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
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
’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
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
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
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.