Three months have passed since Marks & Spencer executive chairman Sir Stuart Rose admitted that his company had been trumped by Waitrose. At the announcement of M&S' 2009 final-quarter results, he conceded its rival had, as he put it, 'bested' it in food sales.
Now, as Rose prepares to step down to a non-executive role ahead of the arrival of chief-executive designate Marc Bolland on 1 May, M&S has revised its food marketing strategy. It has dropped the long-running 'food porn' approach, created by RKCR/Y&R, in favour of one focusing on messages of quality, provenance, sourcing, price and ethics. Its latest ads, also created by RKCR/Y&R, broke last week. Gone is the 'This is not... ' line; in its place, 'Just because' is used. The slogan 'Quality worth every penny' appears on-screen.
M&S has already begun evolving its food offering. Last year, it said it would stock branded goods for the first time in its 125-year history. It is also trialling fresh-food counters, such as a Butcher's Shop, Fish Shop and rotisserie, which might suggest it is focusing on becoming a supermarket.
This is a charge refuted by a spokesman for M&S. 'We are simply reminding people of the quality, provenance and value of our food,' he says. 'The advertising reflects why M&S food is so special and different, and the strapline, "Just because", illustrates that.'
His statement could be viewed as at odds with the fact that M&S continues to invest in its lower-priced Wise Buys range, but the spokesman denies any contradiction. 'M&S continues to cater for the widest range of customers,' he says. 'Wise Buys runs across 500 everyday products, which is about 10% of our food range. The competitive prices reassure customers that they can economise at M&S without compromising on quality.'
Malcolm Pinkerton, a senior retail analyst at research firm Verdict, is not convinced. 'Competitors have come into M&S' space, which is in quality, but others are able to do it cheaper and better,' he argues. 'You can't blame it for trying to differentiate itself in this way, but it isn't particularly strong, innovative or exciting. It has lost its way a bit with who it should be targeting.'
Conversely, Pinkerton believes Waitrose, which has had a similar customer base, is getting its communications right. It has just launched a push based on a tie-up with high-profile chefs Heston Blumenthal and Delia Smith, aimed at inspiring the nation to cook.
'Waitrose is listening and responding to its customers. The new campaign exploits the success of others and fits well with the Waitrose brand,' he adds.
Melissa Robertson, managing director of Waitrose's ad agency, MCBD, says the campaign is part of a deliberate change of tack by the supermarket. 'For the past few years, it has actively been seeking to democratise its offering and make more people aware of the value it offers,' she adds.
Robertson claims the activity is not focused on differentiation with M&S, but admits that it helps in this regard. 'M&S is more about meal solutions, and Waitrose is more about food and cooking,' she adds. 'We are galvanising the nation to do more cooking, which probably more overtly pulls the brand in the opposite direction to M&S.'
Pinkerton is in no doubt that further changes will come at M&S. 'Given time, Bolland will try to communicate a clear message throughout food, and it won't be long before he makes sweeping changes,' he adds.
These may be necessary if M&S is to prevent itself from being 'bested' again by convincing shoppers it is a true alternative to Waitrose.