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M&S has missed a massive opportunity to put digital strategy at its heart

BBH chief digital officer Lindsay Nuttall, who was formerly a top marketer at BBC One and ASOS, explores why Marks & Spencer is reporting an 8% fall in dotcom sales today and why its fashion is being left on the rack.

BBH's Lindsay Nuttall analyses the woes of M&S

BBH's Lindsay Nuttall analyses the woes of M&S

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What has happened to M&S? It has a serious user experience issue, that’s what.

The last two times I shopped in M&S were startlingly disappointing. The first time I had specifically gone to seek out a powder blue duster coat that the fashion PR machine had seduced me with.

The long awaited and much trumpeted site relaunch is pretty boring and lacks the simplicity, elegance and near perfect usability of johnlewis.com

I hunted through the store in vain, which was in itself annoying, but the more frustrating thing was that there was not a single assistant anywhere to be found on the shop floor. This was Marble Arch, their London flagship, and there was tumbleweed blowing through it. I felt nostalgic remembering the days went you went for your first bra and were ambushed by a virtual rugby squad of kindly, helpful, knowledgeable staff trying to help you with your purchase. Where had everyone gone?

The second time I was in the unwanted Christmas gift returns queue in the Trafford Centre in Manchester. It snaked for miles, hot, unstaffed and unmoving. Stationary for thirty minutes, as a single bedraggled assistant failed to sate the impatient glares of the hungover boxing day crowd, eventually I gave up and resolved to hang on to my duplicate dressing gown.

Another service own goal. And probably the fundamental pillar of the M&S brand forever obliterated in my eyes.

M&S invented great user experience. Sure it was before everything got all digital and snazzy but they invented the concept of the no quibbles speedy refund before any of us even new what an iPhone was.

Service foundations like these underpinned a brand that stood for reliability and trust. Unshakable values that any modern company would swap their favourable net promoter score for.

So what exactly has gone wrong at M&S?

The fact that M&S has fallen behind the hurtling pace of digital development is undeniable. The long awaited and much trumpeted site relaunch didn’t look like an outright fail on the surface, but it’s pretty boring and lacks the simplicity, elegance and near perfect usability of johnlewis.com.

At the Beeb, we often saw traffic and engagement figures drop initially with each new release of iPlayer before they recovered and got into positive growth

Marc Bolland is arguing that today's backslide in sales through the site was to be expected as they transition between platforms. I have a certain amount of sympathy for that – at the Beeb, we often saw traffic and engagement figures drop initially with each new release of iPlayer before they recovered and got into positive growth.

Why M&S accepted a technology strategy that would necessitate all of its registered customers to have to re-register though is a bit baffling. Making things a massive hassle is the kiss of death for digital engagement from today’s time poor consumer. Coupled with the scathing customer reviews citing instability and design flaws in the app, it indicates a worrying trend in lack of customer centricity from M&S in the digital space.

If you look under the hood and do the customary analysis department by department the story is largely unchanged.

Food, the Ryan Gigs of the operation, is still consistently good and General Merchandise (driven by womenswear) is still pretty much a disaster.

But the bigger issue than the performance of any single department is that M&S just doesn’t feel that relevant anymore.

As a massive mainstream brand, it’s not the job of M&S to lead and define popular culture, but at it’s best it did find ways to pierce it and feel part of the collective national consciousness.

I was sitting in the audience at the Marketing Society Awards the year that RKCR, Steve Sharp and Stuart Rose won for ‘Your M&S’. The impact the campaign had on public confidence in the store restored its fortunes. The food and talent work was bold, fresh and surprising. It knew exactly what it wanted to say and it said it with confidence. It was our M&S and we were proud of it.

Whose M&S is it now?

It’s kind of a weird reverse euthanasia where the older consumer can smother you to death with the pillow of their kind affection

Sadly the past glories of the £10 meal deal, the T shirt bra, percy pig and the ubiquitous caterpillar cake have all faded.

It feels like RKCR (who are a brilliant agency that I very much respect) are given a wildly different brief with every season.

I know from my time on BBC One that continuous re-invention of a brand that has a strong "heartland" consumer can psyche even the hardiest of marketers out. You want to super serve your most loyal customers but if you don’t push the edges of the brand to engage with new consumers, you will never stay relevant.

It’s kind of a weird reverse euthanasia where the older consumer can smother you to death with the pillow of their kind affection.

It feels like M&S have attempted to reach for a younger fashion customer without fully understanding the rules of that game, while simultaneously also managing to alienate their core shopper. Bringing them both successfully is a delicate line to tread, but one that other famous retail brands have managed with cool, credibility and aplomb (please refer to Liberty).  

The truth is, this conundrum is actually less about age segmentation of your customer base and more about a brand having a point of view, having it’s finger on the pulse of modern culture, being dynamic and progressive, taking risks and carrying itself confidently in the modern world. If a brand can do that successfully, it can unite its constituent audiences and build appreciation across all of them, without getting tied up in segmentation knots.

Burberry and The Guardian have led the way

The smartest people in the world managing the most respected brands are still finding digital transformation an enormous challenge

M&S have missed a massive opportunity to do what two other great British businesses have done so successfully - drive a ‘digital first’ strategy aggressively and creatively right through the heart of their business. Both Burberry and The Guardian threw down the digital gauntlet years ago - driving every part of the operation forward using a digital lens and they both have the revenue growth to show for it. They have led the global consumer and used digital experiences to surprise and delight them.

Had M&S followed suit, I can only imagine what amazing customer service innovation we could now be experiencing from them and how it might have transformed their offer in, for example, womenswear. Never mind Nick Robertson headhunting Kate Bostock from M&S to ASOS, surely Marc Bolland should have been phoning [former ASOS buying director] Caren Downie?

Noone would claim that this is an easy challenge. The leaked New York Times innovation report only goes to show that some of the smartest people in the world managing the most respected brands are still finding digital transformation an enormous challenge. But today M&S doesn’t even really look like it’s on the starting blocks and if they don’t make a serious attempt to grapple with it soon, I worry about where this is headed.

I have everything crossed that their move to give the executive team a more holistic view across physical and digital retail is a step in the right direction this week and could set the wheels in motion for wholesale reinvention. They need to refocus on creating a user experience (and by that I mean every single touch point of the brand in physical and digital) that is consistently elegant, rewarding and exciting.

I am rooting for M&S to succeed and I am genuinely looking for a reason to re-engage with it

I suspect I am representative of most of The Great British Public when I say that I am rooting for M&S to succeed and I am genuinely looking for a reason to re-engage with it.

Back in 2006 ‘Your M&S’ put the emotional ownership of this much-loved brand squarely in our collective national hands. It is our M&S. But we’ve moved on. And if it’s going to win back our hearts and minds M&S needs to show us it’s capable of keeping up.

This article was first published on marketingmagazine.co.uk

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