When Marks & Spencer unveiled its 'Your M&S' slogan in 2004, the strategy not only fended off a takeover bid from retail magnate Sir Philip Green, but also put the high-street brand on the road to recovery.
Executive director of marketing Steven Sharp said at the time that the marketing rethink was all about 'giving M&S back to the consumer'. Now, under the management of chief executive Marc Bolland, the retailer has again gone back to the drawing board, coming up with the strapline: 'Only at M&S.'
The slogan, which will be used alongside 'Your M&S', is intended to promote the appeal of the retailer's sub-brands.
However, while 'Only at M&S' has echoes of the retailer's previous marketing overhaul - like his predecessor Stuart Rose, Bolland is talking of the need for 'clarity' and removing 'duplication' of products - it also appears to reverse elements of the grand plan unveiled in 2004.
The previous ad strategy outlined by Sharp placed 'Your M&S' as the central brand, with each fashion offshoot, such as Blue Harbour, taking a back seat.
The idea was to position M&S as a single entity, rather than a series of brands. Noted at the time was the U-turn this represented from an earlier strategy set out by former executive director Vittorio Radice, who wanted stores to feature zones dedicated to sub-brands such as Per Una and Limited Collection.
Bolland's strategy to turn clothing labels including Per Una and Autograph into 'real brands' is something of a vindication for Radice, whose own, similar plan was publicly discarded by Rose.
'Under Roger Holmes, Rose's predecessor, the brand became too diffuse because so many sub-brands were launched,' says one source close to M&S. 'Do people not learn lessons from history? The same goes for M&S' plans to move back overseas. These were all things Rose said were wrong six years ago, and which led to a lack of focus. Now they are being heralded as the way forward.'
Going back another management generation, M&S unveiled 'Exclusively for everyone' as its slogan in 2000 - not dissimilar to 'Only at M&S', says the source. 'It was deemed to be sending the wrong message of exclusivity back then. There are so many elements of previous regimes in M&S' new plan - many of which were discredited in the past decade,' adds the source.
There are also some doubts about the validity of creating 'real brands', the intention of which is to draw in new customers who might not be attracted to the M&S name.
Nick Gray, chief executive of retail marketing agency Live & Breathe, argues that the strategy won't work. 'I can't see how M&S can achieve this. Creating separate campaigns for the sub-brands could be a step in the right direction, but even that would not be enough to create truly standalone brands,' he says.
However, Shore Capital retail analyst Ramona Tipnis believes there is value in the strategy because it clearly segments M&S' broad range of clothing.
'They should not make their brands too separate, but do something more akin to what is offered in Debenhams or House of Fraser. Bolland is sub-segmenting. It could work, but quality needs to be stressed to create consumer appeal,' she says.
Loss of quality?
Bolland accepts that a major challenge for M&S will be to smarten up its stores to better reflect the promise of quality made in its latest ad campaign.
However, the M&S source contends that the retailer has shifted away from its premium positioning, particularly where its food ads are concerned. 'When "Your M&S" launched, the food ads were all about the premium and quality, but now they seem much more populist in their approach,' he says. 'I question the use of Caroline Quentin and, overall, they make the food seem not so special. Perhaps "Only at M&S" and its renewed focus on premium will bring some of that quality feel back to the food offer.'
Although Bolland may have raided some previous M&S strategies when coming up with his 'new' approach, he still has targets to meet. He has declared, for instance, that he wants to add about £1.5bn to M&S' UK sales by 2014.
Shore Capital's Tipnis says this will be a challenge, and adds that investment will need to be 'front loaded' in the next 18 months to ensure early results.
With an extra £2m already being invested in its Christmas ads this year and a 12% increase in its marketing budget over the past six months to £64m, M&S is clearly not afraid to spend its way into shoppers' hearts - whether with or without a new strategy.
M&S PLANS INTO ACTION
- Launching 'Only at M&S' brand positioning to 'encapsulate its special qualities'.
- Creating a more inspiring in-store environment and improving in-store navigation.
- Introducing brand managers for sub-brand clothing labels.
- Expanding online innovations, such as made-to-measure men's shirts, to products including dresses and jeans.
- Cutting non-M&S-branded food lines from 400 to 100, but adding 100 international lines.
- Improving space efficiency to increase food range from 7000 to 8000 lines.
- Increasing focus on homewares and segmenting the offer into classic, contemporary and design.