Russ Lidstone: nothing is more effective at damaging a bad product than great advertising

Adwatch: Russ Lidstone, outgoing chief executive of Havas Worldwide London, reviews Marks & Spencer's Christmas campaign, reflecting on the impact that it had on the brand and its goal of generating greater brand trust.

Not even a bit of magic fairy dust can help to build or maintain trust – which, in a sense, is what Marks & Spencer’s ‘Magic & Sparkle’ fairies attempted to sprinkle over Christmas, via its ads.Trust. The utopia that all brands strive for, but few achieve. 

The thing about trust is that it’s hard to earn and easily lost.

In retail marketing, perhaps more than any other sector, brand meaning and trust is overwhelmingly derived from our personal experience of service – the website, store environment, produce, price and so on. It’s doubtful that the British public would love Monty the Penguin so much if John Lewis’ prices were extortionate, shelves empty and staff grumpy.

Retail communications can’t paper over cracks of operational and product ‘challenges’ – nothing is more effective at damaging a bad product than great advertising.

The truth is that M&S isn’t a ‘bad’ product, and its Christmas fairies were not widely regarded as ‘great’ advertising. M&S seemingly vacated its place at the public’s Christmas dinner-table conversation about loved ads some time ago.

The fairies represent traditional TV retail fare; in this execution, they sit on a rooftop and magic up reductions of up to 50% for a gifting weekend. But the weight of the business challenges sits all too heavily on the brand sprites’ shoulders.

We are not so trusting of M&S when it comes to the ephemeral, micro-seasonal world of fashion

Today’s M&S is a tale of two brands – food and clothing.

Its food sales outperformed the industry over Christmas. We are unquestioningly M&S food shoppers during the highly important festive period.

We are not so trusting of M&S when it comes to the ephemeral, micro-seasonal world of fashion, however. Its clothing sales fell 5.3%, the 14th successive quarter of decline.

While retaining its quality (and gross margin), the clothing feels anachronistic to shoppers under 60. The offering is also confused by so many internal and poorly positioned brands.

Recently, however, it’s not just been a tale of clothing relevance.

Distribution and ecommerce issues have also dented our trust in this bellwether brand. Supply-chain problems meant that many people didn’t receive their M&S purchases during the disproportionately
important seasonal-shopping period.

Furthermore, its website is tricky to navigate and, moreover, really difficult to buy from – the digital equivalent of a store till closing as you near the front of the queue. Not surprisingly, online sales are down 8%.

Ultimately, Magic and Sparkle’s fairy dust can’t spirit away some of the broader issues the business faces. If magic retail fairy dust were ever needed, it’s on M&S’ clothing ranges, supply chain and website. Maybe then, our complete trust would be regained.

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