CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE - MFI. Do MFI's new press ads risk damaging its old reputation for value? Glen Mutel writes

To many, it's the out-of-town flat-pack specialist that sells self-assembly furniture for a pittance. But MFI is adamant this image of its brand is outdated.

The company's first ever brand campaign features well-known TV personalities such as Ruby Wax, Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer, and Martine McCutcheon relaxing in the confines of Schreiber bedrooms, Bath Co bathrooms and Hygena kitchens.

The new TV and print campaign, produced by Publicis, looks to imbue the MFI brand with that element of class and credibility it has hitherto lacked.

To achieve this, the director Jeff Stark and the Royal photographer Patrick Lichfield were drafted in.

So do the new ads reflect a new product? "MFI has had this type of offering for a while now, but people who don't shop there haven't been aware of it," Chistine Ebeling Long, Publicis' director in charge for MFI, says.

"Some people think that MFI is all about cost-effective goods you can assemble yourself. While it still sells these products, for some time now the majority of its sales have come from its fitted range."

Gerry Moira, the chairman and executive creative director of Publicis, describes MFI's predicament as "one of those rare situations where the product is ahead of the brand image". So why hasn't the public been alerted until now?

MFI wanted to wait until it had changed the face of its stores. Its strategy of appealing to the fashion-conscious began in 2001 when it appointed the style guru Peter York as a non-executive director. It then hired Conran Design to transform its stores.

The strategy has already paid dividends. In December 2002, the company posted pre-tax profits of £80.8 million, a rise of 24.9 per cent. Sixty-eight of its 219 stores have been refurbished and 65 revamps are planned for this year.

The campaign brief is by no means straightforward. Taking a brand up-market without completely destroying its hard-earned reputation for offering good value is a risky path to take.

Kamarama faced a similar task with Ikea. Its co-founder, Naresh Ramchandani, explains: "With companies such as this, there is such a latent perception of good value that pushing the brand up-market is reasonably safe."

However, MFI won't be totally discarding its old image. The fast turnaround, special-offer executions that are a little too close to DFS ads for comfort will still run. However, as they will now be filmed in the new, refurbished stores, won't customers find the two messages confusing?

Moira doesn't think so. "People are used to the sales message - MFI offers good value and pays VAT on some products. The new campaign is aimed at a different group, MFI sceptics who would normally go to Habitat, John Lewis and Magnet. Besides, lots of brands offer a dual message. It's an old Procter & Gamble trick."

MFI's new advertising campaign is based upon a wider strategy that already seems to be working. Nevertheless, it's important that this attempt to appeal to style-conscious young mothers does not alienate the price-driven customer base the company has grown from. Using dual messages is a tricky strategy. An old P&G trick it may be - an old MFI trick it is not.

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