Debenhams: Full marks for sentiment, but beware a lack of aspirational appeal

Debenhams has announced its forthcoming ad campaign will feature a Paralympic amputee, a 69-year-old woman and a size-18 swimwear model.

Debenhams: using size 18 swimwear model
Debenhams: using size 18 swimwear model

We asked Jim Prior, chief executive of branding agency The Partners, to discuss whether its attempt to defy fashion convention is the right move for the retailer.

Way back in the year 2000, Marks & Spencer (M&S) aired a TV spot in which a woman ran naked up a hill proclaiming her normality.

The actor cast for this role was not a typical fashion model. Instead, she was intended to represent the true customer of M&S and to shatter fashion’s falsehoods of targeting and promoting unrealistic and unhealthy notions of body image. Her proclamation of normality was a cry for freedom from fashion’s lies.

The ad was a disaster. Few people liked it, many despised it, and its commercial impact was non-existent. Swiftly, M&S reverted to the trusted formula: glamorous and gorgeous celebrities reflecting not the reality of customers’ lives but the dreams and vision to which they aspire.

This, one might argue, is fashion advertising in a nutshell: the truth doesn’t sell. The whole point of the fashion business is not to help you look like you already think you do, it’s to help you become something closer to what you’d like to be. And there’s a fundamental point about marketing in any industry here: your market (who buys it) and your target audience (who you’d like to buy it) are not the same thing.

So, on the face of it, Debenhams launch of a ‘High Summer Look Book’ featuring models with a wide range of body shapes and ages that defy the conventions of the fashion industry, might appear to be neither an original strategy nor a wise one.

Debenhams director Ed Watson is quoted as saying: "Our customers are not the same shape or size so our latest look book celebrates this diversity. Hopefully these shots will be a step, albeit a small one, towards more people feeling more comfortable about their bodies."

One can imagine that quote, almost word for word, as the press release accompanying M&S’s year-2000 ad too.

But none of this should detract from the fact that this is a highly worthwhile and important initiative. And there is a very good reason why it has a far greater chance of achieving resonance now than M&S did all those years ago. It’s all about the timing and, I suspect, a deeper-lying truth about brands and marketing than was evident thirteen years ago.

When M&S ran their campaign we lived in an age where brands were accountable to consumers for meeting their individual needs – it was an age of selfishness. Today, consumers hold brands accountable for much more, not least of which is the role they play in society as catalysts and sponsors of positive change.

Whereas the M&S attempt may have been dismissed as an ugly piece of sales and marketing, this Debenhams effort might just resonate as a genuine piece of social progress. Ambitious, perhaps. But possible, nonetheless.

For Debenhams to realise this ambition there will still be much more to do. They will have to sustain the campaign beyond a ‘look book’ and over time. They will need to find a way to make it feel aspirational and attractive – the photography I have seen so far looks good – and steer the path between the traps of sensationalism and mediocrity that lie at either side.

But its real acid test will be its impact on sales. High-street retailers are not renowned for their patience, so in this traditionally most selfish of industries, it will be interesting to see just how consumers respond. I, for one, wish it every success.