Marks & Spencer Marketing

M&S clothing CMO shares turnaround plans: ‘this is a style appraisal, sales will follow’


By Rebecca Stewart, Trends Editor

September 9, 2019 | 7 min read

Marks & Spencer (M&S) has long struggled to stem the decline of its clothing business. However, now focused on “elevating” everyday fashion staples, and with a more dynamic approach to media, its top marketer hopes customers reappraise its style credentials.

Holly Willoughby M&S

M&S clothing CMO talks turnaround plans: ‘this is a style appraisal, sales will follow’

Last week the troubled retailer dropped out of the FTSE 100, with the impact of its market loss in fashion having steadily lowered its share price. M&S’ latest financials from March showed a dip in clothing and home revenues to the tune of 3.6% year-on-year and 1.6% on a like-for-like basis.

Analysts have attributed the long-term decline has been to an unclear proposition and a failure to keep up with digitally-savvy competitors like Zara and Asos, as well as issues with its supply chain. The brand’s clothing boss Jill McDonald also exited in July this year, leaving chief exec Stephen Rowe to “move on at pace to address longstanding issues” around the “flow and availability” of its products.

As it was ejected from the FTSE, clothing and home marketing director Nathan Ansell unveiled its first major campaign from newly-appointed clothing and home agency ODD (a trendy indie shop which counts Dr. Martens and Levi among its clients).

“We really wanted to do something different with this campaign, it’s the beginning of a style reappraisal for the brand,” Ansell told The Drum.

Designed to take M&S womenswear offering in an “optimistic new direction,” the style-led Autumn/Winter work centres around brand ambassadors like presenter Holly Willoughby and actor Vicky McClure and looks to cement M&S as the go-to destination for hard-working basics and new season staples.

“We want to demonstrate the impact of good style and a really positive, optimistic way with a really diverse cast that represents modern Britain,” added Ansell.

The marketer is looking for the fresh approach to media buying, coupled with fresh product designs and a clearer message about what M&S stands for will deliver a sales uptick.

A more targeted media approach

The campaign (which M&S is understood to have pumped significant spend into) is running across social, digital, OOH and print. TV is glaringly absent from the media sheet. Ansell insisted this wasn’t a signal that M&S was by any means “saying goodbye” to TV.

Instead, investment for the Autumn/Winter womenswear collection has been funnelled into digital OOH to reflect reach customers in their own “everyday” moments. This includes a takeover at Oxford Circus and placement in major rail stations across the UK.

Digital billboard space in close proximity to M&S stores has also been snapped up to target shoppers.

Ansell explained: “It gives us flexibility, it's a transitional time of year in terms of the weather, so we can run different creative based on this and the regions it’s being shown in as well.”

Instagram, which has been sliding up higher on M&S media plan since last year, will also play a big role in the campaign: “It’s massive for us,” acknowledged the marketer.

The shift in planning strategy reflects Ansell’s ambition to use "more targeted, inspirational and relevant customer marketing" to restore its M&S’ style clout.

Measuring success

On how these investments would be measured, Ansell said M&S would be looking at its “style metrics”.

“We've already seen some very good momentum building actually in terms of brand equity measures from the work we've been doing with Holly [Willoughby] and other work we ran earlier on in the year,” said Ansell, adding that it was a no-brainer to keep Willoughby on as an ambassador after seeing how well she has resonated with M&S target audience of busy mums across different platforms.

“So we’re beginning to move things in the right direction from that point of view.”

Ansell said as far as the Autumn-Winter campaign goes he will be happy if customers reconsider the brand as doing something “that’s a little bit surprising and different” and decide to browse on M&

“That's my measure of success really,” he said. “We’re optimistic that as we go out with the product improvements that sales will follow from that, but really this is all about style reappraisal and encouraging our customers to reappraise us.”

Reimagining the offering

Last April, M&s 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 Ansell and Sharry Cramond respectively, who report into divisional managing directors.

Bringing in ODD was one of the sweeping changes initiated by Ansell earlier this year. But first, he decided to move M&S clothing and home business out of long-term partner Grey London (which still retains the food account).

Ansell noted that ODD is now working collaboratively with NMPI, which M&S brought on-board this summer to handle its paid search; a pairing he believes will translate into success for the retailer.

“They work very closely together as well without M&S people necessarily always having to be involved. So there's a very fluid relationship,” he noted, saying that NMPI had already made a “fantastic impact” on paid search.

Internally Ansell’s team are also working closely with merchandising to iron out supply chain issues which have previously seen stock short and customers disappointed.

He said: “We’re now working exceptionally closely with all of our commercial colleagues in that space in terms of planning further ahead for success to make sure that when the sales demand comes through, we're able to fulfill that demand [from the marketing side].”

In-store and on the design front too, things are changing. The brand’s most recent collection hopes to cement the retailer as an authority on outwear, knitwear and denim – for which it holds the number one market share with 5 million pairs of jeans sold per day.

It’s also looking to carve out more distinctive identities for its Per Una and Autograph sub-brands.

According to YouGov, since this time last year M&S ‘recommended’ score whether customers would recommend shopping there to family/friends) has dropped minutely from 35.8 to 35.3.

In the same period, ‘consideration scores’ (whether customers would consider shopping here) dropped from 44.3 to 43.7) – showing M&S has its work cut on in convincing customers of its style credentials.

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