It was still the last week of October but already fake snowflakes brushed the red velvet sofa in The May Fair Hotel lounge in London, the set for a make-believe Mad Hatter’s Tea Party twinkling under fairy lights.
December 25 was two months away, but Marks & Spencer was determined to make it feel like Christmas.
The occasion was a press preview of M&S’s Christmas ad campaign. The hotel lounge made an impact in itself; as journalists arrived, characters from Alice in Wonderland would try to lure them - calling each journalist Alice -
to have “tea”. We were expecting a screen to appear to show the ad but no, we were ushered into a private cinema room, with proper comfy armchairs to enjoy the film.
M&S pulled out all the stops before the ad was even shown. And when Patrick Bousquet-Chavanne, executive director of marketing and business development, addressed the audience, you could see why. He described retailers’ unveiling of their Christmas campaigns as a “race” to the consumer.
He said that when M&S debuts its ad, the occasion “marks the start of the Christmas period”. Christmas has always been the most important trading period for fashion retailers, but this year it feels even more crucial.
M&S isn’t the only retailer to make a fuss of its Christmas ad. John Lewis will be holding a press dinner (yes, dinner) next week at One Aldwych hotel to unveil its creation. I think the department store will have a thing or two to say about which retailer’s ad campaign - M&S or John Lewis - marks the start of Christmas. Surely John Lewis has held that crown for the past two years.
But back to M&S. Its Christmas ad features model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley in the lead role, frolicking through a series of fairytales - Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, Aladdin and Little Red Riding Hood - and supported by a cast of David Gandy and Helena Bonham-Carter. It is well-executed, looks great and is fun to watch. No John Lewis tear-jerker. But the interesting bit for me came when, halfway through Huntington-Whiteley’s Dorothy incarnation, my neighbour suddenly whispered: “I love that dress!” Huntington-Whiteley may dazzle in her lingerie line, Bonham-Carter may make you giggle and Gandy will charm the ladies, but M&S needs shoppers to buy the clothes.
With that in mind, the questions from journalists about Huntington-Whiteley’s suitability as an M&S ambassador (she doesn’t fit the core demographic) came as no surprise. But Bousquet-Chavanne was quick to the retailer’s defence, pointing out that the model’s lingerie line for Autograph is one of its best-selling lines to date. “She’s the face of a universal line,” he said. “I don’t think about age”.
The other point he could have made is that this campaign is about fantasy; the strapline is Believe in Magic & Sparkle. In a fantasy world, no one wants to stare at their stressed-out, midweek self. You want to see yourself in Rosie or David or Helena. It’s more fun.
But the clothes still need to sell and the reason this Christmas is so vital to M&S is that it features the much-hyped autumn 13 collection. Next Tuesday, M&S will reveal its half-year results, but the period will only include a few weeks of trading for the latest range. Reports this week suggest M&S’s overall clothing market share was flat in the 24 weeks to the end of September. The decline of 0.2% in womenswear was an improvement on the 0.5% fall in the previous period.
These figures, while encouraging, certainly don’t suggest a turnaround just yet. M&S will need all the Christmas magic it can get.