As Marks and Spencer (M&S) steps into 2020, it leaves behind a decade of declining sales, store closures, and relegation for the first time from the FTSE 100. With its Q3 results confirming that clothing and home continues to hold the food department back, this year could be make or break for the clothing wing.
With a turnaround plan in place to stem the decline of its clothing business, M&S bosses have focused on "elevating" everyday fashion staples with a more dynamic approach to media and a new advertising agency in tow. This Christmas saw it drop its celeb-heavy campaigns for product-focused 'killer categories.'
Yet, as the retailer tries to finds its place in 2020, its new marketing approach is far from concrete, rather it is a work in progress.
A blend of brand and product
This Christmas, M&S clothing tried something a little different. The star of the show wasn't Holly Willoughby, Twiggy or even Paddington Bear; it was jumpers, and lots of them.
It was the first year that ODD - an agency that specialises in fashion and lifestyle - held the reins of its Christmas campaigns. Prior to the Christmas period, under ODD's guidance, M&S clothing had been investing more in adverts that hero a single product or range.
Hopes that this change in direction would put an end to M&S’s declining clothes department were diminished by the results of its Q3 trading statement. While its food business maintained momentum, growing 1.5%, its clothing revenue fell 3.7%. And while its clothing and home online revenue was up 1.5%, this was lower than average.
This wasn’t unexpected, as its has been a general trend for the retailer. Sales for M&S’s clothing division have trailed food for several quarters, and in its half-year update last year (6 November), it revealed that while food grew 0.9%, clothing and home plummeted 5.5%.
Unperturbed, marketing director for clothing and home Nathan Ansell admitted the approach in the future will be "a blend of brand and product". Despite the decline on sales, jumpers and pyjamas performed well, proving its "killer category" strategy is working.
"Over the Christmas period, we sold 45,000 Fair Isle jumpers, with jumper sales up 6% and men's cashmere up 16%," Ansell reported. "Once we saw how well the campaign was performing, we were quick to shoot out a pyjamas campaign which saw a strong uplift. We ended up 10% ahead of that plan from pyjamas as well."
Two months down the line, and M&S has marched ahead with the killer category strategy. Last week, it unveiled its first-ever stand-alone TV ad for its biggest product category - denim.
"The aim of the denim campaign is to put us on the map and the way we're choosing to do it is slightly different to the way we were before," Ansell explained. Up until this point, the retailer hasn't shouted enough about the success of its denim range.
When customers are asked to name a brand for denim, M&S ranks just fourth out of a possible 21 options. Yet - it sells 15 pairs every minute and is market leader for womenswear denim.
"We believe that by choosing the category and communicating this way will build brand affinity at the same time," he said, before admitting that this approach is not plan set in concrete.
"While we've seen some initial success from the strategy, going forward, it will be a blend," Ansell explained. "We don't actually see a linear distinction between product and brand. It's still early days."
It's been no secret that M&S has tried to change its image as an over-55s brand. In recent years, it has trying to attract younger shoppers. As it looks into 2020, Ansell said the focus will be on broadening its appeal to families by "focusing on categories that are really relevant to a family customer."
"We've got all sorts of changes in our kidswear business where were trying to be a bit more fun and playful in some of our imagery," he added of M&S 2020 plans, explaining that the team has been taking a more granular look at the way mums shop for products.
While 2020 looks to be a critical year for the retailer, Ansell shared that "compared to 18 months ago, I'm massively optimistic as we move into the next stage. We've had some really good initial results from our key areas going forward and a really talented team."