CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE/M&S - Marks & Spencer glimpses the advertising light. M&S’s bold ads for festive fare could help it turn the corner, Dominic Mills says

Nearly three years ago Campaign printed a front-page story saying Marks & Spencer was talking to McCann-Erickson about a brand-building campaign. At the time this was newsworthy indeed: M&S had built itself into Britain’s biggest retailer without anything more than the odd tactical ad. Within a few days, however, a hand-delivered letter arrived from Sir Rick Greenbury, then all-powerful chairman and chief executive of M&S.

Nearly three years ago Campaign printed a front-page story saying

Marks & Spencer was talking to McCann-Erickson about a brand-building

campaign. At the time this was newsworthy indeed: M&S had built itself

into Britain’s biggest retailer without anything more than the odd

tactical ad. Within a few days, however, a hand-delivered letter arrived

from Sir Rick Greenbury, then all-powerful chairman and chief executive

of M&S.



No prizes for guessing the content, for this was an infamous

’Rickogram’, letters Greenbury sent to any journalist who had incurred

his wrath. But what was the problem? After all, whether the story was

correct or not (it was), this was hardly an issue of sufficient

magnitude to exercise the chairman of one of Britain’s biggest

companies. But exercised he was; indeed, the notoriously thin-skinned

Greenbury was incensed. Not only was the story untrue, but how dare we

suggest he should waste shareholders’ money on advertising, he

thundered. Clearly, the letter indicated, it was a personal affront to

even think that a company as successful as M&S had been under his

stewardship should need something as ephemeral as advertising.



Cut to November 1999, and M&S is preparing for the launch of its pounds

2 million Christmas food campaign, which breaks this Sunday through

Bartle Bogle Hegarty. The intervening period has been cataclysmic for

M&S. One piece of bad news appears to follow another - boardroom rows

leading to Greenbury’s departure, sales and share price dropping in

tandem, profits warnings and drooping morale. So accident prone has the

store become that it is even forced to blame the unseasonal weather for

disappointing clothes sales.



Advertising, though, is no longer a taboo word in the corridors of M&S’s

monolithic Baker Street headquarters: TV for last year’s new year sales,

press and posters for fashion, the colour supplements for a summer foods

campaign. There is, however, little discernible pattern and, beyond the

obvious need to shift product, little sense of whole-hearted commitment

to the role of advertising in rebuilding the M&S brand. Indeed, it’s

mostly classic retailer advertising - long on product detail and price

and resolutely short term.



Against this background, therefore, it is surprising to hear Steve

Kershaw, managing director of BBH Unlimited, introduce the Christmas

foods campaign as ’brave’, a word often used by agencies to preface a

difficult sell or as a synonym for ’foolhardy’.



Yet brave, stylish and innovative is what the campaign is. For a start,

it doesn’t feature the food, which is hardly what you’d expect of a

company as historically conservative or anti-advertising as M&S,

especially one with its back to the wall. The press ads will run as

double-page spreads in the colour supplements, backed up by radio,

6-sheet posters and in-store promotional material. BBH has even designed

special seasonal carrier bags



Nor is it full of the usual Christmas imagery of holly, mistletoe and

hearty fare. In fact, apart from the turkey and the Christmas pudding

ad, the food is resolutely un-Christmassy - down to the Chinese-style

prawns. ’You’ve got to remember,’ says Kershaw, ’that this is the last

Christmas of the millennium. We wanted to say to people that they should

eat food beyond their expectations. The holiday period is more extended

than usual and there will be a lot of eating. There’s a lot more to the

holiday than Christmas food. People will tire of cold turkey so the

campaign features non-traditional Christmas foods.’



He adds: ’Everyone can do fantastic food photography these days.

Creating an impact against the competition is therefore difficult. When

we boiled it down we decided that we wanted to make people salivate -

hence the endline ’Make the most of it’. Food ads without the food is a

good way of doing this. Besides, it exudes confidence and is good

internal PR.’



It is fair to say, then, that this campaign for M&S has a wider

significance, a point which Andrew Challier, head of food advertising

and marketing for M&S, acknowledges. ’We’ve had to face up to our need

for an understanding of the consumer and our communication with the

consumer,’ he says. ’Our food image is a lot stronger than clothing at

the moment and the food business has always been more confident. If part

of the business is confident enough and shows it, there might be a halo

effect for the rest of our operations.’



But why, if clothing is the division suffering most, is it the food

sector that’s taking the bold steps? Challier says: ’Of course this is a

tactical campaign, but there’s a strategic element to it too. We have

innovative food, so unless we have innovative advertising there will be

a disconnection in consumers’ minds.’



Once Christmas is over, the wider issues of M&S’s food advertising will

have to be addressed. This is a question that will be of great interest

to most agencies, not just BBH and its fellow roster shop, Elliott Borra

Perlmutter. But neither Challier nor his colleague, Ian Blazeby,

marketing manager for foods, wants to be drawn on it yet. Clearly, the

impact of Alan McWalter, the ex-Woolworth’s marketing director recently

appointed to the M&S board, has yet to be felt. As a result, the company

is still unsure about getting into a big relationship with an

agency.



Yet the change in the retailing climate is such that few believe it can

afford to wait for too long. On the one hand, it could be argued, the

impact of the Asda/Wal-Mart phenomenon on pricing issues militates

against M&S’s premium positioning. On the other, Blazeby points out,

’M&S food is about treat, innovation and convenience.’ It is therefore

not in direct competition with the big edge-of-town superstores. As the

likes of Tesco introduce parallel upmarket ranges, consumers may find

fewer reasons to shop at M&S. Why pop in for a top-up treat at M&S if

you can buy that sort of product while doing the weekly shop at Tesco?

At the same time, the rise in eating out also challenges M&S.



As M&S acknowledges, the challenges are there to be faced. Although the

brand itself may retain an enormous residue of trust, its positioning as

a food retailer needs examination. Confident it may be, but it is not

immune to outside forces and can no longer afford to ignore them.

Indeed, some would say, its tendency to look inwards has contributed to

the chain’s current difficulties in no small part.



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