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Jul 2011 21

why can’t customers just stop whinging?

Posted in blog

Customers eh?  Why don’t they just shut up and buy our stuff.  You’d think they had a choice or something.

This week has seen a customer rebellion against Sir Stuart Roses’ continued revamping of the Marks & Spencer retail brand, with a rather vocal section of minor shareholders at their AGM blaming the recent poor sales figures on styles that are too ‘young’ and unsuitable for the more ‘mature’ shopper, resulting in over 20% refusing to back his future plans.

Management hit back, saying the poor sales are a reflection of global markets with all retailers taking a hit, and have nothing to do with the brand being aimed ‘too young’ – indeed they intend to continue introducing more ‘cutting edge’ clothing ranges later this year. Are they in danger of ignoring the old marketing rule no.1 – the customer is always right?

Now, I personally wouldn’t be able to tell you the difference between a pencil or an a-line (I had to google for those words) but here at The Marketing Box we do know a thing or two about brands.

The retail industry is of course notoriously cutthroat and unpredictable, and whilst loyalty is strong, fashion waits for no (wo)man.  M&S has strong values in terms of quality, customer service and brand trust, but at the end of the day you live and die by your sales.

They were the brand of choice in the era of Diana, but after years of steady decline and an attempted takeover, four years ago Sir Stuart Rose took the bull by the horns and went full pelt for a revamp of image, which had arguably become somewhat ‘fuddy duddy’.

Twiggy was a masterstroke in brand marketing terms – showing her mixing it with the young’uns had a widespread appeal. It gave the older customers a confidence to wear styles they previously wouldn’t have, and it introduced a new breed of customers to the M&S name. Recently however it’s the concentration purely on the younger models like Lily Cole and her ‘plunging necklines’ that has produced rumblings of complaint from the grey brigade.

Of course, the clothes too have to follow through on the brand promise if you’re going to make it work.  Despite the fact that it seems icons like Kate Moss et al could persuade younger folk to stick a plant pot on their heads, the older clientele perhaps need a little more consideration. With new lines based around bondage and leopard print designs it seems the brand is stretching what the mature crowd are prepared to be seen wearing at the local Sally Army fete.  ‘Far too much cleavage on show’ seems to be a firm warning that the brand repositioning is happening too fast for a significant part of the customer base.

But how significant? Coining a retail phrase and being utterly brutal, the majority of these protesting shareholders are …ahem…a bit past their own sell by dates.  Yes, they form a major part of the core M&S market but the management know that they won’t be around as long as the new generation.  Right now, in the thick of a recession, there’s high demand for ‘throw away’ clothes the likes of Primark provide, but when the economy recovers this group are likely to move up a grade or two – potentially into M&S territory. If they were to kowtow to this complaining group now what would that say to this potentially lucrative younger generation of future customers?  We’re back to the ‘fuddy duddy’ image that was nearly the death of them before.

Perhaps the answer lies in the long established M&S core values such as quality, service and value for money, rather than trying to be seen as trend leaders.  You cannot appeal to everyone’s particular tastes, but quality never goes out of fashion as they say, and it’s difficult to argue against the wide-ranging appeal of those highly prised and hard fought for USPs.

When you’re not a niche marketer, you’re always going to have a problem at corporate brand level of appealing to all of your target groups needs – that is after all how niche players are able to pick away at your customer base.

The trick is to keep ahead of what the largest majority want, and listen to them most intently, without alienating your ‘fringe’ customers at the same time. If those fringe customers become too alien, then you’re into sub-brand or different brand territory.

So don’t expect to see an exciting new range of twin set and beads anytime soon at your local M&S, but do be confident that if your leopard print teeny bikini falls apart on the beach, you will get a full refund no questions asked.


Posted by: Rob Paton, Director, The Marketing Box