Q&A: Steve Sharp, M&S marketing director

M&S marketing director Steve Sharp talks to Marketing Week about the launch of its ‘shwopping’ sustainable fashion initiative, the challenge of changing consumer behaviour and balancing long term responsible business with short term sales and profit growth. Read the full Q&A below.


Marketing Week (MW): The ‘Shwopping’ campaign talks about behaviour change – how important is behaviour change to for marketing in terms of Plan A messaging and the rest of the business?

Steve Sharp (SS): “That’s what it’s all about really. Plan A has been fabulous in terms of NGOs and government and credit for the 100, and now more, things we committed to. Then a year ago [environmentalist] Jonathan Porritt said to us; ‘you’ve got 21 million customers coming through the door every week – make them change their behaviour and do something for the common good’. We started with the one day wardrobe clear out. It really worked and customers said ‘that’s it – tell us what to do, we now know, and we’ll do it’.

That gave us the embryonic idea and we’ve had two or three test runs at it [with the One Day Winter Wardrobe Clearout] but the point is, why not do that every day, for the rest of your life and stop 10 000 items an hour going to landfill. And that is the point of it and all of the money goes back into Oxfam and good causes.

The easiest way to think about it is like bottle recycling. We do not even think about it any more. You would never dream about putting a glass bottle in the ordinary waste – that’s the kind of social change we want to create.

MW: Unilever said this week at an event to mark a years progress in its Sustainable Living Plan that changing consumer behaviour is one of the things it has made least progress with. Is the same true at M&S?

SS: I don’t think anyone’s tried in quite this way before – it’s us giving direct instruction almost. ‘Please do this it’s so easy it’s a no brainer’ but I understand what they’re [Unilever] saying.

For example, we have our forever fish campaign. Not everyone is prepared to give up their cod or haddock or hake [for more sustainable fish] it’s not so easy. I think this [shwopping] is easier to do. I think it is a very simple idea, and it’s been right under our nose the whole time.

MW: There are strong digital and social elements of this campaign. How important is that to this campaign and making it work and more broadly is the digital growing as a percentage of marketing budget?

SS: Yes, we are spending more money on digital. It’s increasing steadily over time and the more than media grows, the more we’ll invest in it. So, we’ll balance and adjust it as we go.

Digital is crucial in getting this [campaign] off. The fascinating this morning, is that this was trending on Twitter number two by 8 o’clock. It illustrates the power of social media. As far as the Facebook campaign goes, it’s integral to the whole thing. You can scan in with you’re phone, tell your friends your shwopped, get points, get [virtual] badges and little thank you’s for joining in.

MW: Unilever also talks about marketing having a higher purpose than just selling things. This campaign and Plan A suggest the same thing – do you think this is the case?

SS: This company is owned by shareholders – we’re not a charity. But increasingly people are looking behind what companies really stand for and using their spending power and deciding where to spend it. Increasingly companies will have to behave better if they’re going to attract customers because it’s coming more and more important.

It’s difficult during a recession – does it get suspended or doesn’t it but the world is going to go on forever – recessions will come and go so we think its particularly important to carry on during difficult times. In difficult times, it seems more obvious to be more thrifty and more careful and not so wasteful.

MW: There is a school of through that says that during the recession, too much importance has been placed on the CEO/CFO relationship, but that for long-term success and making sure that companies are relevant for consumers it’ the relationship between the CMO and CEO that is more important – what would you say to that?

SS: Without alienating myself from the CEO or CFO – I don’t think it matters. We’re a team – not just the three of us, but buying and selling functions too. Its important to work together and to analyse it in that way is a bit meaningless.

MW: Plan A is a big idea that runs through the whole organisation, not just marketing – The CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi said yesterday that big ideas are dead and businesses should instead look a lots of different smaller ideas. What’s your view?

SS: Well I can agree with all of that. There are places for big ideas and this is one. It’s a very simple one and it’s under the umbrella of Plan A, but we also have lots of small ideas that fit in every day and are appropriate. I don’t think there’s any exclusivity on whether your ideas are big or small, as long as they’re good – that’s what matters.

MW: How do you as a marketer and as an organisation balance the long-term objectives of Plan A, with the short-term of profitability and sales?

SS: I recommend trying to pat your head and run your tummy at the same time, because that’s what you’re trying to do. You’ve got to do both. You’ve got to have a plan, but got to leave sufficient flexibility in that plan to react to the circumstances that apply at the time. Whether it’s the recession, the weather or some one day wonder that you have to deal with but you have to keep your eye on the strategic direction and how are you going to get there.