OPINION: News Analysis - Rebuilding a bastion of Britain’s retail heritage/Marks and Spencer has discovered to its cost that being an institution in UK shopping doesn’t mean it can afford to rest on its reputational laurels

Last week, it emerged that Marks and Spencer is putting out feelers to recruit its first dedicated corporate affairs director since the departure of John Stanley in 1997. This fresh role would see a reorganisation of communications, with the new incumbent taking on responsibility for investor relations while heading public affairs, media relations and internal communications.

Last week, it emerged that Marks and Spencer is putting out feelers

to recruit its first dedicated corporate affairs director since the

departure of John Stanley in 1997. This fresh role would see a

reorganisation of communications, with the new incumbent taking on

responsibility for investor relations while heading public affairs,

media relations and internal communications.



However, this move also signals a growing recognition by the high street

retailer that, despite recent efforts, its corporate brand remains

somewhat insular and needs a good shake-up.



’The company is going through a period of rapid and significant change

and there are parts of the company where we feel we need to strengthen

our skills with externally recruited specialists,’ says corporate

communications executive Brian Hudspith.



Traditionally, M&S has tended to meet its communications needs by

promoting staff from within, but this latest announcement and the

appointment of two external members to the corporate PR team in the

forth quarter of last year, suggests that the retailer is looking beyond

the M&S mould for some brave new thinking.



There can be little doubt that the past few years have been nothing

short of disastrous for M&S. The retailer has suffered huge financial

losses and its reputation has taken a nose-dive with consumers and the

City.



Following a series of revamped product ranges and cost cutting exercises

at the end of last year, the retailer was hoping for a turnaround in its

fortunes. As PR Week went to print, M&S was about to announce its

eagerly awaited Christmas trading figures, which many investors hope

will end City speculation about possible takeover bids.



The retailer’s troubles are not helped by the absence of a company

chairman, following the departure of Sir Richard Greenbury, but change

is definitely on the agenda. M&S has adopted a more aggressive marketing

strategy and after years of what many viewed as arrogant resistance, has

finally decided to accept credit card payments. But some retail and City

experts question whether this is too little, too late.



Hudspith, who currently heads the M&S media relations, internal

communications and public affairs functions, says that shareholders need

more reassurance.



’Investor relations is relatively under-represented within the business

and it is something we recognise we have to do better,’ he says.



Media relations is always sensitive in the run-up to financial

disclosure, but his point is underlined by financial and corporate hired

help from Brunswick, which declined to comment on its client.



But while M&S has begun to turn around its merchandise - it recently

found favour in the fashion pages with its new Agent Provocateur

underwear range - its problems go beyond simple product range. Many

competitors who once imitated its brand values, can now boast a better

reputation for quality and beat it hands down on price. Tesco, for

instance, has stolen its crown on the fresh ready-meal front.



In addition, whereas style journalists once beat a trail to its door,

begging for the latest M&S product news, there are rumours that more

recently, the retailer has had to fight for coverage. Unlike five years

ago, when the product spoke for itself in the feature pages, the media

playing field has changed.



’Fashion and style journalism used to be almost independent of what goes

on in the City,’ says Jacqui Moore, senior board director of Jackie

Cooper PR. ’Now a fashion journalist will produce a balanced story,

talking to the business editor and looking at a wider picture than just

the product,’ she says.



Over the past two years, Moore has helped Debenhams develop its PR

strategy and build its reputation with consumers as a forward thinking

retailer.



The department store was not the first to bring in big name designers

such as Jasper Conran to create exclusive affordable ranges, but it was

the first to shout about it.



’The media embraced Debenhams for the right reasons,’ says Moore. And

while it is unfair to make comparisons, Moore is mystified by M&S’s

reluctance to play up its own design heritage, keeping names such as

Betty Jackson and Paul Smith in the background.



It would be easy to slam M&S as a company that has taken far too long to

address the increasing demands of its customers. But as a brand that up

to now has owed its survival purely to PR rather than advertising, it

still possesses an amazing wealth of goodwill. It may have ditched its

British selling point, but consumers are by no means turned off by its

traditional values of quality, service and value.



’I think M&S will become a text book example of the classic brand

cycle,’ says QBO managing director Trevor Morris, who has helped to

build brands for internet bank Egg and millennium bug-buster Action

2000.



He says that, only seven years ago, Tesco was seen as a poor relation to

Sainsbury’s, but campaigns such as Computers for Schools have helped to

reverse that. ’Recently it has been following the crowd and it needs to

lead, but there is enough equity left in the brand for it to

survive.’



The retailer may have to fight its corner with the City, but with the

continued injection of new blood into its communications, M&S is shaping

up to shrug off the baggage of the past few years.



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