M&S: We do sometimes get diversity wrong but we learn from our mistakes

The retailer says it would never assume it has “nailed” diversity but is always looking to better reflect its audience.

Marks & Spencer‘s (M&S) head of customer experience, Maria Koutsoudakis, is the first to confess the brand still has a lot of work to do when it comes to nailing diversity and inclusivity.

Speaking at Advertising Week Europe yesterday (20 March), Koutsoudakis said if you think you’re always going to get it right, you’re probably going to get it wrong and with 33 million customers across clothing, home and food it’s about making sure consumers’ can see themselves in the company’s output.

“We get told every day that we’ve done something wrong. But if it’s authentic, is genuinely a value the business believes in, and your intent is in the right place, you’ll overcome the executional mishaps when they happen,” she explained.

“We don’t always get it right, and we don’t always get good feedback from agencies, but authenticity is one of our core values and is fundamentally M&S. So we acknowledge when we get something wrong, we pick ourselves up, and we move on.”

M&S is currently trying to strike a balance between aspiration and actually being inclusive, which is one of the company’s biggest challenges.

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The retailer has a broad range of customers, which needs to be reflected in the brand and also in the business, Koutsoudakis added.

“We would never sit here and say, ‘oh we’ve nailed it’. Because we’re creating so much content we have to accept the faults and learn from them. It’s not a constant battle per se, but the constant live conversation we’re having right now is, how we can create more diversity in our team structure?” she said.

M&S is working on becoming more inclusive and diverse across the board and not just in its major Christmas or fashion campaigns, with Koutsoudakis suggesting the company is discussing whether it is being inclusive with its audience through every possible application.

She drew on a recent breast cancer campaign, released by M&S late last year. The short film titled ‘Love, laughter, life and breast cancer: In our words’, tells the stories of breast cancer survivors.

“There was a genuine connection between them and the group was diverse. The words were their words so it was a hugely powerful piece of content for us. I believe when we do get it right, it’s because it’s authentic,” Koutsoudakis said.

Social media has also made the journey to achieving diversity and inclusiveness even more challenging for brands, because the ability to reach more people via all of these platforms can often lead to harsh feedback.

Her comments came on the back of a recent push by ISBA, which is calling on advertisers to fight back against online hate through the hashtag #challengehate.

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Nationwide CMO Sara Bennison also featured on yesterday’s panel where she said marketers need to change their perceptions of how to tackle online hate and rather than “turning a blind eye” or removing hateful comments, should start addressing them.

She said every time a brand ignores such harmful content, it makes it “just that little bit more acceptable”. Bennison also argued that it’s not the social platforms’ fault, but there needs to be a shift in society’s views of how we should behave online.

Marketing Week columnist Tanya Joseph, who moderated yesterday’s panel and is ISBA’s director of public affairs explained: “ISBA thinks it is time we stand up to hate which is why we are today asking our members and indeed any other organisations which feel the same to do their bit to change things.”

The advertising body has also released a set of guidelines to help ensure hate speech is tackled more often.