Matthew Chambers, Marks & Spencer's head of external marketing, looked downright nervous as he set the videotape rolling at Baker Street last week. And no wonder, in just 60 seconds' time the most widely anticipated advertising campaign of the year would be unveiled before a hungry media desperate to find out just how M&S was planning to re-invent itself.
As Chambers well knew, there is more at stake in this campaign than simply making advertising history. Yes, it's big news that Marks & Spencer has bowed to the inevitable and become a mainstream advertiser. And using a size-16 model stripping naked has certainly generated some headlines.
But M&S is also hoping these ads can do what revamping stores, accepting credit cards and pulling in designer labels have so far failed to achieve - reverse its plummeting sales and restore its former glory.
Marks & Spencer chairman Luc Vandevelde made this quite plain in the internal communications film sent out to every M&S store this week. 'I believe it (the advertising) can dramatically restore our brand image,' he stated. 'I am confident it will translate into increased sales.'
Advertising, the missing piece
MT Rainey, chief executive of M&S' ad agency, Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R, goes as far as to say: 'Advertising is the one thing M&S has been missing.'
She adds: 'It is not every day that we see a real opportunity for advertising to make a difference to a brand, but in this case it can do just that. M&S has a voice and this campaign will give it to them.'
These are bold statements considering the predicament in which M&S finds itself. It is now almost two years since the company first started to fall from grace, and it has yet to stem its decline.
In May profits fell from pounds 546.1m to pounds 417.5m - just a fraction of the pounds 1bn profit the chain pulled in a few years ago - and despite store revamps, reports last week suggest clothing sales are still significantly down on last year.
It is not surprising that a number of reputations are riding on this advertising. It is the first major effort from Alan McWalter, the marketing chief brought in from Woolworths last year to turn the M&S brand around, as it is from Rainey Kelly and Walker Media, his recently appointed agencies, and from Chambers himself, who is closely involved in the ad strategy.
This is the first time M&S has run a single campaign promoting everything from fitting rooms to food. And although the pounds 20m media spend forecast for the coming year is similar to last year's budget, this time the majority will go on TV. Poster, press, mailings and in-store brand communications will all support the TV executions.
But those who were expecting M&S to transform itself overnight into Gap, with an all singing, all dancing branding exercise, will be disappointed.
Instead, Rainey Kelly has gone for a more straightforward approach, by simply telling customers what's new in-store.
The first two TV ads, breaking this Friday, promote M&S' autumn clothing collection and its new sizing system for womenswear, which is designed to suit a fuller UK figure. The first ad shows three women 'secretly' rejoicing at signs of impending autumn - such as a gloomy weather forecast and finding an autumn leaf in the park. Instead of looking disappointed, each seems delighted, exclaiming 'Yes!' as they look forward to updating their autumn wardrobe at M&S. The second, and more headline-stealing ad, shows a curvaceous model running up a grassy hill, stripping off her clothes until she stands at the top naked, yelling 'I'm normal'.
Further executions will break throughout the autumn, again focusing on specific products such as a new line of vegetarian food, and a range of ready meals called Come Home To, based on traditional British cooking.
Rainey explains the positioning: 'In research, we found that people have a deep rooted passion for M&S products - something that is very rare in a retailer. Everyone has a favourite M&S item, a must-have. So, we decided that M&S is not an ailing retailer but an inspired branded-goods manufacturer.'
But the tone of the ads is also an important part of M&S' re-invention.
It makes use of a down-to-earth British humour, and what Rainey calls 'charming stories', to illustrate the empathy customers have for M&S.
This is an attempt to inject a more contemporary, witty personality into the notoriously conservative M&S brand.
In research, while consumers were found to have tremendous affection and goodwill for the brand, it lacked a sense of fun, says Rainey. She believes: 'That is the one thing advertising can do really well. It can make the brand a little more daring and less restrained.'
Luxury for the masses
Both ads carry the new M&S strapline, 'Exclusively for everyone'. This is designed to reflect the fact that M&S appeals to every kind of customer, right across the board. 'M&S has diverse products in a consistent framework.
Its products are democratised luxury - it caters for a wide range of people but excels in quality and innovation,' says Rainey.
Media, handled by Walker Media, will attempt to target this broad M&S audience. While Chambers says M&S still has a 'core' audience of ABC1 housewives, he says television will allow it to target a wider base. Print media will focus on national newspaper supplements, rather than simply women's titles.
Not surprisingly, the ads have already been subjected to intense scrutiny, provoking a mainly sceptical reaction from analysts. While most agree ads are a step in the right direction, there are still worries that M&S will not be able to deliver in its stores, which are still seen as lagging far behind the sharper high street players.
Are the ads enough?
Nathan Cockrell, at Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, remains unconvinced that M&S has worked out what its brand means. 'The likes of Gap have shown us that the world has learned to appreciate lifestyle brands with attitude and meaning. By focusing on its quality and products, M&S is sidestepping the real issue of re-inventing itself. It looks like it is simply trying to hang onto its traditional customers.'
Clive Vaughan, director of consulting at Retail Intelligence, thinks the size-16 model is a good idea - but he is 'underwhelmed' by 'Exclusively for everyone'.
'It seems to me M&S is trying to be all things to all people, and will end up by appealing to none. Debenhams has done a good job by catering to the working woman; M&S does not seem to have decided who its core customer is.'
'The product has got to be right,' Vaughan concludes. 'One of the most successful recent ad campaigns has been for Skoda. But if Skoda's cars were the same as they were five years ago, it wouldn't have worked.'
It seems that for M&S, joining the ranks of mainstream advertisers is only the beginning. The company may have discovered advertising - but as far as re-inventing itself as a brand goes, this is simply a toe in the ocean.
THE BATTLE AGAINST DECLINE
January 1999: M&S creates first standalone marketing department, appointing James Benfield as its director of marketing.
June 1999: Interbrand Newell & Sorrell hired to conduct a full brand review.
September 1999: Alan McWalter hired as board level group marketing director from Woolworths.
November 1999: M&S bows to pressure to accept credit cards.
February 2000: M&S calls advertising and media agency pitches.
March 2000: M&S unveils new look branding from Interbrand.
April 2000: Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R appointed as ad agency.
July 2000: Walker Media hired as media agency.
September 2000: M&S launches first mainstream branding campaign.
Year Profit (pounds m) Share price (high)
1996 996 531p
1997 1102 665p
1998 1115 620p
1999 546 461p
2000 418 331.5p
This article was first published on Marketing