So total sales at the retailer were up by just 0.6 per cent in the third quarter of the year, shares fell by nine-and-a-half pence. "M&S in a sweat after hot spell," one headline said. Feeble and disappointing, the analysts said. So there's a particular imperative for the retailer to get the launch of its new &more credit card come loyalty scheme right; the City is watching closely.
But are consumers? On the strength of the TV campaign, I'm not so sure.
The ad is everything you'd expect from M&S ... that's its problem.
It's nicely shot, undemanding, smug, middle-aged, cliche-riddled. I do think there is something rather distasteful about the women-of-a-certain-age purring and pouting throughout. "Soft suede boots, seared scallops, cashmere tops, Belgian chocs, that's amore," simpers one moist-lipped woman, who looks disturbingly pre-orgasmic at the thought. At least the token cheeky chappie is rather less complicated in his desires ("Moleskin jeans, fine Champagne, Rioja from Spain"). And I bet there are quite a few people already nagged by the groaningly familiar and all-too-catchy That's Amore soundtrack.
The execrable Amore/&more pun is too painful to dwell on.
But the ad is relatively inoffensive and will probably play well to its core middle-age/class housewife; few people will pay enough attention to the bespoke lyrics to find them ridiculous and this type of middle-aged women lusting after Italian waiter cliche ("sexy lingerie that will lead him astray") is too familiar to pique. And, as a reminder of what we all already know and love about M&S (nice food, anonymous clothes, middle-of-the-road), the ad does a fine, if unnecessary, job.
In that, though, lies its downfall. The ad is so quintessentially what you'd expect from M&S that it has about as much punch as a second-hand marshmallow. M&S's ubiquity, its uniformity, its essential middle-Englandness is embedded in our shopping DNA and, to drive any change in our M&S spending patterns, the store must make us think again, think differently. It's not going to achieve that with this ad and it's certainly not going to achieve it with a loyalty scheme that rewards every £10 spent with a measly 10 pence loyalty bonus.
M&S desperately needs to attract new credit customers for &more to work.
Existing M&S Chargecard holders have dwindled to just 18 per cent of customers since the store began accepting rival credit cards three years ago; 2.6 million M&S Chargecard holders will now be upgraded to &more but the store must persuade new customers to switch from their existing credit card or take on more debt through an additional scheme, with all the extra bureaucracy that involves.
The ad might sell a few more Belgian chocs (I'll have what she's having, clearly the next best thing to sex) but the crucial financial message simply gets lost in a jumble of competing themes.
By trying to be all things to all people (exclusively for everyone), M&S remains unremarkable. M&S is gambling £60 million on the national roll-out of &more. It's a pity it didn't take more of a gamble with the advertising.
Dead cert for a Pencil? Ooo, "pencil". We could rhyme that with lentil and gentle (lick lips, raise eyebrow, smile teasingly to camera).
File under... M&S for mediocre and smug.
What would the chairman's wife say? "Their bottom-shaping briefs are my secret weapon."