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The Chung-effect: Can ‘It-girl’ Alexa work on M&S's sales?

Marks & Spencer (M&S) is hoping the star-power of Alexa Chung will boost sales of its ailing clothing division after announcing the fashion favourite will design an ‘Archive’ collection. It’s not the first brand to have leant on her unique ‘It-girl’ status to get people through the door – but the big question for outgoing-chief Marc Bolland is can it work for M&S?

The thinking behind the tie-up is nothing revolutionary. If fashion retailers have learnt anything from the past few years, it’s that one-off designer collaborations work. Look no further than H&M, which has created an annual event out of its ‘Designer Collaboration’ range. Although widely understood to make up a small portion of its overall sales, the marketing buzz they generate is arguably priceless at attracting new shoppers and giving its regular bargain-hungry customers something out of the ordinary.

M&S has (sort of) tried this tact already. It signed up model of the moment Rosie Huntington Whitely in 2012 as a lingerie designer, recently expanding her line into beauty products, but her long association with the brand lacks that “get it now or miss out” quality that now excites high-street shoppers.

The brand got a taste of the Alexa-effect last year after she appeared on a Fashion Week front row in one of its £200 suede skirts. Bolland heralded the limited edition item as “iconic” and tied it to the retailer's first increase in clothing sales in nearly four years.

He clearly wants more of the same.

In wake of the ‘Archive by Alexa’ announcement, M&S saw a surge in buzz on Twitter, according to digital and social marketing agency DF London. People talking about M&S increased by 50 per cent of what’s seen on an average day with a 70 per cent increase in positivity towards the brand.

Most importantly for M&S though, prior to the announcement the main source of positivity towards was conversation around their food range, with their clothing lines attracting negativity for being perceived to be more suitable to an older generation. However, DF London found that the public are now praising M&S for “stepping up its game” by creating the perfect partnership to attract the “wannabe Zoellas” and there’s been a significant increase in a younger female audience talking positively about M&S.

Whether this increase in social share translates into an increase in sales remains to be seen. Philip Slade, managing partner at CP+B London (which recently launched a shopper marketing arm) is skeptical.

“On one level the Alexa Chung M&S link has been a masterful use of PR, cool press shots and a star who is bang on message with comments about how connected she feels to the brand. But long term? Fashion personalities are commodities for hire. Would there have been any more or less coverage if this had been Jigsaw or Fenwick’s?,” he asked.

Mulberry hit fashion’s front pages in 2010 when it named a bag after Chung; she wore it to almost every public event, and shortly after its profits quadrupled. She’s put her name and design talent to AG Jeans, which promptly sold out, and put up-and-coming beauty brand Eyeko on the map with a specially-designed collection.

However, M&S’ problems are deeper rooted than simply needing to build a bit of brand buzz. A 5.8 per cent fall in quarterly sales is unlikely to be solved solely by Chung. If Bolland hopes she will entice a new generation of shoppers through its door, he will have to ensure that it explains why they should stay whilst also catering to the already under-served market of ‘mature women’ it has attracted in the past.

“The M&S dine-in offers are so perfectly styled M&S take on food discounts. It has a halo effect across the whole food offer. Yet M&S fashion has no clear single voice. Alexa Chung is just a tactical fillip. A clearer statement about M&S’s relationship with celebratory as a whole, particularly it’s Britishness would be better. The public gets M&S uses celebrities. What I wonder is do they get why?,” said Slade.

“This is not a unique problem many heritage brands from Gordon’s Gin to Ford have struggled to explain themselves to today’s more informed, better armed shopper. I do personally want to see M&S get its clothing offer right. It’s a heartland brand of our nation. But it got there through simplicity and consistency of a confident message.”

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