M&S is putting Instagram higher on its media plan amid a marketing reset

Holly Willoughby

Under pressure to attract a new, younger, generation of shoppers, Marks and Spencer (M&S) has funneled more media budget into Instagram, where it’s been experimenting with Shopping and IGTV.

The catalyst for a shake up to its tried and tested media plan was the overhaul of its marketing division earlier this year. It ditched the top-down structure that had been led by now-departed group chief marketing officer Patrick Bousquet-Chavanne in favour of separate clothing and food functions, led by Nathan Ansell and Sharry Cramond respectively, who report into divisional managing directors.

Both Ansell and Cramond have been radical in their approach to breathing fresh life into the heritage brand.

Under the previous structure, budget was blown on lavish above-the-line campaigns. However, the new M&S marketers have turned their attention to digital platforms, namely Instagram, to help achieve chief exec Steve Rowe’s goal of attracting younger shoppers and moving one-third of its sales online.

Its Autumn ‘Must Haves’ campaign with newly-ointed ambassador Holly Willoughby and more recent Christmas campaign are the manifestation of this “digital first” strategy.

For the former, TV advertising was run exclusively through video on demand services and it became one of the first retailers to use Instagram’s ‘Shopping’ feature, where products are tagged with the name and price of a product and a click-to-buy option in-feed and in Stories. Instagram has claimed that one US business managed to increase its revenue by 8% thanks to the feature, a stat M&S will be hoping to replicate.

“On the day of launch we had 3 million customers in four hours find out about the ‘Must Haves’ campaign just through Instagram,” Ansell claimed. “Instagram is really important to us and the uplift has been amazing on products.”

Ansell wouldn’t comment on the volume of sales it’s now seeing through Instagram Shopping but the results are such that he stressed it's now "a really important part of the mix".

It's a similar story for Food, where Cramond has siphoned budget into IGTV, the platform’s YouTube rivalling video service. It was, again, one of the first high street retailers to create bespoke content for it; a no-brainer move when the retailer realised that Instagram accounts for 80% of the people M&S Food reaches on social platforms.

The ‘What’s New at M&S’ series sees celebrities like Emma Willis, Paddy McGuinness, Rochelle Humes and Amanda Holden come together to taste all of the retailer’s latest products before recommending their favourites.

The 10-minute long episodes run every month and have a dedicated theme depending on the time of year; for its November episode the celebs will taste M&S party food while the December episode will focus on Christmas dinner.

In-store, labels are then put on products picked as favourites. “The sales on these lines skyrocket,” Cramond claimed.

But beyond sales, it’s also doing the job of putting it in front of a younger crowd.

“So far we've reached 9 million people. We've brought a much younger audience into M&S through the campaign,” she said. “And we’ve done it in a really cost-effective way. This IGTV campaign, all in, costs the same as a press ad every month. It's incredible.”

It had committed to the IGTV series for a year but with the early results it’s seeing Cramond expects it to run indefinitely.

Joining up social and sales

However, M&S has faced criticism from shoppers than many of the items of clothing that it’s featured on Instagram, or that are featured by influencers, sell out almost instantly online, are slow to be replenished, and are difficult to find in-store.

M&S has been unable to predict what products will be a hit with the today’s professional Instagrammers. To wrangle control of the phenomena, or at least be in a position to manage it if an item does prove popular, the marketing and merchandising teams have been brought together.

“We're having hourly calls,” Ansell said, meaning if a social star with millions of followers wears an M&S skirt, the team will ensure they have the right product levels (and act if not) and make sure it’s visible in-store.

It’s also ‘hero-ing’ items itself, rather than wait on the social stars. The ‘Must Haves’ campaign was an attempt at this, with clothing that Holly Willoughby had ‘picked’ being stockpiled in more sizes and highlighted in-store. It claimed record-breaking sales as a result.

“Reporting into the managing director means we're so much more agile; day-in-day-out we're responding to stuff. We couldn’t do that under the old marketing structure. It's been really refreshing for the teams and it's leading to much more agile, digital first, way of doing marketing,” Ansell explained.

Not only do the buying, merchandising and marketing team sit together in one office but the have also brought in their agency partners, such as Grey London for creative and Mindshare for media.

“You wouldn’t know where my team starts and where the agency begins which is different to the way we worked in the past,” he said. “It ensures we can react and understand what's coming down the line and we share a collective vision on what we need to do.

“It's a much more dynamic way of doing marketing. We're thinking of it more like a marketing newsroom.”

It’s also delivering on efficiencies. Under Cramond and Ansell’s watch, group ad spend reduced in the second half of the year by 9.5%, from £7.5m to £70.1m. Online sales were then up 9.1% year-on-year, with clothing growing ahead of the market.

Setting up its own ‘influencer network’

Trials have also begun on setting up an internal ‘infleuncer network’ which would be made of some of its 80,000 staff as well as other ambassadors who would use their social channels to promote new items of clothing and food.

“The good ideas can come from anywhere and it doesn't have to be a creative team in the old- fashioned world,” said Ansell.

“These sorts of brand equity transformations happen one conversation at a time and if we can just get a few million conversations every day about a new coat or dress then it builds over time to really grow and revitalise the brand. We're really encouraged by what we've seen this Autumn from the ‘Must Haves’ campaign, the results have been exceptional.”

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