m&s-marketing

How to lose friends and alienate people

Knowing what makes your audience tick and how to reach them are the cornerstones of any effective campaign. Here, our London team discusses a recent M&S gaffe which gave them food for thought.

Identifying the right target audience is at the heart of communications planning. Before messages or creative ideas come into play, you spend time and resources considering who you want to communicate with, and why. The ‘who’ and the ‘why’ are absolutely essential in informing the ‘when’, and the ‘how’ and yet all too often, the crucial audience mapping and message testing phase is overlooked.

Knowing your audience involves not just being able to identify them (a flipchart with ‘consumers’, ‘politicians’ or ‘dog enthusiasts’ scribbled on it does not an audience map make) but also understanding them: achieving a genuine awareness of their wants, needs and current levels of understanding of your organisation or issues. Truly knowing your audience will allow you to tap into the right means of communicating with them, and shape your messages accordingly.

The degree to which this valuable marketing insight should be made public, however, is questionable as high street stalwart Marks & Spencer recently learned to their peril. Newly-appointed chief executive Steve Rowe coined, in a series of media appearances, the phrase “Mrs M&S” when describing their core customer. According to him, “Mrs M&S” is a 50-year-old woman who is ‘not interested in the latest fashions’ but who would be ‘cherished’ by the brand nonetheless.

This approach understandably irritated some Marks & Spencer customers and undermined the aims of recent projects (for example, the Archive by Alexa Chung collection) which aimed to reposition the brand as a source of fashionable vintage-inspired pieces. While M&S’ core customers might well be in their 50s and prefer a classic look over the latest ‘trendy’ crop top, they took to Twitter to express their distaste at the patronising stereotype the “Mrs M&S” evoked.

The mistake Mr Rowe made was making the insight and intelligence the M&S business used to identify and seek to meet the wants and needs of its customers, public. The right audience for this information was an internal one, and his error of judgement left customers feeling like a homogenous group, rather than ‘cherished’ individuals.

The use of stereotypes in public facing communications is always a risky business. People like to be asked, not told, about themselves and assumptions are the enemy of success. Plan carefully and - if in any doubt! – test your messages and approach with a representative sample of your target audience before going public. Had Mr Rowe approached a “Mrs M&S” at one of his stores before making his statement, regardless of how accurate it may or may not have been in terms of what their customer data told him, we’re sure she would have given him some food for thought.


Freshwater delivers strategic communications consultancy for diverse public relations and marketing campaigns across private, public and not-for-profit sectors. 


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