‘We absolutely lost our way’: M&S’s marketing director on finding its ‘sweet spot’

Anna Braithwaite, M&S’s top marketer for clothing and home, says the brand is back on track now it has the right balance between style, quality and value.

M&SM&S has been a constant presence on the high street for decades. Over the past 15 years, however, it has “infamously” been in a cycle of success and pain, according to its marketing director Anna Braithwaite. Speaking at Marketing Week’s Festival of Marketing, she explained how a relentless focus on style is providing a path to stable growth.

She said: “We had absolutely lost our way. The brand, the product, the value, the quality, it’s been a really tricky journey. Style was our biggest barrier to growth; if we could not win in womenswear or style… we weren’t going to win on anything.” As a result she noted that while it has been a “slow burn” to achieve internally, the brand is transitioning to view everything “through the style lens”.

In order to reframe how the public perceives M&S’s style, it recently signed actress Sienna Miller to be the face of its latest campaign.

Once that reframing has been achieved, Braithwaite believes the brand will have a “huge opportunity to drive consideration across more categories”. As a result, she said M&S has “had to massively increase our share of voice”. As part of this effort, it has lengthened the time its marketing campaigns are live, in order to “hopefully” remain more front of mind among consumers.

M&S’s enduring presence on the high street has granted it a legacy, or as Braithwaite calls it, “magic”. She cited M&S’s chief executive Stuart Machin as saying, “We need to protect the magic and modernise everything else”.

To that end the brand is investing behind the scenes in personalisation technology, powered by the 16 million consumers that opt into sharing their data.

M&S on the ‘staggering’ impact of its ‘Anything But Ordinary’ brand platform

She said: “We acquired a brilliant company about a year ago called Thread [which] recommends clothes for you based on your shape and your size. Already we’ve seen conversion driving… three times higher. It’s all built around personalisation.”

M&S is using that Sparks card first-party data in concert with Google and Meta data to ensure it “always [has] this level of addressable advertising across digital campaigns”, which she said is making “huge increases” for the brand. She also advocated for the use of data to help with a mass market approach, by helping ensure that marketing spend is being used effectively and efficiently.

Never just a department store

Braithwaite was asked about the recent move to carrying other clothing brands within M&S stores. She noted that in the week commencing 2 October it had added both Adidas and Sweaty Betty products to its store shelves.

She said that the decision to carry other brands is “probably one of the most contentious discussions we have internally”, but that ultimately M&S identified two strategic reasons for doing so. The first was to fill a gap in the market. She cited the availability of Mamas & Papas baby products as an example, one that has no detrimental impact to M&S as it does not have its own-brand products in that area.

We had absolutely lost our way. The brand, the product, the value, the quality, it’s been a really tricky journey.

Anna Braithwaite, Marks & Spencer

The second was where there is an opportunity to strengthen an existing category. Referring to its successful own-brand range of activewear, she said that because M&S does not carry own-brand sports shoes, adding those other brands to its range added a non-competitive incentive for consumers to shop across the whole category.

She noted that M&S food and fashion are effectively run as two different companies under the aegis of one head office. She said that it is right to keep the two entities separate for the moment, but expressed some envy about the journey that the food side has undertaken, noting “we need to catch up”. Despite that she said the brand as a whole is aligned on issues like sustainability, and joined up around seasonal events like Christmas.

M&S signs Sienna Miller as it admits boosting style perceptions is its ‘biggest barrier to growth’

Regardless of which department is being spoken about, Braithwaite notes that the brand is “fanatical” about value, which is at the foundation of its appeal. She said: “My boss Richard [Price, managing director of clothing and home] is fanatical that we sell at the right price. Broadly, value is massively important to us, that’s where the trust comes from. We’re number one for trust and I think that’s built on legacy.”

That focus was behind last year’s marketing push around its ‘Remarksable’ range of entry- to mid-range products, designed to raise awareness of the brand’s home range.

Braithwaite said that, far from being a one-off effort, M&S is focused on highlighting its value for the foreseeable future: “The sweet spot for M&S is… style, quality, value. We will never sell the cheapest products… but if you buy a coat we hope it’s the best quality coat you can buy at that price point.”