The thorny problem for Rose and Sharp

The night before I met Marks & Spencer executive chairman and CEO Stuart Rose and its marketing director Steve Sharp, marketers from some of the world’s biggest brands gathered on the roof of Unilever House on the banks of the Thames to celebrate The Marketing Society’s 50th anniversary. When I mentioned to one group at the party that I was to meet Rose and Sharp the following afternoon, conversation turned first to the shareholder ire aimed at Rose and later to what they called a “confused” marketing strategy at M&S.

“It has ads everywhere at the moment, all for different campaigns,” said one. “I’m not sure if it is science or desperation.”

“The communications coming out of M&S are all over the place,” agreed another. “It doesn’t know what it stands for anymore.”

Finally, one senior marketer silenced the others with a view that clearly resonated if the nodding heads were anything to go by. “Marks & Spencer,” he said, “must be the most difficult marketing job in the country.”

Rose and Sharp, responsible once already for a return to glorious highs after their arrival in 2004, believe they can do it again

Whether that is the case or not, what cannot be denied is that many marketing truisms go out the window at M&S. For one thing it doesn’t have a specific target market. (“You can be eight or 80, you can be male or female, you can be black or white, you can be thin or fat, you can be Jewish or Muslim or Christian, but you’re an M&S customer,” Rose will tell me later.) But that isn’t what this marketer is referring to when he describes M&S as the toughest gig in marketing. He’s talking about its “national treasure” status. The “British institution” tag that hangs invisibly from every store front fascia.

Rose describes it thus: “It is a huge privilege but also a huge obligation that people expect us to perform, in whatever we are doing, to a higher standard than they expect from our competitors.”

M&S had taken a hammering in the press every day in the run-up to the interview. Two days before we met, the pair gave up more than £1.5m in shares in an attempt to diffuse growing anger among investors, but the negative headlines kept coming. Shareholder resentment has continued to boil in the lead-up to this week’s AGM. Unhappy shareholders believe the board lacks independence with Rose occupying both top roles, and fear that successors for either role are yet to be identified.

Rose and Sharp however, responsible once already for a return to glorious highs after their arrival at the ailing superbrand in 2004, believe they can do it again. The interview that makes up our cover story is the first time they’ve been interviewed together in 20 years of working with one another. Enjoy.

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