If anyone can provide a glimpse of hope in light of Marks & Spencer’s recent series of lacklustre trading updates, it’s Nathan Ansell – the marketing director for its embattled clothing and home division.
Ansell, who joined the retailer as head of brand in 2011, insists that M&S has seen its clothing arm “change enormously for the better” over the last 18 months. He believes the pace of the organisation has increased substantially since he joined, with the marketing team now embedded into M&S’s clothing and home division.
“We’re part of a family of businesses – you have food, clothing & home, M&S Bank, energy services, Ansell told Retail Gazette.
“Because we’re so tightly now into the clothing & home business, it means we can be much faster, but also much more commercial about the way we operate – which we weren’t necessarily under the old marketing structure.”
Since being promoted to marketing director in 2018, Ansell said one of the first changes he implemented was rebranding M&S’ core Per Una brand. Although the brand already had high awareness as a proposition, Ansell conceded that it had “lost its way” over a period of time and became “tired”.
Ansell said the motivation behind rebranding Per Una came from wanting to “generate more brand love and improve style perceptions” after customers had told M&S they felt “confused” about all the different propositions.
Ansell said he felt worried for Per Una because M&S already had a large number of own-brand and sub-brand propositions within the business, and Per Una – as its main brand – was being left behind.
Over the years, Ansell said he worked with the team to strip back a lot of M&S’s sub brands, allowing the retailer to place more focus on three core womenswear brands – Per Una, Autograph, and the recently-launched Goodmove.
Although M&S has often been recognised as a retailer for middle-aged shoppers, it took steps to diversify its target market by embracing athleisure earlier this year with the launch of Goodmove, offering 150 different pieces of clothing and accessories. While it received mixed reactions, Ansell said the range has performed well since its launch.
“Athleisure is a really important category for our target customer,” Ansell explained.
“It’s an important area for us to be strong and demonstrate a really great range – performance credibility is at the heart of the proposition.
“We recognise that workout can mean different things to different people. So for some people, it’s a long walk in the park with a dog. For others, it’s a really intensive spin class.”
When Retail Gazette asked about M&S’s marketing budget, Ansell declined to comment. Nonetheless, advertising has played a critical role in M&S’s recent efforts to widen its target market. And with 1.4 million Instagram followers and over half a million Twitter followers, Ansell has been working at utilising social media to raise brand awareness.
“We’re reaching anything up to eight million people a week just on Instagram alone, so it’s pretty substantial,” he said.
“There’s a ‘click to buy’ option, so you can go straight through to the product and you can visit the website and buy immediately.”
Meanwhile, since introducing TV celebrity Holly Willoughby as brand ambassador in 2018, Ansell said she’s become “an important part of what M&S is doing”.
“She’s got over six million Instagram followers so we access her reach through that,” Ansell said.
“When you see Holly wearing something that looks great, those pieces sell out in days. The traffic we get to those pages is phenomenal.
“More and more influencers are wearing M&S clothes and posting it online, we then re-gram it on Instagram to generate some awareness of that.
“We also have the M&S insiders who are our customer assistants, we’ve got 12 of them up and down the country who have their own Instagram accounts and they’ll be out and about wearing our clothes posting and commenting on Instagram.”
He added: “With advertising, we buy traditional TV advertising, particularly on live TV because that tends to be when people watch the ads more, but also video on demand.
“So pre-rolls when you’re watching catch-up TV, but also YouTube’s an important part of our overall marketing mix as well.
“We have a proposition on YouTube called ‘Just Landed’, which is all about our new propositions. Since we launched that, we’ve had about six million views on YouTube.”
Ansell said M&S has received good responses to its recent wave of marketing campaigns, especially since he had been involved in creating many of them for the past year.
Perhaps a highlight is M&S’s Go Jumpers Christmas campaign. On social media, the TV advert was viewed by millions of people in two weeks, with 40 million impressions and a reach of 10 million.
The 60-second advert – directed by Jake Nava, famous for directing Beyoncé’s Single Ladies – showed people wearing 50 different jumpers from its knitwear ranges while dancing to House of Pain’s iconic track Jump Around.
“We didn’t randomly pick a dance theme, we hit it for a very clear strategic reason,” Ansell reflected.
“First of all, brand relevancy is really important, so the choice of track, having a banger, making sure that we’re demonstrating the products in the right way is crucial.
“But also, having a bit of fun and energy around the brand is really important to us and dance is a great way of really engaging and demonstrating some of our products.
“We wanted to capture the fact that it looks stylish, is easy to wear, and you can move around in it and look good.”
When the Go Jumpers campaign launched, Ansell said M&S’s jumpers and knitwear category jumped by six per cent, with 45,000 sold within the first week.
“The reason we chose knitwear is because it’s our biggest category for that season and therefore the biggest commercial opportunity for us,” he told Retail Gazette.
“The next biggest was nightwear, hence why we launched a second Christmas campaign – Go Pyjamas.
“The nightwear campaign was very last minute, but the team still managed to finish 10 per cent ahead of time.”
Most recently, M&S sought to refresh its clothing arm with its first-ever denim TV ad, what Ansell described as “a way of driving scale and relevancy through campaigns”. He added that according to his customer data, consumers wanted to see a “refreshed” range of denim at the retailer.
Back in December, M&S had put in place a number of operational improvements to “deliver better availability so customers can be confident they can get the style they want”.
Ansell said these operational changes led to increased sales – with denim womenswear sales up 30 per cent over the Christmas period. He added that he uses customer data to drive relevancy, whether it’s through Instagram or M&S’s CRM programme.
“About one in four visits to our website every single week comes from an email that we send to our customers directly, so we have a very effective CRM machine that drives traffic,” Ansell explained.
“We have to be very relevant to our customers in order to have that level of success, and it’s improving all the time.
“Performance marketing and SEO is also crucial to make sure that when customers are out and about and type into Google a product that’s available at M&S, that we’re coming high up in the rankings.
“Our CRM database enables us to generate one in four visits to our website, our loyalty policy is really important to us.”
Ansell highlighted that “loyalty schemes are increasingly important” for retailers because it’s a way for marketers to contact customers about something relevant to them.
M&S’s Sparks Card membership was launched in 2015 to offer customers a different way of shopping by offering deals rather than money to spend with each point collected.
“A loyalty programme helps keep customers happier, more loyal and we can tell them about things that are relevant to them that we sell in other categories,” Ansell said.
The marketing director went on to say that his was hoping to capitalise on the momentum it has created in recent months by introducing a summer campaign in a few weeks time.
“Our exciting summer campaign is going to continue to build on what we’ve done – we are going to dance our way through at least the next few months,” Ansell laughed.