Will the new M&S brand strategy boost the retailer's fashion and food credentials?

Three brand experts offer their views about "Spend it well", the new campaign from Marks & Spencer.

Kate Jones, brand consultant and retail watcher

The new M&S campaign feels less like an ad and more like a manifesto for the empowerment of British women, inciting them to rise up and start a mild, middle-England style revolution.

Set to the soundtrack of David Bowie’s Rebel Rebel the message is clear – "you have one life so spend it well". In this case spending it well also means spending your cash at M&S, because you deserve something better. But better than what?

The idea that M&S delivers you quality comfort, specialness, individuality and creativity all wrapped up in environmental friendliness just doesn’t ring true. This strategy works really well for food (the food-only ad reinforces this point) because M&S food is synonymous with quality and innovation and treating yourself with something that is worth the extra... but it isn’t the food division that has a problem.

In times when austerity is biting and living costs are rising post Brexit, enticing women to "spend well" and buy their clothes at M&S feels a little out of step with reality.

None of the positives associated with M&S food (including the positive numbers) translate across to the rest of the business and just by telling people that they do, doesn’t make it true.

Serious questions must be asked about how this new approach from M&S is going to turn the fortunes of the business around. In times when austerity is biting and living costs are rising post Brexit, enticing women to "spend well" and buy their clothes at M&S feels a little out of step with reality.

Being rebellious or frivolous and daring to ask for more or for better just doesn’t seem to be quite right when getting to the end of the month without a foodbank visit is a concern for many.

The issue of being out of sync aside, can M&S deliver any of these promises? We already know they can (and do) in food, but in clothing and homewares – what credibility does the brand have?  

A few investigative questions:

  • Is M&S a high-street leader in fashion?
  • Is the quality second to none?
  • Is there a signature look or product to buy into?
  • Are the products made with unique craftsmanship or expertise?

The answer to all of these questions is sadly no. M&S just isn’t special, or exciting or worth going against the grain for. It’s ubiquitous, beige and amorphous. What is the brand doing to inspire and delight and entice long lost shoppers back in?

To live up to the manifesto being set out, M&S will have to take a deep look into the way the business is run and deliver on the promises being set out, or else it just becomes a nice to look at ad campaign and nothing more. Clearly M&S does know how to do this, because, as said previously, food does it so well.

So take a leaf out of that book. Create clothing collections that are style-led with a womenswear strategy that doesn’t flirt with the odd celebrity here and there but uses real designers who know their stuff and have an opinion about what we should wear and how we should look.

If you want to be a fashion house, then think and act like one.

What is the M&S style edit? Stop sitting on the fence making cardies for nannas and have a point of view, a direction and make gorgeous apparel that inspires and delights.

James McGregor, managing partner, Retail Remedy

The M&S "Spend it well" campaign has certainly caught the attention of those observing the trials and tribulations of the brand's clothing division.

Like any campaign, whether it catches the attention of the customer for the right reasons will be evident in sales over the next three months. Our impression is that M&S has taken a step back to align its marketing strategy with what the brand is best known for, quality.

Let’s be honest, price and "fashionability" are not the first things you think of when you think of M&S, nor is it the first thing you think when you walk through the clothing area of their stores.

While efforts have been made to improve the shopping environment in bigger stores, it is the High Street locations of towns throughout the UK where the story starts to come undone – confusing ranges, difficult to shop, identity crisis within own labels and prices that have felt toppy against the perceived downturn in quality. Going back to the core brand value with a nod to value for money sits well against what we want to believe about M&S.

Going back to the core brand value with a nod to value for money sits well against what we want to believe about M&S.

The challenge will be to carry that message and those values through the whole shopping experience no matter which store the customer is in.

Consistency, in range, offers and availability, has been where M&S has fallen down in the past. If press, PR and advertising are focussed on a particular pink coat, that coat needs to be available to buy. The customer does not have the patience to look for alternatives. The new campaign does not showcase a particular product, it showcases the lifestyle of the woman that its customers could aspire to be and that is much more powerful.

If that narrative can be carried through the stores, through its website, then we can see a brighter future for M&S. But we know it is a big ask to achieve that. It won’t come from merchandising alone. It won’t come from a TV advert alone. It won’t come from price messaging alone. It is the balance of all of these factors and more which takes time to land in stores and time to permeate to the customer’s purse.

Will the "Spend it well" campaign be a success? Yes, it will if delivered consistently over the next 12 months.

Max Keane, planning director at Leo Burnett, leading strategy across McDonald’s and Co-op

For better or worse, Marks & Spencer is one of those British brands that can’t sneeze without a dozen news stories appearing about its likelihood of being hospitalised with a severe case of pneumonia. So even if you never, ever turn on a TV these days, it was hard to miss this month’s launch of their major new brand strategy.

This new creative by Grey definitely injects a bit of badly-needed attitude into M&S’s national treasure status.

Whether you like it or not, you can’t argue with the fact that the new approach immediately starts to shake off their mumsy image.

Putting aside the 60-second "pitch mood film" vibe of the first telly ad, to me "Spend it well" looks like pretty shrewd brand repositioning. It conveys a modernity without ignoring M&S’s impressive heritage or throwing away everything that makes us love them.

The brand hasn’t gone away to a shifty sanatorium in the Swiss Alps and returned with a full brow lift, terrifying fillers, and totally unrecognisable. It feels more like it had a good few months of rest and rehab and is back with a newfound commitment to making the most of itself – which means delighting us with satisfyingly indulgent food and dressing us in comfortable, non-frivolous clothes.

After I saw the first ad, I wondered how the campaign would translate into food. I’d hoped that M&S could remove themselves from the shackles of the incredibly successful category of advertising that they pioneered, namely food porn, and reinvent the genre once more.

So I’m a bit disappointed to see that the food execution still relies on slow-motion tossed scallops and sizzling chicken breasts (and a slightly different plinky-plonky soundtrack to the most recent campaigns), albeit interspersed with some more pitch film mood footage.

There is also the question of how the repositioning is going to be felt when you’re in your local branch of M&S. To me, at least, it feels like the whole shopping experience is less fusty than it has been of late, which is a good start.

While "Spend it well" reminds us of the reasons we used to love M&S, it is, of course, in their shops that they must make us give us plenty of reasons to keep coming back.

Marks & Spencer has a long way to go to reclaim their former position of dominance, but I think you’d have to be stupid to bet against them at this point as I can only imagine that the campaign is going to grow into itself.

Is it tragic that even though it’s May I’m quite excited to see what they come up with for Christmas?