How Marks & Spencer could fashion a desirable new brand image

The retail world was hit last week with the announcement that Marc Bolland, chief executive at Marks and Spencer, was stepping down after six years in the role.

The news came after “disappointing” results for general merchandise, including clothing, with third-quarter sales dropping 5.8 per cent since last year; and as such wasn't a huge surprise. But what does this mean for the M&S brand? Where does it stand after Bolland’s six year tenure, and what needs to be done to reverse the retailer’s fortunes?

Whatever the problem, it certainly isn’t food. Food has gone from strength to strength, and M&S reported an “excellent” last quarter for food and a record-breaking festive period, with sales up 17 per cent in the Christmas week.

The retailer has always done an excellent job at positioning its food offer as a premium treat to aspire to through attractive communications and clever activations. “Dine In” offers have completely reframed the ready meal, for example. With a focus on top-quality, organic, often British produce, M&S has always kept it simple, sustainable and delicious.

General merchandise, and clothes in particular, is another kettle of fish entirely. Whereas people are proud to buy M&S food and see it as a treat, clothing doesn’t have the same appeal. While many would happily go to M&S for socks, pants and the occasional cashmere jumper, the rest of the confusing fashion line often misses the mark.

Today the brand is, therefore, more divided than ever. While its food offer is seen as premium, British, high quality and aspirational, clothing and other merchandise have failed to gain traction. Whereas shopping at M&S for food is a pleasure, shopping for general merchandise tends to fall in two camps: functional stocking up of the basics or a confusing sift through a series of unclear sub-brands. The few that are fans of M&S clothing tend to keep quiet, seeing it as a place to find a hidden gem but certainly not something to shout about on any sort of aspirational platform (real or virtual).

There is no doubt that from a product perspective, M&S has delivered some fashion hits in recent years: the legendary dusty pink coat of AW13 and last year’s 70s-style suede skirt, for example.

However, focusing just on the occasional hit item isn’t enough to address the wider brand problems surrounding M&S fashion. I’d argue it has both a brand portfolio and also a masterbrand issue. With so many sub-brands to navigate (Autograph, Per Una, Indigo, Classic and so on), the M&S fashion experience is both confusing and disjointed.

M&S could look at reducing the number of sub-brands and instead focus on making the M&S masterbrand more desirable. For example, if its hit fashion pieces were simply M&S rather than ‘Autograph’, it would be a more confident statement for the M&S brand. Right now, it feels like M&S is trying to hide beneath its sub-brands.

To increase the strength of the masterbrand, M&S needs to be clearer about what it stands for at its core. One area M&S has the right to talk about is quality as it has always been part of its heritage and, as proven by its food, when M&S gets it right, it can deliver quality goods at a premium.

To give further differentiation to the quality message, M&S could also dial up its British quality message. The brand has dipped its toe in the Britishness angle through ranges such as the ‘Best of British’ but again, doing this via a sub-brand rather than as an overall masterbrand message isn’t enough to change overall perception of the brand.

Although often in a more luxury space than the high street, M&S could do with looking at the success of other ‘British premium’ brands and then begin to establish what elements of Britishness it feels it can own and begin to weave into its messaging.

When it comes to advertising, M&S should try to address the brand challenges head on, rather than always focusing on a product or a seasonal story. There are many ways M&S could do this. For example, it could even acknowledge the contradictions within its brand overtly, in a tongue in cheek way (much like Skoda did a few years ago). By doing so, it would be tapping in to a real consumer truth, instead of parading ever more products in an innocuous way that doesn’t get to the heart of the matter.

In addition to clarifying the brand strategy, portfolio and messaging, Bolland’s successor, Steve Rowe, should also focus on making sure the in-store experience and product offering lives up to the brand’s enviable heritage and reputation. Today, the experience of the brand defines the brand and right now, I don’t think any customers – even the secret fans – would attest that the M&S in-store experience embodies British quality.

Laura Tan is head of strategy at Brand Union