Is former fast-food marketer Jill McDonald the right pick to save M&S’s clothing business?

Is former fast-food marketer Jill McDonald the right pick to save M&S’s clothing business?

Marks & Spencer announced that it had poached Halfords boss Jill McDonald to head up its non-food business earlier today (3 May), bringing a drawn-out search to a close. A well-known industry figure, she brings a wealth of experience – including marketing – to the role. So, is this what M&S finally needs to revive the ailing clothing business once and for all?

Despite its troubles, the clothing and home arm has been without a dedicated leader for some time. Steve Rowe retained responsibility for the division when he was promoted to chief executive a year ago and for eight months insisted that he could manage both roles. However, the search began in December as M&S admitted that despite a marginal rise in sales, there was a lot of work to do for it to sustain growth.

McDonald’s appointment is the latest in a long line of attempts to get clothing and home to perform as strongly as its food division. It has honed in on the core ‘Mrs M&S’ customer, taken steps to improve the quality of products, streamlined the range by culling the number of lines and brands it carried as well as toyed with new marketing campaigns.

Tying those efforts together, focusing on the customer experience and not just the product and ultimately putting Rowe’s theoretical plan for clothing into action is why McDonald has been tapped. But the appointment is a surprising one given her lack of experience in clothing, with observers suggesting during the hunt that M&S needed someone with fashion credentials if it was to make serious gains.

McDonald spent 16 years at British Airways, latterly as head of global marketing, before joining McDonald's as chief marketing officer. She rose to being the chief executive of the fast food chain in UK and North West Europe before heading to Halfords in May 2015.

However, what she lacks in fashion know-how is made up for in her ability to transform a business. She was credited for improving the image of McDonalds through a massive investment into its restaurant design and introducing healthier options to the menu. Meanwhile, at Halfords she spearheaded the ‘Moving up a Gear’ strategy that refocused the business on its core strengths and prioritised marketing as an investment, rather than cost, to recalibrate the brand and turnaround sales.

“At McDonald’s she reshaped the brand, increased efficiency, adopted digital and widened the menu offering. This was all in response to what the customer wanted, not just because it was what they should have been doing at the time,” said Ray Fowler, director at brand consultancy Transform.

“We can see this customer-centric approach transferred to Halfords, focusing less on the products and more about engaging with customers – undoubtedly we would have seen more from her if she’d have stayed.”

According to YouGov’s brand tracking data, Halfords now finds itself in a stronger place now than it was a two years ago. Its overall Impression score (whether someone has a positive impression of the brand) among the general public is four points higher today than it was then (from +24 to +28).

“Clearly Jill McDonald was effective both at improving the perception of Halfords among both the general public and one of the brand’s core group of consumers,” added Michael Stacey of YouGov BrandIndex.

It’s hoped that by taking a permanent grip of the retailer's clothing reigns she will be able to refocus its clothing and homeware in the same way she led the revamps at both McDonald’s and Halfords. Rowe called out her “first-class customer knowledge and great experience in running dynamic, high-achieving teams” as the key qualities he was looking for the lead the business.

“However, she faces a tougher and altogether different challenge at the clothing arm of M&S,” continued Stacey.

“The good news as she starts is that the brand is till much loved and was named as the top brand among women by us earlier this year. Added to this, M&S ranks highest in our high-street fashion sector in terms of perceived quality.”

McDonald won’t join M&S until October. By then the fruits of a new marketing campaign for clothing and home should begin to bear. Launching imminently, it will be the first piece of work since M&S hired Grey London to manage its digital and creative work and by all accounts will take M&S in an altogether new direction.

Speaking to The Drum earlier this year, marketing director Rob Weston said that it was looking to step outside of Rowe’s stringent focus on the core ‘over 50s’ customer and take a more inclusive approach based on “attitude, not age.”

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