High street stalwart Marks & Spencer is reviewing its raft of in-house clothing brands, including Per Una, Autograph and Blue Harbour, as part of an overhaul to try to claw back dwindling fashion sales.
The retailer streamlined its own brands in 2016/17 by discontinuing Indigo in womenswear, and Collezione and North Coast in menswear.
In its annual report on 7 June, the retailer said its remaining own-brand labels were under review by new managing director of clothing and home Jill McDonald: “We will use our global sourcing strength to restore more strongly our value credentials and we will review the role of our sub-brands, such as Per Una, some of which have lost their identity in recent years.”
The retailer’s current brand portfolio consists of womenswear brands: M&S Collection, Limited Edition, M&S Classic, Per Una and Autograph; and menswear brands: Autograph, Blue Harbour and Limited Edition.
Clothing sales at M&S continue to struggle: revenues for the division fell 1.9% in the year to 31 March compared with 2017.
Industry sources have told Drapers that a lack of brand clarity and personality are key reasons the sub-brands have been in decline for many years.
One womenswear retailer said: “A brand has to have an identity – a niche. Customers need to understand what it represents, what it stands for and the M&S brands just don’t do that. It’s definitely not about price. There’s no point having a brand if it doesn’t stand for something. Look at brands like Barbour, for example – you know what you’re getting. It has a handwriting.”
Per Una was started by George Davies, founder of George at Asda, in 2000 and bought by M&S for £125m in 2004. Once the jewel in the crown for M&S, it was reported to have brought in £750m a year during its heyday.
Retail analyst Richard Hyman told Drapers the quality of execution is one of the main reasons Per Una has been in long-term decline: “How many sub-brands M&S has is irrelevant. It doesn’t matter whether it has too little, too many or none. It’s all about execution. Own brand is not the problem.
“When George Davies was running Per Una, you could have taken the labels away. It had differentiation. Remove George and the sub-brands have progressively merged into one another.
“A brand has a personality, an identity, integrity and a clear handwriting. If you took the label off from a brand, most of its core customers would be able to recognise it. M&S doesn’t have this.”
One retail industry source said M&S was likely to cut more of its own labels but questioned the wider strategy: “M&S is trying to reinvent itself. They’ve gone through a number of sub-brands, some of which have been successful and some not. I think they’ll axe some of the brands but what is the bigger plan at M&S? They need to refocus the business.”
One source close to the business told Drapers that more thought on in-store merchandising was essential: “Everyone has got to be involved in a brand and it all needs to come back to the customer. Every part of the brand is just as important, otherwise you lose the image: what hangers it comes on, how it is displayed in store – there needs to be discipline.”
Another retail source agreed that correct merchandising is key: “They buy a trouser in five colours, they think the man in North Shields wants to buy a yellow trouser, the same as a man in the south-east. They need to merchandise properly by region and buy accordingly, in a ratio that fits them.”
Others noted a clear view of its customer base and focus on quality are paramount.
“M&S has to understand what its customers want,” observed one industry source. “I don’t think it has a clear view of who its customer is. It needs an offer that is distinctive, absolutely focused on core customers but also with a character and identity.”
One source close to the business said: “Quality has been in long-term decline. Fabric is the biggest cost in product and fabric quality has been going south for many years. Price is not the answer, there are lots of people who can do that better. It’s all about the product, it always has been.”
In May McDonald told Drapers the business was “clear on who the target customer is”: “We have one loyal older customer, but we have a growing share of customers with young families. We want to appeal in a stylish and contemporary way, still offering seasonal newness.” And this month’s launch of autumn 18’s The Foundation Edit of “wardrobe staples” from across the M&S stable may signal where McDonald is taking the product offering.
She also stressed the focus on “democratising” quality, aiming for the M&S clothing offer to provide “great-quality clothing at good prices”. This will partly be realised by “buying better” and moving to a single-tier supply chain to maintain margins and offset currency headwinds. Whether a House of Fraser-style consolidation of house brands follows remains to be seen.
The Drapers Verdict
Marks & Spencer needs to focus on its core customer and what they really want. Multiple sub-brands can be a distraction, particularly if they are not adding value or offering something different.
In a saturated market, you need to stand out. The need for eye-catching designs, quality product, and an easy-to-shop customer journey are brought up time and time again in relation to M&S – regardless of the sub-label.
In such a competitive market desire is the driving force behind many customers’ fashion purchases and it will take a lot more than rejigging a few brand names to reignite the passion in M&S.