Is this year’s Christmas campaign the last chance saloon for Marks & Spencer boss Marc Bolland?

M&S issued a press release on October 30 announcing its ‘widely anticipated’ Christmas TV campaign; today it gets its ‘consumer premier’ on the M&S website and social media channels ahead of the big reveal in the centre break of Coronation Street on November 6.

M&S appear to leap from one idea to the next every time a new seasonal campaign is developed; we had the Leading Ladies poster campaign for the autumn/winter range, I can reveal they won’t be seen this Christmas – however they will be replaced by more posh females.

Unknown-3The press release goes on to say ‘the campaign revives the famous Magic & Sparkle catchphrase’. Get it, M&S? I must say not something I’ve heard before but I’m prepared to accept that’s me and not them.

Marc Bolland has been the CEO since May 2010. He worked at Heineken for just under 20 years before joining Morrisons as CEO for four years. Mr Bolland has had a mixed press since joining M&S due to the dip in sales of their clothing ranges. However, to be fair, the share price has risen from £353.70 when he joined to £494.70 this week, a rise of 40 per cent or about a 13 per cent improvement each year he has been the boss. So had we invested £10 in May 2010 it would be worth £14 today; not bad given the state of the economy over the same time period.

My understanding is the food side of the business has been the winner whereas the traditional knickers, bras, pants and socks business has not been too sparkling.

Looking at M&S from the outside I don’t understand the linkage between the advertising and the heart of the brand as experienced by the stores. For example the new TV campaign features Rosie Huntington-Whitely and Helena Bonham Carter and the client in charge is Patrick Bousquet-Chavanne; it feels like a double-barrelled trio unconnected to the great unwashed who are the heart of M&S customers.

I keep thinking the TV extravaganzas are about what the client wants to be rather than what they are. One clue might be the client. Patrick Bousquet-Chavanne worked for Estee Lauder for 20 years, took five years out and then joined M&S as executive director, marketing & business development in July this year. He has clearly been indoctrinated by the shallow world of cosmetics and fragrances. It’s all about selling hope unlike M&S which is about selling basics. Given the timing I would guess he has been pretty close to the new TV work.

In the press release Mr B-C said: “With this year’s ad we wanted to recapture the magical essence of Christmas that our customers tell us is synonymous with M&S.” I somehow doubt that, I think the reality is a late rush into M&S, buying up piles of random clothes, spraying them around the family on Christmas Day then, having retained all of the receipts, most of it is returned on Boxing Day.

He also goes on to say: “the advertising is a modern epic where fashion meets fantasy – bringing to life much loved fairy tales with more than a sprinkle of high glamour”. This is where I think it goes pear-shaped. What has ‘high glamour’ got to do with M&S? It is a disconnect, a desire on the part of the retailer, unrelated to the poor folk trudging around in the cold and wet buying cheap pants and socks for their grandpa/uncle/brother/son.

One of the challenges with PLC boards is often the total lack of understanding regarding the slightly abstract notion of brand management. M&S has seven executive directors who are specialists in categories, six non-executive directors (including Martha Lane Fox) plus a chairman. My bet is the majority of board meetings are taken up with non-marketing issues and my guess is there is never any discussion about the management of their brand.

The two with marketing/advertising backgrounds on the PLC board are Mr Bolland and Mr Bousquet-Chavanne, one with 20 years in booze and the other with 20 years in cosmetics and fragrances; it would be interesting to learn if either of them has been at the centre of a major turnaround; a big challenge for the M&S brand.

Prior to Bolland joining Morrisons I worked with them for several years when Sir Ken Morrison was in charge; his presence, personality, beliefs ran through the retailer like the proverbial stick of rock; wherever you broke it the brand’s stamp was totally consistent. Since Sir Ken retired I feel the Morrison’s brand has meandered all over the place.

The sales figures published after Christmas will be very important for the M&S board and if they have failed to improve the non-food business it might mean time for heads to roll. Currently they are emailing frequent price reduction offers; this weekend, for example, its cut price shoes. It feels like pressure to get those sales up before the year end.

Returning to advertising I would have thought M&S would have taken a few tips from John Lewis. Their seasonal promotion has been outstanding and genuinely ‘widely anticipated’ ; JLP focuses on one emotional point executed with understated panache, whereas M&S does the exact opposite.

There is no doubt the work will be polished within an inch of its life, directed by Johan Renck who has directed various music videos and campaigns for designer fashion houses, on behalf of RKCR/Y&R. I look forward to centre break in Corrie this coming Wednesday.

(BTW – the teaser on the M&S website has a white Highland Terrier running down a street and disappearing down a hole in the road. I’ve always wanted one of these called Jimmy so I can walk on Hampstead Heath calling out “Hey Jimmy.”)


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