-year olds is just meaningless. What matters is the attitude”.

“There will come a time when M&S is going to have to choose someone to represent the brand on a single page, and just by the nature of that we’ll exclude more people than we include,” he explained.

“So you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. If we choose a younger model we get told on social media that we’re forgetting about our core customer. And if we use an older model we get told that we’re reinforcing our 'mumsy' image. That’s a hard thing to break, but it’s what we’re trying to do.”

So how is it getting there? Well, for starters it will no longer split its food and clothing offering and instead the M&S brand in its entirety will be advertised through what it has described as an “attitudinal lens,” rather than trying to target a specific demographic. The belief being that if it can hit on the right message, with the right creative execution, then the brand will transcend any specific age group.

It’s not a revolution, but an evolution that will see it tweak the tone of voice and bring to the fore the 'M&S opinion' in order to start those conversations, rather than simply saying “here’s this year’s must have item”.

Admittedly, this somewhat jars with the pragmatic strategy the business has adopted under Rowe’s five-point-plan. He's promised to completely reshape M&S products, services and experiences based on that ‘Core’ over 50-years old customer.

“Steve [Rowe] lets the experts get on with it. He has given us the freedom within budget to do what we need to do and obviously, like any CEO, will have an opinion but he’s incredibly respectful of the team,” said West. “We do have a clear direction within the business, Steve is doing the right thing to make sure the fundamentals of M&S get sorted and help the different departments grow. But then he’ll give [marketing] the freedom to do what we need to do.”

This is why it’s going for the “attitude”; its ads need to work for the 21-year-old straight out of college but also an older woman who’s shopped there for years.

Seasonal beginnings

West refused to give anything away on exactly how it will materialise creatively, but the first campaign to come from Grey is expected in the coming months.

The benchmark was, perhaps surprisingly, set last year by M&S’ old agency RKCR/Y&R with the ‘Mrs Claus’ Christmas campaign. Voted among the most liked Christmas ads, the TV spot didn’t play on fashion or retail, but focused on a strong female lead (reflective of a year in which women’s rights had dominated the news cycle).

“We got so much right in terms of the collection, the campaign, and the service. It’s a great example of when we get all of the spokes in the wheel working. We need to do that all the time,” continued West.

And doing that consistently, year in year out was one of the main reasons that M&S for the first time brought its creative and digital account under Grey. West said it means the retailer now has a clear shared direction and philosophy for the brand.

“It makes communicating through all of the channels a hell of a lot easier, rather than having other parts of the business second guessing what we’re trying to say. The other thing is that we have one agency able to work the idea through the best channels for us. We don’t have an agency that’s competing with another for its own little piece of the pie. We were keen to get away from that to make sure we get the right answer for the right channel and the right idea. I’m really hoping to use all of our channels to maximum effect.”

That success of which will judged, in part, by whether the brand continues to be the most popular brand among women in Britain. YouGov data for the 52 weeks to January found that M&S had an impression score of +58, ahead of fellow retail favourite John Lewis, which scored +54.

Google's place on the media plan

One media channel that is under the spotlight is Google. M&S was among the major brands that opted to freeze ad spend with the online giant in light of a series of front page articles in The Times detailing how advertising was funding terrorist content.

“Google are taking it incredibly seriously and are going to put a lot of controls in place. And as an advertiser we’ve got to be given the security by Google that we’re going to be safe," West continued.

West said he was “encouraged” by the direction Google's European boss Matt Brittin was taking, although added that “it’s now a matter of them proving that they can deliver”.

“They are moving incredibly fast. The number of conference calls I’m invited on to hear about what they’re doing…its deadline [to come up with a solution] will be self-imposed. They want us back on the books. Equally we want to get going but we’ll wait until we’re sure.”

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Jennifer Faull

Jen Faull is deputy news editor at The Drum with a remit to cover the latest developments in the retail and FMCG sectors. Based in London, she has interviewed major business figures including top marketers from Mondelez, Unilever, Tesco, and Lidl.

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