Brand Health Check: Marks & Spencer

Perceptions that the retailer's fashion is dated cast doubt on its ad strategy.

Marks & Spencer: word cloud
Marks & Spencer: word cloud

The strategy behind Marks & Spencer's fashion ads has been criticised of late, most severely by Mail On Sunday columnist Liz Jones. 'Never mind yacht-frolickers Twiggy and Dannii Minogue, where is the bigger woman on that boat, or the woman in her 70s? Ignore them at your peril,' she wrote earlier this year.

Now, M&S is overhauling its celeb line-up. Minogue, Myleene Klass, singer VV Brown and model Ana Beatriz Barros are gone, but Twiggy, DJ Lisa Snowdon and Jamie Redknapp are believed to be staying put.

The star-studded campaign, along with its 'Not just food' counterpart, had been central to the revival strategy of the high-street stalwart over the past seven years, but could the tide now be turning?

Our 'word cloud' shows that consumers still see M&S as a quality retailer. The problem is that they also see it as expensive, old and boring.

Interestingly, our research revealed that the older the age group, the more people like M&S' celebrity ads.

The same pattern emerged when respondents were asked whether M&S appealed to their age group. However, while few felt it was 'too young', a significant number of under-55s believed it 'too old', reflecting the image problem M&S faces. So, with its Christmas ad campaign now in development, what must M&S do? We asked Peter Cross, managing partner of Mary Portas' fashion-focused agency Yellowdoor, and Scott Harvey-Nicholls, partner at So The Agency, and a former Elizabeth Arden marketing director.



Having celebrities of all ages in its ads initially worked for Marks & Spencer; it was exciting. There was momentum and a sense of warmth from the public for this great British institution. It had gusto.

However, it wasn't the age of the women alone that made the campaign powerful. What started as a clear idea began looking naff within a few seasons. It was obvious, and a bit cheesy.

M&S was running two potentially clever campaigns, food and fashion, but they never talked to each other.

The burst of energy for its fashion ads became a technical exercise: let's find a woman of 30, one of 40 and one older. By targeting everybody, they failed to target anybody.

Even Twiggy, a good-looking woman, didn't look great in the end, with the ads reducing her to a stereotype for her age.


- Capitalise on the phenomenal goodwill people still have toward M&S.

- Either become a fashion brand again, or a department store, or a specialist retailer. At the moment, M&S is caught between all three.

- M&S needs to occupy the place that says 'we are the definitive "Middle England" retailer for everything'.

It's a big missed opportunity.

- Capitalise on M&S' Britishness, its status as a high-street staple, and the trust we're still willing to place in it.


The subject of M&S ignoring its 'core audience' is evoking much comment from the lofty heights of the Daily Mail. However, its clothing business grew 4.2% in the most recent fiscal year. It is still picking up consumers.

That said, any brand with older core consumers will eventually have to find ways to reinvigorate itself. M&S needs a clear brand proposition that remains focused on quality and style in order to attract consumers.

A sector that has successfully achieved this is prestige cosmetics. Estee Lauder and Elizabeth Arden are both more than 100 years old, and faced similar problems. Both invested in strategies to augment their consumer base, while still satisfying the needs of their original customers. However, M&S should not have a knee-jerk reaction to a few outspoken commentators.


- Ensure that 'quality' continues to be a key component of everything the brand does. Both older and younger consumers identify with it.

- Develop a focused retention strategy for older consumers.

- Continue with the 'M&S girls' ad strategy. It has given the brand a fresh, multi-generational personality.

- For the younger market, remain aware that M&S is not in disposable fashion, and must never be drawn into it.