OPINION: MILLS ON ... MARKS & SPENCER

So, I’m reading all about Marks & Spencer’s dire results, and how they’re down to a bureaucratic culture, frumpy fashion lines, a fuzzy image and dull stores. I turn the page and what’s there but an ad - for a man’s non-iron cotton shirt.

So, I’m reading all about Marks & Spencer’s dire results, and how

they’re down to a bureaucratic culture, frumpy fashion lines, a fuzzy

image and dull stores. I turn the page and what’s there but an ad - for

a man’s non-iron cotton shirt.



It’s not hard to make the connection. Like the others in a press series

M&S has been running recently, this ad looks like the brief was written

by a committee comprising the chief shirt buyer and the head of fabric

technology (they really do have people like that at M&S). It is heavy on

product detail and functionality - including, and I quote, copy about

’revolutionary crease-free memory’ technology - and light on image and

excitement. Non-iron or not, it still looks like the kind of shirt John

Major would wear. It does little to put any fizz into M&S, the same fizz

that M&S’s newly humbled management is promising the City.



It would, however, be wrong to conclude from this particular example

that M&S’s decision to embrace advertising, after years shunning the

black art, is doomed. For starters, giant retailers are lumbering old

supertankers that can’t change direction or embrace new ideas

overnight.



Second, the product lines being advertised at present represent buying

decisions made more than a year ago (ie before the crisis). Last, if we

stick with the tanker metaphor, advertising is the superstructure to

which M&S should turn only after it has fixed all the holes below the

waterline.



The most important of these is market positioning. Broadly speaking, M&S

is Middle England. Along with a handful of other institutions, it is a

quintessentially middle-class brand: solid, honest, reliable, whose very

dullness was its virtue. The trouble is that its type of middle-class

Englishness (also represented by Major, Laura Ashley, Sainsbury’s and

Rover) was built on a homogeneity of taste that doesn’t really exist any

more.



Today’s middle classes, if indeed you can call them that, have

fragmented into a shifting set of sub-groups and tribes. Exposed to and

influenced by a variety of cultures and value systems, these groups have

little in common - certainly not when it comes to taste and fashion. If

you want the evidence, check out the explosion of niche retailers, or

the spectacular collapse of Laura Ashley (there’s a company whose view

of middle-class England got stuck in a time warp). But, hey, look at the

stultifying uniformity of the M&S board: no wonder it didn’t feel the

ground shifting beneath its feet.



Becoming a niche retailer isn’t an option for M&S, not least because

it’s got far too much square footage. Paradoxically, all that floor

space means it could become a collection of niche retailers or split

into a series of sub-brands, particularly if M&S can then apply the

positives it stands for across the range of those activities.



So that’s the task then: helping the client work out the brand

proposition, and then communicating it. Sounds like a job for an ad

agency to me.



dominic.mills@haynet.com.