M&S’ makeover should be more than skin deep

There’s nothing wrong with a new look – it can do wonders for a company’s profile. But when it’s not based on real change, it can seem like just a hollow gesture.

And there are some hollow gestures occurring in the high street right now, at two of our national retail institutions – Marks & Spencer and Sainsbury’s.

M&S has had a more sudden fall from grace than Sainsbury’s. The supermarket’s decline from number one has been played out in agonising slow motion. Sainsbury’s has, therefore, had longer to think about what to do and its plan of action is ä a new look.

Meanwhile, M&S has only just pushed itself off the starting blocks, having appointed consultants and new media and advertising agencies to give it, in turn ä a new look.

I’m not suggesting that this is the only measure they have both come up with. Sainsbury’s is also promising “a new philosophy” which gets closer to customers. This includes a checkout captain, who will determine whether they are satisfied with the new service. A new ad campaign by M&C Saatchi tops off this textbook co-ordinated marketing approach.

Admittedly this transcends a mere “new look”, and genuinely attempts to give substance to what will, no doubt, be substantial promotional claims. Outwardly this probably goes far enough. However, at the heart of Sainsbury’s, I hear an echoing empty space. The space is labelled The Big Idea, and in it I hear faint notes of desperation.

Tesco had a big idea when it was number two of the supermarkets. It was called Getting to be Number One. The means to that end were eye-on-the-ball manoeuvres, all precisely aimed at the goal.

This may be a very simple, motivating idea, but that doesn’t reduce its validity. Nor does it reduce the need for Sainsbury’s to have – and express – a big idea of its own. This is because, first, it is the root of differentiation and therefore the basis of choice and, second, it is the root of staff behaviour and therefore the basis of differentiation – a virtuous circle.

The idea should be simple – big but simple – so everyone can remember it. It’s not a slogan, it’s not an ad campaign, it’s not a logo and it’s not even a co-ordinated marketing strategy, although all of these should be led by it and express it. And it’s certainly not customer orientation; that’s just a prerequisite to being in business. It’s about a basic sense of knowing who you are and what you’re there for.

So Sainsbury’s may have got the cart before the horse. New facias and uniforms raises the question rather than answers it. M&S, on the other hand, still has chance to consider, so let’s ask it now, in good time for whenever and whatever measures are announced: what’s the big idea?

Chris Ludlow is a partner of identity consultants Henrion Ludlow & Schmidt

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