M&S is right to put over-60s out to grass

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To London’s Royal Festival Hall and last week’s AGM for Marks & Spencer. Publicly listed companies like M&S have to allow their shareholders an annual opportunity to ask questions of the board and generally make a nuisance of themselves. And the M&S event did not disappoint.

Mid-way through proceedings, 75-year-old widow Hilary Roodyn rose to her feet to challenge the assembled M&S leadership team on their targeting strategy. In a brief address that brought rapturous applause from the 2,000-strong crowd at the AGM, the retired sculptor and mother-of-two said: “I feel you are missing a trick. You are not catering for the over-60s”.

“Demographically,” Ms Roodyn continued, “We are growing and if you go on a cruise you’ll find a lot of us golden oldies wanting to wear pretty dresses. But we want to be covered up.”

It was Kate Bostock, the M&S executive in charge of general merchandise, who drew the short straw of trying to placate Ms Roodyn with an answer. Bostock admitted that the retailer could do better. “We try very hard to cater for our over-60s ladies, but there is plenty of room for improvement” Bostock offered.

I disagree. I think M&S are pretty much playing a perfect game at the moment by not catering to the over-60s. It’s exactly what any self respecting fashion brand should be doing if it wants to continue to thrive on the high street.

Fashion, you see, is a cold-hearted game. You hope to attract the teenagers, to make money from the 20-somethings, and to have a final fling with the middle-aged. But as soon as the consumer passes the dreaded threshold of 60 – it is time to wave goodbye.

Not because 60-year-old women are unattractive (of course they are ravishing), but because of the unavoidable realities of fashion. A 60-year-old consumer is a bad targeting choice for three simple reasons. First, even the most active 60-year-old woman buys fewer clothes than when she was 30. So she is worth less.

Not a problem you might think – why not target both the 30-year-old and the 60-year-old segments? Alas, fashion does not work that way. Daughters rarely want to wear the same brand as their mothers. The dynamics of the female fashion market mean that you either go after the young or the old. So you must target the young because they are worth more.

And finally, and most poignantly, older consumers have less lifetime value than their younger peers. Literally.

Add it all up and it’s pretty clear that M&S has to do everything in its power to stop wonderful women like Ms Roodyn buying their clothes. If it doesn’t do that the brand risks getting old with its clients and dying with them too.

M&S is not unusual in that, at 127 years of age, it is now older than any human on the planet. Many brands have outlived the original clients that first patronised them. But this presents a very peculiar problem because to survive, every fashion brand must, at some point, detach itself from its original target segment and move backwards to younger, more attractive segments. It has to keep doing this in order to continually stay alive across the centuries. To not regularly rejuvenate one’s target market would be to risk commercial failure. Death by brand loyalty!

At some point a decent marketer has to decouple from their loyal, but ageing customer base and make a concerted attempt to lose the mothers in order to recruit the daughters. That means an incredibly nerve-wracking period in which marketing is attempting to switch off its traditional clients, while simultaneously attempting to turn on new customers.
It isn’t ageism. It isn’t disrespectful to the older segments of society. It’s just business.

And British business is particularly vulnerable to growing old and dying with its consumers. Laura Ashley, Mary Quant, Daks, Aquascutum, Rolls Royce… I could go on. We British have a proven record of creating incredibly hot brands and then letting them gently cool as they age gracefully with their original clients.

As marketers, we must always serve the brand before the consumer. Some customers are bad for business no matter how elegant, impassioned or loyal they appear to be. Marketing is not sales. In many cases, marketing is exactly the opposite of sales.

Fashion marketers have a duty to their brand and to their shareholders to constantly use the marketing Ps of price, promotion, place and product to stop older consumers from buying the brand and thus encouraging the next, more valuable generation behind them on the demographic conveyor belt of life to buy into the brand in their place.

I have no idea whether Kate Bostock was simply patronising Ms Roodyn last week at the AGM or whether she was genuinely sorry that M&S was not doing more for the over-60s. I hope for the sake of the other shareholders in the room last week, it was the former.

Mark Ritson is an associate professor of marketing, an award winning columnist, and a consultant to some of the world’s biggest brands

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