What’s behind the marketing magic sparking M&S’ grocery growth?

Just under five years ago, upmarket retailer M&S dropped out of the FTSE 100 for the first time since it launched in 1984.  Since then, the British high street staple has won a hard-earned comeback, returning back into the fold last year.

From a grocery standpoint, it is certainly reaping the rewards of its efforts. Recent figures from Nielsen IQ Total Till revealed that along with Ocado it was the fastest growing grocer in the 12 weeks to the first week of April, growing 11.2%. It also recently beat rivals Tesco, Asda and Sainsbury’s to be named the most prominent online grocery brand.

Whether it’s tapping into TikTok or Instagram, using Percy Pig or chef Tom Kerridge (who the retailer has recently brought in as part of its successful Farm to Foodhall campaign) the retailer has been following several key principles that have helped it spark in the marketing world.

How M&S is changing the status quo on value

As Savvy Marketing founder Catherine Shuttleworth puts it, one of the most important elements within the tough world of the British grocery sector is knowing that “quality is not the same as price, and price is not the same as value”.

While it has to maintain a balance between the high standards it is known for at a good price, the retailer has not been afraid to highlight that it is cost effective. In a high-profile January campaign this year, M&S had Status Quo rejig their famous hit Rockin’ All Over the World, featuring the revised lyrics: “The prices are low but the quality is woah, here we go saving all over the store”.

It was a fun move that featured M&S-branded guitars and dancing staff designed to appeal to a younger generation, but also featured key selling points like dine in deals which would be appealing to young professionals. It also continued to reiterate the words ‘value’ and ‘quality’.

As Shuttleworth explains, the retailer has worked hard to find a balance between driving clicks and showcasing initiatives like price locks in order to compete with its rivals (who are also aiming to keep prices down) and yet still maintain their branding in the quality space.

She highlights that an ad which gets lots of clicks won’t necessarily translate in to instore purchases unless a multi-pronged approach is adopted. This can include everything from how stores look, to being on the right range of platforms, and having the right products.

Retail specialist at Really Good Culture, Philip McMahon adds that: “For a brand like M&S, it’s all about reinforcing the brand’s legacy of quality and its commitment to value. The former enables the latter, They make no bones about the fact that they are and always have been proud of their food.”

One of McMahon’s favourite initiatives from M&S is the £20 M&S food challenge, which challenges perceptions about cost at the supermarket.

@devizesmands Do you still think M&S is expensive? 👀 #mands #mandslocal #mandsfood #shopping #foodhall #budget #foodie #challenge #aivoice #trending #viral #foryou #fyp ♬ original sound – Devizes Marks & Spencer

McMahon adds, “We know that the cost-of-living crisis had prompted a huge reappraisal of own-label foods by supermarkets and shoppers… and that plays to M&S’ reputation perfectly. They had a head start on all the others because they had this reputation and the consumer trust before the cost of living crisis started.”

Bagging itself a star with Tom Kerridge

With two Michelin-starred pubs to his name and a restaurant at London’s iconic Corinthia hotel (plus the bonus of being known from TV), Tom Kerridge was an obvious choice to front M&S’ Farm to Foodhall campaign.

This year’s iteration of the campaign sees M&S Food launching its biggest-ever marketing campaign across TV, VOC, PR, paid and organic.

It comes after the success of last year’s campaign, the retailer explained. “Our BrandDynamics data showed a steady improvement in consumers’ consideration of the Marks and Spencer food brand while its Farm to Foodhall ads were on air during summer last year, moving from 43.4% to 45.9%. That set the brand in good stead in the run up to Christmas.”

This year it will be accompanied by a primetime series entitled ‘Tom Kerridge Cooks Britain’, which will see the chef meet different farmers and producers, as it extolls the virtues of the products and highlights M&S values.

McMahon says M&S’ consistency across showcasing its quality is key, but the Farm to Foodhall push “takes it to another level”.

“Over the next 12 to 24 months we are going to see a huge increase in awareness of things like UK food security and regenerative farming practices and M&S are pre-empting this,” he adds.

“A whole mix of interconnected issues are making people want to know what they are eating and where it’s coming from more than ever. M&S are being transparent and building trust by saying “let us show you”.

Percy brings the personality

On the other side of the coin, M&S is ensuring that it showcases itself across Instagram and TikTok in fun-filled ways — with Percy Pig and Colin the Caterpillar merchandise, tapping into a sense of fun often popular with the British public.


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A post shared by M&S (@marksandspencer)

Other supermarkets such as Aldi are known for their sense of humour online, and while Aldi might be quick to leap on social media opportunities, ultimately the key is that it is a visible and engaging part of the conversation.

Shuttleworth says “They’ve got to demonstrate they understand the zeitgeist of what the UK means. That involves moving away from being stuffy but also getting the look of stores right, and getting the product offering correct.”

Indeed, as part of CEO Stuart Machin’s strategy, the supermarket has expanded its offering and now sells over 200 products in line with rival supermarkets, in an effort to attract the weekly shopper (something it had previously struggled with).

She points out that successful collaborations recently have included teaming up with health focused nutrition brand Zoe on a kefir drink, and bringing on nutrition guru Tim Spector to help promote it. The move was sure-fire hit among an increasingly health-conscious population.

McMahon concurs: “The M&S x Zoe campaign was a great hit. A relatively niche campaign, but they have successfully introduced kefir to a lot of new customers and stolen a march on the competition. It will pay long term dividends too, as gut health will become  a mainstream shopper mission and a core pillar of retail food buying strategies over the next two years”.

Ultimately, M&S is secure in who it is, and who it’s for, while ensuring its messaging reaches a wide audience and adapts to the tastes of a rapidly changing nation.

“There’s no identity crisis at M&S. They know their reputation is built on a level of quality that has evolved into an affection among shoppers and they can continue to present that as the heart of their brand”, concludes McMahon.

“Of course they have their Remarkable Value campaign, but it never feels like they’re at risk of being pulled into the current culture of price-led one-upmanship that exists among the big six supermarket brands.”

It seems that a combination of graft, consistency, and a very British dose of self-aware humour are at the heart of what makes M&S’ marketing hit all the right spots.

BrandsFeaturesMarketing Strategy

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