M&S: Marks-eting 101


Can any brand be all things to all people?

I begin this blog as an ardent M&S fan - from a Burberry copycat trenchcoat to that Chloe inspired blush dress - many of the most commented-upon stuff in my wardrobe is from the store that has had one of the biggest presences on our high street for over a century. The following armchair critique is written fondly, and with genuine concern for a brand I love.

It’s no secret things are looking pretty grim for Marks & Sparks, with news of 100 stores closing  and last week criticism from the Guardian that their ‘everywoman’ audience is a myth.

Woe indeed, but it’s a complicated woeful picture.  What do you think of when you think of M&S?

For a lot of us, it’s food. How many times have you or a friend used the “It’s not just (insert basic foodstuff here, let’s say: beans on toast) it’s M&S beans on toast” phrase for comedic effect? That campaign cheekily acknowledged the behaviour we’d adopted long before the ad went live - M&S food is nicer than any other supermarket food, we shop there to treat ourselves. There’s no mistaking an apple from M&S. Crisp, sweet and almost arrogantly free of bruises. When it comes to food, they had a point of view and they stood by it. The unashamed approach to comms (and a lot of cash spent with velvet-voiced Dervla Kirwan) built a food brand everyone recognises and has likely kept the high street crocodiles at bay with 30 standalone food stores opening this year.  

Food - yes. Homeware - not bad either. But clothes? Hmm, questionable.

In the 90s I used to follow my mum around our newly opened retail park M&S (back in the day when retail parks were exciting, novelty trips out) for a loyalty promo evening where women of a certain age were plied with warm cava and salty crisps. It worked, we never came away empty handed usually with a new (and quickly beloved) item for everyone in the family.

So, what happened?

It’s a store that has, historically, been a lot of things to a lot of people. The question M&S must be urgently asking itself now is can any brand be all things to all people in an age when any style of any thing is a few clicks away? You feel like being a punk today? Dr Martens can be with you tomorrow. You want to copy Caroline Flack’s exact outfit from last night’s Love Island? Next day, no problem.

When you go into an M&S clothing department, it’s hard to know who the clothes are trying to talk to. Apart from the odd gem, and the basics (underwear, PJs - both dreamy) the offering is confused. It could be for nan, but if she knows how to work it it could also be for her 25 year old granddaughter too. My mum is now in her 70s and doesn’t buy much from M&S anymore, to be honest she’s more likely to find something in Topshop. The customer has to work too hard to work the M&S offering out. There’s no point of view.

If the M&S story tells us anything, it’s that a brand needs to know who it is, what it does and, critically, what it doesn’t do.

I believe you can’t be everything to everyone, but you can be a few things to a few people. I may not want the crop top offering from Topshop now I’m in my 30s but I’ll take a high waisted trouser tailored to perfection for forty quid most pay days, thanks.

Topshop doesn’t try and cater for all ages or tastes, if you don’t like loud print or bodycon, you can find other stuff but they’re not ashamed to show you the daring lines first. ASOS, the godfather of ecommerce fashion is almost overwhelming in its breadth, but it clearly goes after several distinct demographics and makes sure there’s enough on site to keep them coming back. And the only way bricks-and-mortar neighbour Primark gets away with a few duff designs is because it’s selling them for a fiver.

The ‘all things to all people’ approach in M&S means you never quite know what you’ll find and not always in a good way. I enjoy the treasure trove approach to shopping, but I know I’d buy more things if finding them felt less like potluck.

The story also tells us that celebrity collaborations aren’t enough. It’s said that 45 Rosie Huntington-Whiteley bras are sold every minute in the UK which is an undoubted success story, but likely isolated to the underwear section. How many celeb-inspired women have zipped past the fashion rails to go straight for one of her bras before leaving the store moments later?  

So, what can we learn? No matter how big you are, any brand can still have a Kodak moment (and I sincerely hope this isn’t M&S’s). To mitigate, evolve your direction and don’t be afraid to lose people along the way. Go and find a point of view and keep checking it’s relevant, not just to you, but to a good chunk of other people too. Turn your point of view into your craft - build it into your products, weave it into customer experience. It’s OK to say farewell to a chunk of your audience as long as you’re welcoming in a new one.

M&S isn’t an isolated high street tale of woe, but it’s perhaps the most meaningful and I don’t envy their challenge.  

While they figure it out, I’ll continue to shop there, treasure-trove style, for as long as I can. In the meantime I hope it finds a point of view, and makes it irresistible to someone, not everyone. 

Anna Hardman, Head of Editorial

BlogEduard Chilcos