Could M&S' fashion leadership shake-up herald a new era for the brand?

Head of womenswear Frances Russell has departed the retailer amid a shake-up of its general merchandise leadership team, which saw head of non-food John Dixon quit last month in a shock exit. What do these sweeping changes mean for the brand?

M&S: Management changes are aimed at improving the retailer's fashion output
M&S: Management changes are aimed at improving the retailer's fashion output

It is no secret that M&S' clothing sales have been struggling in recent years. It was just a month ago that CEO Marc Bolland came in for a pasting from angry shareholders at the AGM, who said the retailer's clothing lacked originality and looked as though "someone’s had a bad dream and thrown paint at a canvas".

M&S has fallen into the fast fashion trap, thinking that borrowed celebrity interest, targeting a younger consumer and ‘doing’ seasons makes them a relevant fashion brand

The sobering comments came as M&S reported like-for-like sales of general merchandising (predominantly clothing) had fallen by 0.4% in the 13 weeks to 27 June. Bolland admitted that GM was "still not good enough" and that it needed to be as good as its food arm, which has consistently outperformed the grocery market thanks to its strong quality credentials.

The business announced in an internal memo yesterday that head of womenswear Frances Russell was departing following a review of the management team aimed at bringing together all products designed for the female customer - womenswear, lingerie and beauty -  under one line of accountability.

Russell, who headed up womenswear since 2012, is to be succeeded by Jo Jenkins who joined M&S in 2012 from Next, where she spent 12 years. She leaves weeks after head of non-food John Dixon, a 30-year M&S veteran, who has been tipped as a successor to group chief executive Marc Bolland. 

The move, Marketing understands, is designed to create more synergy across womens products and with Bolland taking swift action to reboot fashion and give it a much needed shot in the arm, the shake-up could yet signal a new era for fashion at the retailer.  

As Jo Jenkins takes the reins for womenswear, we recap some top tips for the brand from marketers. 

REFRAME YOUR CULTURAL REFERENCE

Scott Morrison, founder at The Business Accelerator and former marketing and commercial director at Diesel

"Back in the day, M&S was a byword for quality, value staples. Nothing fancy but truly essential, they were a generational myth and a lesson in legacy word of mouth marketing. Map that to today’s needs and there’s a direct relationship.

People are still looking for quality and value wrapped in a mythical experience - that’s why we are surprised by Lidl and bored of other supermarkets who focus on price.

M&S have fallen into the fast fashion trap, thinking that borrowed celebrity interest, targeting a younger consumer and ‘doing’ seasons makes them a relevant fashion brand.

Young people go to Topshop, Primark or H&M; ANYWHERE other than M&S. But EVERYONE needs good quality staples - M&S has compromised long lasting quality for fast fashion credentials; lifelong myths for short term fads.

Like the food, play on the quality, the tradition and the myths that you’ve created and re-engage the ‘anti’-fashionista; your enemy should be the poor quality, fast fashion fads that underpin ‘throwaway' culture - the UK population is getting older and those people are looking for a fashion brand to deliver clearly and succinctly the quality and value they need - as unfashionable as it sounds, it’s exactly what people expect from M&S." 

DAZZLE THE NATION WITH SOME FRESH, PROVOCATIVE FASHION

Robert Campbell, founder at high50 and former vice president McCann Erickson EMEA 

"At high50 we have a very clear policy. If a brand ‘smells of pee’ we will not let it advertise on our site. It would drag us down.

Marks and Spencer have approached us to advertise on the site couple of times, but we’ve declined. They do not cater to the contemporary 50+ market. They have not moved with the times. Their women’s’ wear is drab and dowdy.

No longer do they produce the ‘perfect’ essentials they were renowned for, nor do they innovate.

If I were M&S and I wanted to engage with women (and men) over the age of 50, I think I’d approach a whole bunch of those 50+ designers who are still out there – Oldfield, Ozbec, Rhodes, Marc Jacobs, Junya Watanabe, Westwood etc – to collaborate on some really cool 50+ clothes - and then advertise 
the hell out of them. Dazzle the nation with some fresh, provocative 50+ fashion."

FOCUS ON THE BRILLIANT CUSTOMER BASICS 

Ben Ayers, communications and branded content specialist, former social media director at Carat and ITV

"There is a tremendous – possibly disproportionate - amount of goodwill towards  Marks and Spencer.

Unfortunately for them, their seasonal Christmas campaign felt very at odds with the experience of many customers. A disconnect between the social team and customer service agents on the front line was evident in responses that showed up a lack of information sharing and an inability to resolve issues via the best channel for the customer.

It was unfortunate that their logistical challenges coincided with their self-declared ‘most social Christmas’ as customer angst was compounded by tweets trumpeting random acts of kindness. 

The lesson is that no amount of Magic and Sparkle will trump a good, joined up customer engagement experience. As everyone has learned in recent years, online shoppers don’t have much time for forgiveness – even at Christmas.

My advice: focus on brilliant customer basics across channels with one single customer view, then bring out the glitter."

RE-ESTABLISH YOUR ROOTS IN BRITISH PRODUCTION

Georgina Stevens, founder and director at One Pumpkin Sustainability Advisory and former Plan A manager at M&S

"A key issue is that in the UK we are flooded with cheap throwaway fashion, and many of us have far too many of these clothes in our overstuffed wardrobes.  Many of them are misshapen, ruined by washing or have seams coming undone or buttons missing. 

"And the truth is we don’t care enough about them to mend or repair them because we have too many of them (and also because we know in the back of our minds that many of them were produced in perhaps less than desirable working conditions). 

And many M&S clothes now fall under this category. 

M&S was one of the last UK retailers to move their manufacturing from the UK to overseas in the late 1990’s.  And over the years this has meant many of their clothes (outside of the premium ranges) have become progressively cheaper and have lost the superior quality that everyone associated with M&S. 

I would love to see M&S returning to manufacturing more in the UK, to re-establishing its roots with British production and delivering fewer higher quality bespoke lines which I could either buy or rent from them.

It would also be really useful to have a more intuitive online shopping experience where the M&S website knows what items I have already bought from them (and what other key items I have in my wardrobe) and gives me recommendations of different outfits I can put together as well as different items I may like to rent or buy.

Many of us need and would appreciate help to make our wardrobes more productive places. "

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Digital marketing executives oversee the online marketing strategy for their organisation. They plan and execute digital (including email) marketing campaigns and design, maintain and supply content for the organisation's website(s).

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