Ellen Hammett: M&S’s move to split its creative should bring some much needed spark back

The decision to put its clothing & home ad account up for review is the latest sign the retailer is finally addressing the very different problems its two businesses face – which come down to product perceptions rather than brand.

Marks & Spencer

“It’s not you, it’s me. Or maybe it is you. Or maybe it’s both of us or neither of us. Whatever it is, we need to go our separate ways if we’re going to have any chance of succeeding in this relentless retail nightmare.”

I imagine this is how the conversation between Marks & Spencer’s (M&S) two marketing teams went when they decided to split their advertising accounts this week, the latest marketing overhaul in a long list of marketing overhauls.

M&S has been trying to turn its challenged business around for some time. But most of what it has tried, from a marketing point of view, over the last five years or so hasn’t seemed to work. 

To provide some context: in 2014 M&S launched its first unified brand campaign ‘Only M&S’ in an effort to convince more shoppers to buy across the full range of its business. Two years later it puts its creative up for review, moving from its agency of 16 years RKCR/Y&R to Grey London. Grey was put in charge of bringing its food and clothing & home divisions still closer together under a new brand slogan, ‘Spend it Well’.

Yet sales continue to slide. So in 2018, M&S completely restructured its marketing and moved it from a central function to one that was housed in its two divisions. Marketing boss Patrick Bousquet-Chavanne swiftly departed, with Nathan Ansell and Sharry Cramond put in charge of the respective businesses.

But having two separate teams internally seemingly isn’t enough and so M&S is now splitting up its ad businesses, putting clothing & home up for review.

That the move comes following a lacklustre Christmas, where sales were down across the whole business is probably no coincidence, although perhaps this was the catalyst for something that has been the subject of discussion for a little while.

Shifting from a master brand strategy

On the face of it, it might seem like an odd decision given the halo effect that comes with a unified brand, as well as the obvious cost savings. And it perhaps seems odder given it is the opposite strategy to the one John Lewis and Waitrose adopted last year, when they rebranded in a bid to make their point of difference – the partners – clearer versus the rest of the market and launched their first combined marketing campaign.

The challenge at M&S, however, is different. Everyone already knows the two sides of the business are owned by the same company and have the same values. And that brand remains, perhaps surprisingly, strong.

In a list of 50 UK high street retailers, M&S comes out top in YouGov’s BrandIndex rankings with an ‘index’ score (which is a combination of a range of metrics including quality, value and satisfaction) of 43.7. It also wins on brand metrics including impression (51.6), satisfaction (52.4) and recommendation (41.6), and sits second to only John Lewis for quality (57.7) and reputation (37.6). On purchasing funnel metrics, it is top of awareness (96.5), consideration (44.4) and purchase intent (22.6).

Splitting M&S’s ad businesses will allow it to focus on the individual challenges they both face in the different markets they sit within.

Where it does have issues, they are particular to the individual businesses, which is why the move to split the marketing for clothing & home and food actually makes a lot of sense.

In clothing & home, the main challenges sit within the 18- to-34 year-old group, where it is no longer top for brand metrics such as value and funnel metrics including consideration. In fact, it now comes behind brands such as Primark, George, H&M, New Look and Next on value and seventh on consideration, still near the top but nowhere near the dominance it has for those aged over 50.

In its food business, while it comes out on top for a number of metrics when pitted against other supermarkets, its value score places it fourth-to-last out of 27, behind even Whole Foods and Budgens.

READ MORE: M&S’s shake-up suggests its ‘one brand’ marketing strategy didn’t work

In a nutshell, the problem is that M&S’s food is seen as good quality but expensive, and its clothes are viewed as quality but not especially fashionable. Nor are they cheap enough to lure in younger shoppers that have the likes of Asos and Boohoo at the click of a button.

Moving from brand to product

The challenge at M&S is not with the brand but with product perceptions. That means that while food needs to work on turning up the value dial and show it can do more than just nice sandwiches and Valentine’s deals, clothing and home needs to do some serious work on convincing people those “must have” jumpers and dresses are for more than just Holly Willoughby and 50-year-old women.

Whereas it made sense to bring John Lewis and Waitrose closer together given their value and quality perceptions are much more closely aligned, splitting M&S’s ad businesses will allow it to focus on the individual challenges they both face in the different markets they sit within. It will also likely allow the marketing teams to up the focus on sales rather than brand building, as they have already started to do through their “unashamedly commercial” approach this Christmas.

There could be creative wins too. Grey’s loss of the clothing & home account (unless it re-pitches) will no doubt give it a big kick up the backside to pull all the stops out for food. And whichever agency wins the pitch for clothing & home will no doubt have an impressive portfolio and strong track record in fashion and retail. Having two agencies can only foster competition.

However, while it is necessary for the path between food and clothing & home to widen as they work on their own problems, M&S must make sure they maintain the same sense of ‘brand’ and aren’t differentiated to the point of feeling like entirely separate businesses (unless that has been the plan all along).

This is where Ansell and Cramond will need to work closely together to make sure their ideas and visions are aligned, as well as being open to sharing successes and failures so they can learn from one another. And despite the split, that’s not to say they shouldn’t ever do a joint campaign.

Perhaps it’s as simple as David Gandy eating a prawn sandwich in his pants. That’s an ad campaign I’m sure most of us could get behind.

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