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M&S sub-brands face identity crisis

Jessica Brown

This week I attempted to count the number of sub-brands, special ranges and collaborations housed by the UK’s largest clothing retailer, Marks & Spencer

I lost count and nearly the will to live as well after 10, which surely is a sign that chief executive Marc Bolland’s reported review of the chain’s clothing offer is needed pretty quickly.

Portfolio and Indigo, two recently introduced womenswear ranges aimed at the less directional older woman, are said to be first under threat.

Bolland’s review won’t be straightforward. We all know M&S has a broad church of customers (a favourite buzz phrase of its former chief executive and now chairman Sir Stuart Rose) and appealing to a mass audience aged from, well, pretty much newborns to the blue rinse brigade, all carrying vastly different sized wallets, makes Bolland’s job to fashion what the England manager’s job is to football. Bloody tough.

Sub-brands are an essential part of many retailers’ offers in the 2000s - see our Jaeger Shopwatching report - but making sure they are well targeted and relevant without threatening the core retail brand is imperative.

Debenhams is a master of segmenting its own collections while Next still trades almost entirely off its own name and core identity. But M&S hires the likes of Dannii Minogue and Myleene Klass to dance around with Twiggy on TV wearing who knows which collection? It’s not so much a problem with the product as the weak identities of its sub-brands.

M&S remains one of the best-recognised and best-loved retail brands. Apart from Per Una, its other sub-brands have little real resonance with shoppers. Cash-strapped customers are now heading more towards heritage labels and British brands they can trust. M&S has those qualities in abundance and Bolland would be right to play to that strength.

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