Marks, get set, terrible

Ready for Marks and Spencer’s “gamechanger”?

Sigh. Marks’ problems are too broad and tangled to summarise in a clean and tidy sentence but here’s a snapshot: it needs customers.

That’s one revelation, here’s another: relief for Marks’ deep-rooted problems will only come via a tapestry of change that’s woven through brand, cost, quality, choice, range and supply – and PhD papers could be written on Marks’ relationship to each. Even if change-hungry Chief Exec Steve Rowe finds a magic wand, the retailer’s got a hell of a road to walk if it’s to coax Miss Lidl, Mister Tesco, Madam Waitrose and Lord Whole Foods back to the Food Hall.

What M&S needs is a “gamechanger”. But I’m not sure a video camera, four celebrities, dinner party bants and social media nom noms quite qualifies.

In Amanda Holden and Paddy McGuinness, Mark’s new concept is fronted by two of TV’s highest paid talents while a third, Holly Willoughby, has just been announced as the face of the clothing brand. This celeb movement is a scatty punt while finances are in freefall.

In the celebs themselves we can see the demographics M&S wants to snare. There’s young, there’s pretty, there’s socially mobile (there’s even a very faint nod at representation) and it’s all gathered around a dinner table. The image may resonate with Marks’ metro target audience, it might even shift a few extra cottage pies.

But let’s consider – Marks is going for the middle. For brand architecture and legacy reasons, Marks hasn’t the dexterity to aim anywhere but the middle: its brand can’t plunge low, its business can’t afford to go high. And unfortunately for Marks, the middle, in the UK in 2018, is just a rubbish place for retailers to be. Unless of course you unequivocally stand for something – and Marks’ food business doesn’t.

The middle class bracket has been butchered: sliced and diced along spiritual, ethical, value and lifestyle lines. Through a combination of obstinance and digital naivety, Marks has failed to keep pace with the middle and the sexy, younger, digital, socially mobile middle they seek has long moved on.

Those sub-40 foodie types definitely exist, but their tastes and habits were shaped 10 years ago when Marks wasn’t necessarily interested in wooing them; or in playing the digital game. What’s more likely is that these shoppers will continue to shop with a Waitrose or a Whole Foods, an Ocado or the farmer’s market, because the habit is more entrenched and there’s a deeper moral, sustainable, ethical relationship at play.

Moreover, in Paddy and Amanda et al this is a populist choice of celeb. It plays more to a broader working middle: aspirational shoppers who are prepared to pay for a little luxury. The problem is that, for this group, luxury probably comes in other areas: clothes, holidays, entertainment etc. Food is often the counterbalance: people save on the everydays to pay for high-end tastes. Marks may think its aspirational timbre might convert families who look up – but these are people who’ve been shopping at Lidl or ASDA for donkeys for that very reason.

The videos themselves resemble Saturday Kitchen albeit with saccharine emojis and an even cacklier soundtrack. And because no one will say anything negative, it’s a credibility vacuum. “Oh now I can taste the mint” and “I love mushrooms.”

Who gives a shitake?

In short, it’s a miss all around. Regional accents and Paddy McGuinness lols aren’t going to launch Marks into either the digital stratosphere, nor the hearts and minds of the middle. Are Tarquin and Jasmine, Peter and Jo really going to watch or care what Rochelle makes of her coq au vin? Were something a little more extreme involved – bungee Bolognese, skydive Stroganoff or Paddy munching on the beating heart of an alligator – then the 20-somethings might appreciate the spectacle but it’s all too forced and gentile. It’s as edgy as a grapefruit with little to latch onto.

The campaign is vaguely bantersome. For all its hints at social mobility and the middle class family, Marks has truly underappreciated how complicated those beats are to hit unless your brand architecture is rubbery and malleable enough to understand and own the territory properly.

Marks is preaching to a tight demographic who, by now, are reasonably settled in their food retail habits. Even if they don’t have brand loyalty to a Sainsbury’s or a Tesco, they know where they are not going to shop. And because this group’s retail lexicon was shaped in an era when Marks wasn’t trying to win them, that means M&S.

Marks, in this instance, is a Johnny-cum-lately to the digital dinner party. It needs to pull a pretty impressive rabbit out of the oven if it’s to convince middle bracket shoppers they’re missing out … and this is not that.

Paddy’s arms look good though.