Can Marks & Spencer’s new campaign avoid that looming brand iceberg?

Is M&S heading towards the brand iceberg?

The Titanic link is a mental vision for me of trouble ahead and I’m wondering if the folk on the bridge are looking the right way. They claimed the Titanic could never sink but the unthinkable happened.

I think the jury is out on whether M&S have got their mojo back after sailing through some choppy waters with ice-flows quietly passing by. The City interested parties are watching with interest to see if the Autumn/Winter women’s collection is the answer to their hopes and share price.

An email popped up today from M&S, full of the detail of the new campaign featuring “some of the country’s most inspirational women”. There is a video link that runs for about one minute forty with some of the ladies featured talking about their approach to life; the famous and fabulous Annie Leibovitz on photographic duties.

Here’s a short version:

What struck me today – the niggle I’ve had in the back of my mind I couldn’t quite articulate – was ‘what does M&S stand for in today’s world?’ I’ve commented on their advertising several times because it isn’t joined-up; each new campaign is a different take on the brand.

The last time M&S put their business up for pitch I was at Ogilvy. We pitched along with other agencies and lost to Y&R when Rainey, Kelly and Campbell were there. I remember very clearly as though it was yesterday the leading pillar of the planning community, Beth Barry, saying in the pitch “I don’t know what you stand for,” which probably lost us the business.

However she was so right and since then, about 12 years ago, nothing really has changed. That means for over a decade of M&S has not had a central organising idea that binds together their business.

Without a central organising idea companies do not have a compass that keeps everyone pointing in the same direction. Think about Audi and “Vorsprung durch Technik” which was created by BBH a few decades ago. Since that time Audi have changed models, introduced new ones, done numerous product upgrades but the anchor has been “VdT”. This is where people get confused between a line and a manifesto. Bolt-on lines are useless in most cases, but a manifesto is central to a brand’s reason for existing.

In Audi’s case “VdT” has been a manifesto underpinning everything they do and gives us a potent reason to consider the marque, whatever type of car we might want.

I wish no ill of any kind to M&S, there is no reason to, but out of ‘professional’ interest I think they have become a great case study for business schools on how big, established brands can lose that essential compass. One of the many implications can be the biggest expression of the brand, advertising, isn’t grounded in something core to the brand.

M&S must have stacks of research and I assume the ‘Leading Ladies’ idea is based on some form of insight and has been checked out. I suspect the ‘brand iceberg’ however is still lurking out there in the dark and a great deal rests on the performance of the new campaign – fingers crossed.

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