EDITORIAL: M&S's advertising helps the recovery

Advertising's ability to shift public attitudes - but also the limits to its power - are reflected in last week's bumper sales figures from Marks & Spencer. Like a recovering alcoholic, the high-street retailer has been undergoing a difficult rehabilitation from the time when arrogance blinded it to its problems through to a gradual acceptance of them and a recovery which is tangible but always vulnerable to a setback.

As Alan McWalter, the M&S marketing chief, points out in his Campaign interview (page 21), the company has had to move from being in denial to a willingness to embace reform. The role played by advertising throughout this catharsis is interesting, if only because it mirrors the perverse and often mixed emotions that clients betray toward the business - from deep suspicion of it to a final recognition of its benefits.

Back in the days when M&S was one of Britain's most venerated brands, the company's directors had a lofty disdain for advertising. While the company showed such sureness of touch and understanding of its market, their attitude was hard to argue against. With such a ubiquitous presence on the high street, what better ads could there be than the stores themselves?

Unfortunately, this blinkered view of advertising persisted even though M&S was steadily losing the plot. Its dowdy, dated clothing ranges were no match for the offerings at sexier rivals. In turning to advertising, M&S revealed a nervousness leading to fundamental errors and a difficulty in its first big agency relationship.

The buxom naked model declaring to the world that "I'm normal

and the tagline "Exclusively for everyone

seemed out of kilter with a mass market no longer so mass because nobody wanted to be normal. Crucially, as McWalter points out, M&S simply wasn't delivering on its advertising message and has discovered that even the most creative advertising can't sell an inferior product.

Today, there's a much improved synergy between more enticing stores with more attractive ranges and advertising which is beginning to look more confident and assured. M&S isn't out of the woods yet and it's doubtful whether it will ever regain the esteem in which it was once held by shoppers.

But its now comfortable relationship with advertising should help ensure it never again returns to its complacent old ways.

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