M&S’s new ad campaign will struggle to reverse slumping fashion sales

Craig Wills
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YOU CAN visualise the meeting at Marks & Spencer’s headquarters when its new campaign, advertising its make-or-break Autumn collection, was finalised. An ad agency suggests the idea of female empowerment and the boardroom battleground. Any actual brand idea is forgotten, as the rolodex spins and agents are called. Actress Helen Mirren, artist Tracey Emin, author Monica Ali, boxer Nicola Adams, and photographer Annie Leibovitz are all found to be free. The shoot is on.

The backdrop to every step M&S takes is emotionally charged. We all own a little bit of M&S in our hearts, and with this comes scrutiny laced with hope. “Your M&S” is taken literally. And rightly we all demand more from it than other retailers. But while Plan A, M&S’s much-vaunted green programme which seeks to improve sustainability in its supply chain, puts a real stake in the ground, and M&S Food celebrates its support of localism and farming partnerships, this fashion campaign lacks depth. It is whimsical, confused and sadly transparent.

We are told that Leibovitz is “perfect”, for instance, and conveys the essence of “the new M&S”. But what is this new M&S? It looks the same, smells the same, is priced the same, and is sourced the same.

An ad campaign does not shape a new brand, it is an expression of that brand. M&S is a brand based on integrity, truth, and principles – the opposite of hypocrisy. Yet “womanism”, marketing chief Steven Sharp’s preferred catchall for this campaign, is a long-established term coined to describe black feminism – for those who felt excluded by mainstream movements. This looks like a misguided attempt to co-opt feminist values to sell fashion.

And in shying away from actually delivering tangible values, or supporting a genuinely positive agenda, the campaign “idea” is not supported by M&S products or policies.

Yes, a company can raise a debate, but it must also commit to a change to support and lobby on. If a brand puts its head above the parapet in the digital world, people rightly demand more. I want to hear the debate these famous women had, I want to read their stories of empowerment, I want to join in. Brands are open source, and people see them as media channels in their own right, free to debate beyond core fashion ranges. Delve deeper, and we find that M&S does have something tangible to be proud about. Now 23 per cent of its board are women – positively leading the charge ahead of the 17 per cent FTSE 100 average.

I have no doubt that the intention behind this campaign was great. But it was unconsidered at a concept and brand level. This means it will be a campaign strained to somehow flog clothes. If the best advocate statement is Emin claiming that she spends half her life in her M&S PJs, this is not the sort of empowerment that will drag the debate forward. Consequently, I fear the financial dials will also languish. Last month, M&S announced clothing sales had fallen for the eighth consecutive quarter. I doubt this campaign will change very much.

Craig Wills is executive strategy director at brand consultancy The Gild London.