The new M&S advertising won’t turn this fading star’s graph from decline to incline

Over the last year or so I’ve compared the advertising output of M&S and John Lewis several times; last Christmas I gave a thumbs down for M&S and thumbs up for John Lewis. Neither was an opinion of the quality of the work, both very good, but more to do with the ‘fit’ with the brand.

By coincidence we have the opportunity to compare and contrast yet again with John Lewis and their insurance TV spot plus the new campaign from M&S. And again I have the same reaction. Both have excellent advertising agencies working for them, so there should be equality on all aspects of the process such as planning, briefing, creative resource, etc., but one seems to hit the bulls-eye and the other misses by a mile – again! I’m beginning to think the clients are the key to the outcomes.

John Lewis appears to have a real handle on their target audience and they also seem to have the confidence to be understated in how they talk to middle England. Last Christmas a snowman trudges up hill and down dale to acquire a scarf and gloves for Mrs. Snowman with an INXS track in the background (aimed at 40 ‘somethings’ who would have been around 18 when it first hit the airwaves).

The current home insurance spot follows a similar formula. Clever visual technique making it very watchable with another vintage track from Fleetwood Mac, same decade as INXS. No product sell, nothing overstated, just an emotional roller coaster for John Lewis fans. After seeing the TV spot I picked up the insurance literature in Peter Jones (the posh John Lewis in Sloane Square)!

Cut to M&S. Last Christmas we had ‘Christmas Hits’ featuring a montage of cool people, young and older, jumping around to the various tracks in M&S gear. What was on screen had a) little to do with their actual customer base and b) nothing to do with the stores. If someone had just landed from the moon and saw that spot they would have felt very let down when they checked out the stores.

I think they have done it again with their autumn/winter campaign. This time the cool people and music have been replaced by upmarket photography of posh people – ‘Leading Ladies’. Same mistake all over again, not their target audience and not their stores. Why do they keep repeating the same mistake? It’s an attempt at re-positioning M&S in the eyes of both falling current and lapsed customers who have gone elsewhere. I don’t think it will work.

Years ago I put together a visual model for senior client management that put brands in to three life stages of brand equity strength; Rising Stars, Orbiting Stars and Fading Stars. Every brand experiences this journey whether it is over two years or fifty. A potential move from one zone to the next requires radical shifts in strategy. The management trick is knowing where their brand is at today and tomorrow. The tough zone is Fading Stars as the descent takes on a life of its own – just consider in the retail space Comet, Blockbuster, Blacks, Woolworth – who went bump in the night – and others having a challenging time such as French Connection.

M&S has been a Fading Star for some years now as their customers desert them for alternative on-line and off-line brands. Advertising can’t fix this problem, as a friend of mine said, “it’s like painting lipstick on a gorilla, it’s still a gorilla”. M&S keep painting lipstick on their business hoping it will tempt deserters back to check out the new ranges. However it is the whole package that needs changing, not the advertising. In the business press stories continue about investor dissatisfaction with M&S and the threat to the senior management’s long term employment prospects.

M&S has been an Orbiting Star for decades and maybe just became complacent, maybe slow to predict how the landscape would impact on their business, on the back foot with the whole retail experience. Former boss Stuart Rose’s timing was immaculate when he stepped down. Maybe he saw it coming?

The reality today is that the speed of change is much faster than it was twenty years ago and all businesses, big or small, need their forward radar switched on to full if they are to avoid the fickleness of the great unwashed; as many observers have commented power has moved from the advertiser to the advertised.

M&S have a big job on their hands to turn the graph from decline to incline; the current advertising won’t do it for them.

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