M&S on how its success at ‘rewiring people’s brains’ for food porn ads could help save its ailing clothing business

Marks & Spencer’s (M&S) global customer director Nathan Ansell is harnessing his interest in the brain and neuroscience as he takes on an extended remit to bring the marketing insights that have driven the success of the retailer’s food division across to its dwindling clothing arm.

The supermarket’s clothing business is in a bad way. Sales have underperformed for 18 of the last 19 quarters as its marketing struggled to resonate with shoppers. That is until now, according to Ansell, who is hard at work on a strategy underpinned by his background in neuroscience. The marketer studied the brain as part of his degree as well as what influences people’s behaviour.

“Every day I think about how the brain works and what it means for [M&S],” he said at Advertising Week Europe. “We’re trying to rewire people’s brains.”

This "rewiring" of how people think about M&S is part of a wider effort from the marketing team to move away from what was once a very basic strategy of “sell more stuff” and towards a more sophisticated and forward-thinking approach.

It's something that required a complete restructure of M&S' marketing department that gave 75 per cent of people new roles and more recently saw Asnell export some of his learnings from food into the clothing division, where sales have continued to fall for 12 out of the last 13 quarters.

The insights have guided the direction of the retailer’s food division over the past five years, including the 'Adventures in Food' campaign which rolled out in September 2014.

Ansell said that on first impressions it might not have seemed that different to what it had done 10 years ago with its “food porn” ads, but the simplicity of its creative and familiar close up shots of products against a black background have become a distinctive set of assets which serves to continually reinforce the positive associations people have with M&S food.

“Fundamentally, as marketers we’re trying to create new neuro connections. If you think of it in those terms, things like distinctiveness are really important. If you talk to customers they’ll always talk to you about the food porn ads and the melt in the middle chocolate pudding. That was the first ad we aired in 2005. And we deliberately made [the new campaign adverts] similar, but a bit more modern.”

For example, the new spots will end on a chocolate orange cake being sliced which M&S says is the modern day equivalent of the pudding.

“We genuinely believe it’s more effective to think about it like that,” said Ansell.

The atmosphere the retailer aimed to create in its food hall serves the same purpose as its ads do in trying to reset what it stands for as a brand in customers’ minds.

“We’re a food hall, not a supermarket. There’s a whole set of experiences and standards to show that we’re a creator and maker of our own goods,” he continued.

Looking towards the future, Ansell remains positive that the “passion, creativity and expertise seen in the food side of the business, but perhaps not always in the clothing, can cross”.

“As we get much clearer on the clothing side about what we stand for and what we believe in…I don’t see any reason why we can’t have both engines running.”

Last September, M&S made the first attempt at this with the release of ‘The Art of…’ campaign which sought to emulate the food ads with close up product shots and sequences that mirror parts of the manufacturing process.

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