Faltering U.K. retailer unveils cheeky ad push

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Marks & Spencer, once one of the U.K.'s most savvy retailers, is shifting marketing gears with a controversial new ad effort to turn around falling profits and regain its marketing edge. The first burst of advertising in Marks & Spencer's new $30 million "Passion" campaign broke last month with a 30-second TV commercial "Hallelujah," featuring a nude Rubenesque model rejoicing at the bigger sizes available in Marks & Spencer stores. "Hallelujah" will be followed by a series of different but stylistically related ads changing monthly until Christmas.

"Our whole strategy," said James Murphy, managing partner of Marks & Spencer' new U.K. agency Rainey, Kelly, Campbell, Roalfe Y&R, "is to move M&S' behavior from one of an ailing retailer to an inspired goods manufacturer because all of the things they sell, they make."

The campaign, Rainey Kelly's first work for Marks & Spencer, is dubbed "Passion" because "it's all about people's passionate responses to exceptional products," Mr. Murphy said. "Hallelujah" focuses on Marks & Spencer' fall clothing collection, while other ads will promote prepared foods and housewares.

NOT AVERAGE, BUT NORMAL

In "Hallelujah," a size 14 model sprints up a hill in Cornwall in western England while throwing her clothes off. Reaching the top of the hill, the now-naked model stands on a platform, throws up her arms and shouts "I'm normal." The spot closes with a voice-over: "Marks & Spencer have just completed Britain's largest ever survey of women's bodies. You'll be pleased to hear, if you're not average, you're normal."

The British media were unforgiving. A journalist at The Times attacked the "dubious strategy of using a large, naked woman in an effort to promote its autumn clothing range" as a sign of panic.

But Rainey Kelly's Mr. Murphy is undeterred, explaining that Marks & Spencer's survey of 2,500 women showed they are are getting taller and "curvier." As a result, the company is cutting its clothes more generously. The spot was backed by billboard, newspaper and magazine ads.

LOSING CACHET

The company's basic problem is that Marks & Spencer, once synonymous with good quality at reasonable prices, has lost its cachet as a brand. For many years, British men shopped there for suits and British women for underwear and other clothes, while Marks & Spencer's chilled prepared meals were considered glamorous enough to serve openly at dinner parties. But as other, much-improved U.K. food and clothing retailers have become aggressive competitors, Marks & Spencer has been accused of standing still.

Heads have rolled. A new executive director for marketing, Alan McWalter, started this year, as did a new chairman, Belgian retail executive Luc Vandevelde, who hired and fired a CEO, Peter Salsbury, within six months.

In the U.K., it's too soon to say whether the new ad efforts will pay off. The company's profits fell from $942 million last year to $775 million for the financial year through March and are continuing downward. Merrill Lynch & Co. is forecasting a further drop to $720 million for 2001.

Contributing: Alice Z. Cuneo.

Copyright October 2000, Crain Communications Inc.

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