There are very few brands that are quite as Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde as Marks & Spencer. The marketing management must go through exceptional highs and lows during focus groups. First the moderator asks about M&S Food and Wine and hears the consumer perceptions of innovation, aspiration, quality and reliability, but when the questions move on to clothing they find hostility and indifference to ranges that despite years of revamps, relaunches and repositioning, simply fail to inspire. The brand personification of cognitive dissonance!
Earlier this month, M&S CEO Steve Rowe announced a five year plan to close up to 60 of its full range stores, while allocating more space to food and less to clothing in other stores. Simultaneously, they are cutting back on their international operations. M&S’s half-year results to September demonstrate the scale of the problems as clothing sales in existing UK stores fell 5.9% and pre-tax profits fell 88%.
So a five year plan has been initiated by a large company with shrinking profits that needs to keep the stock market happy. The plan therefore looks at cutbacks and rationalisation not dynamic expansion. It would be great to see an M&S brand revival take place, but monoliths move very slowly and an entrepreneurial mind-set is needed for the type of radical transformation which would once more see M&S clothing as a star performer. If they get it wrong, the brand schizophrenia will be cured as the clothing brand is eventually killed off. If they get it right, by 2021 it will be cool to wear the M&S brand – or is that just a crazy idea!
Standing on the outside, it does seem that almost any brand strategy would be better for M&S clothing than the current one. When it started selling lingerie back in the 1920s, M&S quickly became famous for quality British-made clothing. For a long time it was seen as the go-to store for quality knitwear, tailoring, hosiery and underwear. If a woman wanted a plain cashmere jumper, that she could rely on to be well made, M&S was the clear answer.
Over the years M&S has had to fight the invasion of the high street by brands such as Primark and H&M at the value end and Next, Mango and Zara in the mid-market. Strategically these brands (Zara in particular) have a much better grip on sourcing, fast stock turnover and rapidly turning the catwalk looks into desirable high street clothing. In the meantime, M&S has positioned itself as fairly useful for stocking up of the basics, while developing a number of unclear sub-brands and providing an in-store experience that fails to motivate the modern shopper.
The current strategy, driven by finance, is to cutback on clothing and continue to expand food. But what should the M&S clothing strategy be? The answer is not simple but it could be M&S Simply Fashion!
There is already a movement back to British clothing manufacture and M&S should be seen to be leading this. It’s widely agreed that the sub-brand strategy with names like Autograph, Per Una, Indigo and Classic has failed. So a swift rationalisation to the M&S brand along with a back to basics focus on British-made quality and high quality British designers makes sense. However, M&S has tried this approach before and failed to correctly implement the strategy.
More than this, we would argue that attack is the best form of defence. Why does the clothes buying experience have to be inferior to the food shop? From a retail perspective, it makes far more sense to sell more of a reduced range from a smaller retail footprint than small numbers of a huge range from a giant retail footprint. It’s time to launch M&S Simply Fashion, smaller clothes shops with limited ranges of highly desirable and aspirational clothes that can turn the high street back into winning ground for M&S clothing. Shops that can both stand alone and simultaneously heal the schizophrenic rift in brand identity between food and clothing. Shops that present only the best of the M&S brand as one coherent identity focused on superior, innovative, cool British design and British made quality. Shops that by transforming the M&S clothing image can also be the high street brand ambassadors for the M&S clothing online presence.
Go on M&S clothing, dare to be cool by 2021 (or earlier if you can). As cool as your mini fresh fruit kebabs!