M&S missed a PR opportunity with Diane Abbott #Mojitogate

It would be churlish to use some good-natured train drinking to diagnose wider problems with a much-loved British institution. But why in a story about a Marks & Spencer product has the retailer been conspicuous in its absence?

And what does this say about the wider brand?

As the country basked in distinctly un-Bank Holiday weather, one word was trending on Twitter: Mojito. Images of shadow home secretary Diane Abbott illegally sinking a cold one on a TfL train were shared by The Sun and across social media. The tweet apologising for the mid-afternoon tipple has to date attracted 12,000 replies, 7,200 retweets and over 60,000 likes.

With all but the most po-faced commentators backing the Hackney MP, the country briefly put Brexit divisions to one side and came together in support of day-time drinking on public transport. And just to prove that the British people thrive in a crisis, M&S shops across London saw a run on cans of the pre-mixed cocktail.

Despite the huge amount of largely positive coverage, M&S has been invisible and have pointedly failed to capitalise on the story. Naturally there may be some nervousness about condoning an illegal activity. Or of getting involved in a ‘political’ story. But when #M&SMojito is trending why look that gift horse in the mouth?

Jumping on a story such as this one is careful balancing act requiring a dynamic approach with a careful touch. Brands want to be KFC after they ran out of chicken, not Pepsi when they misappropriated Black Lives Matter.

The answer may lie in the venerable nature of M&S as a brand. Distinctly establishment, M&S are naturally wary of a response which could risk their appeal to their core demographic. M&S has history. It has tradition. It’s the shop where your nan buys her cardigans.

Despite the repositioning in 2004 when Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R unveiled their "This is not just food" campaign, the company’s branding outside of their food ranges has struggled to present itself in the same way. Almost all brand growth has come from their food range.

M&S has seriously impressive brand awareness. A strong and well-known brand is something that many companies would kill for. But this does limit your freedom of movement when it comes to responding to viral news stories such as #MojitoGate. Where start-ups can respond with disruptive abandon, a 135-year old institution is more ponderous.

Today the flexibility to surf a wave of publicity, much of it driven by online media is not just an optional extra, it is vital. Less than 45 per cent of 18- to 35-year olds viewing time is live, and the reach of newspaper ads contracts by the year. With traditional routes for advertisers increasingly closing, brands must take ownership of and maximise viral stories such as this one.

M&S has shown a willingness to adapt. In the past five years, hard decisions have been taken about the future direction of the business. Confronting the reality of a marketplace where more than a fifth of retail sales are made online has been tough. Closing a third of its high street shops is a difficult break with the past.

But if M&S is to secure its legacy for the next 135 years, their communications strategy must always be equally adaptive. Riding the crest of #MojitoGate would have been great start. Imagine the fun that could have been had with delivering to Dianne Abbott a plentiful supply of product for the summer to come.

Imagine M&S doing something for a good cause in her constituency to thank Dianne Abbott for the spike in sales. Imagine the carefully and considered deployment of a suitable stunt. Imagine what you could have done in the digital space taking the story and using it for customer outreach.

Alas - no such exploitation has happened, and it appears the restrained communications operation of a FTSE 100 stock may have hampered a more communications-fulsome exploitation of a rare opportunity. Now where’s my drink – it’s 11am after all.

Kevin Craig is CEO of PLMR

Thumbnail image ©Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images

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