M&S reinvents itself as 'agile, entrepreneurial' brand

M&S kicks off marketing activity to support new ecommerce and content strategy
M&S kicks off marketing activity to support new ecommerce and content strategy

As M&S boosts its digital spend to 21% of its total marketing budget, the retailer's management team outlines how the business is reshaping for the online world, starting with an editorially-focused ecommerce site.

M&S is to be more "agile, more entrepreneurial and learn from start-ups", its chief executive Marc Bolland said this month.

We don’t want these engineers to come in and become a 'corporate' - it’s a fluid talent base, which means we keep capturing that entrepreneurial spirit

The 120-year-old retailer, which relaunched its website nine weeks ago in a £150m overhaul after it ended its platform partnership with Amazon, said it needed an agile approach to ensure it stayed relevant.

As part of the strategy, M&S has hired 50 software engineers to ensure it can continuously improve its online proposition. It is hoped that they will help build a "culture of innovation" at the brand, with a "fail fast and iterate" approach. This means the development team will get product innovation in front of consumers as early as possible then scale up.

"In the nine weeks since the website went live we have made more than 400 changes," said head of product development Kyle McGinn. "With Amazon, we would have needed to submit multiple change requests for each one and would be months behind where we are now."

Bolland explained that it has needed to incentivise the new digital team differently to other head office staff and they would not be expected to stay longer than two years.

"They want the experience and the learning so they can go and set up their businesses in the future,"he said. "We don’t want them to come in and become a corporate several years down the line. It’s a fluid talent base, but we’re not talking weeks of course. It means we keep capturing that entrepreneurial spirit."

This shift is also seen in its marketing budgets. Patrick Bousquet-Chavanne, executive director of marketing and business development, said digital spend now accounted for 21% of the total marketing budget, which is understood to be about £150m-£160m - as a proportion, digital has doubled from where it was 2010, according to Bousquet-Chavanne.

"This is part of a digital mindset transformation," he said.

Ecommerce overhaul

Dotcom is now our flagship

Bolland presented his vision for a new-look agile M&S this week as he and his executive team, led by Laura Wade-Gery, executive director of multichannel ecommerce, showcased the new website, online strategy and supporting marketing plans.

"The core of the business starts at dotcom; dotcom is now our flagship," said Bolland.

The retailer has identified 19m customers who are shopping in its stores but not online as the prime target to grow its ecommerce business.

Wade-Gery said M&S was focused on the changing patterns of customer behaviour, pointing to the fact that 52% of Google searches for women’s clothing were made via a mobile device. In addition, people were spending 3hrs45mins consuming digital media per day - a figure she said would overtake TV this year.

Content strategy

Core to its new proposition is becoming a publisher.

"Content and commerce are coming together and this merging world provides a really excellent opportunity for us as retailers. Publishing is core to what we’re doing as a business," said Wade-Gery.

Speaking to Marketing, Bousquet-Chavanne said that M&S was ideally placed to shift to a content strategy.

"We have amazing credibility as a brand, and the emotional connection specially in the UK is probably one of the most powerful assets we have. And yet it’s as if we’ve been mostly doing one-way broadcasting. I believe in that complete loop. It’s early days in these first nine weeks, but I see that interaction proving very fertile."

The new site features editorial online hub Style & Living, featuring fresh content everyday, which it also pushes out to its 2.5m social media fans.

Outlining how marketing will "accelerate" online growth, Bousquet-Chavanne said it was taking the editorial hub into stores to put the "website into people’s hands", with 2m brochures to be distributed. Shop windows will feature the website’s "Editor’s Picks", with products identified throughout the stores.

M&S has also struck a deal with Conde Nast titles Vogue, Glamour, Homes & Gardens and GQ. They will each include six-page inserts featuring their own "editor’s picks", which will appear on both sites including branded pages on M&S.com.

Editorial content versus TV

"People who come to us through content on our website are 24% more likely to convert," said Bousquet-Chavanne. "Marketing is shifting to an always-on strategy. We’re now delivering daily content features to showcase what’s new today."

In our marketing we need to get some of our fashion attributes across - TV is not always the best medium to do that

Bousquet-Chavanne said the cost of content creation was "substantial", but consumers were responding to it, most evident through social sharing.

"We have 2.5m social customers and they are sharing with their own social communities. This means a much lower cost per read that if you’d had to pay for traditional media.

"We’re creating content that people want to share rather than just a disruptive piece of advertising. Some of our 'Leading Ladies' videos have got 1.5m views. By comparison, TV is interruptive.

"I am looking at TV as one of the broadcast elements as part of our always-on strategy but not always on TV. Leading Ladies is print and billboard, plus we’ve been more social, triggering some great conversations between the talent and their communities.

"TV is interruptive, it’s taking a shotgun approach. I think we need to get some of our fashion attributes across and TV is not always the best medium to do that. You will see GM on TV regularly, however."

Video search is also of rapidly growing importance, he said, and needed "urgent feeding".

"It’s an exciting time to be at M&S in marketing, that’s why I’m here," added Bousquet-Chavanne. "Especially with the international expansion and multichannel opportunities, it’s a great time to be a modern British brand around the world. That’s where my excitement lies - and getting that across through the multichannel communications strategy is fascinating."

Style credentials

The site overhaul includes a new "Style Board" area where people can create outfits, plus it has bolstered video, zoom quality and product picture size by 50%.

We can reach 2.5m people on social media, providing them with content straight to their phones or other devices and then direct them to our website

David Walmsley, director of M&S.com and the person who oversaw the replatforming from Amazon, said the new site was stripped back, with "product as hero" and a real focus on editorial.

"The frequency element is key to the website to keep people coming back everyday, every week. We can reach 2.5m people on social media, providing them with content straight into their phones or other devices and then direct them to our website."

He added that they were changing features on the navigation on a daily basis, based on the search terms customers were using. The website also checks stock availability at its distribution centre every 15 minutes and also re-checks the stock in the customer’s shopping basket.

The Style Board was one example of where it would be better using its data analytics to improve experience on- and offline, said Walmsley, such as changing what mannequins might be wearing in-store based on the online activity

Next steps

Bolland emphasised that it was now about "continual investment to ensure we stay ahead".

Creating different delivery options, such as later cut-off times and more choices than just store delivery would be a focus in coming months, especially key as it approaches Christmas to ensure it extended it trading time.

So far, it has registered 1.5m consumers on the new site, which were the most active of the 6m users of the M&S Amazon platform. Wade-Gery said it had been a "controlled" project to migrate people over, to ensure it could cope with slowly growing demand as it developed the site.

She added: "It takes four to six months for a website to settle down and really drive forward growth. We knew that and that is reflected in the way we have planned [our marketing launch]. In the last quarter online growth was 12.5%; we will gradually look to build that back up to [pre-relaunch] 20% from here."

There are also plans to ramp up personalistion on the site as the new platform has capabilities "under the hood which are not yet switched on". However, Wade-Gery added that personalisation can "degrade" user experience as it can significantly slow websites down.

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