Marketers striving for cut through in an increasingly volatile and chaotic world should be prepared to feel uncomfortable or risk falling flat with consumers.

That’s the opinion of Marks & Spencer Food marketing director Sharry Cramond, who believes that feeling nervous is a sign marketers are striving to do their best work.

“I talk to my team about what we can do if we believe that it’s possible and before the start of every major initiative or campaign I always say: ‘Unless we’re all feeling slightly uncomfortable and a little bit nervous, then we haven’t pushed it far enough’,” she explained, speaking at the latest Oystercatchers Club event (21 September).

She used the example of the beginning of lockdown when the ambition was to encourage consumers to do a bigger food shop with M&S. Cramond pointed out that while traditionally people choose M&S for sandwiches, freshly prepared meals and party food, its market share for big shops was small.

However, during lockdown consumers started opting for one big shop, preferring not to visit multiple retailers, meaning larger basket sizes and more people cooking from scratch with M&S ingredients. With the goal to encourage bigger shops top of mind, Cramond’s team were on the lookout for a cooking show to sponsor to highlight the breadth of M&S Food products.

Having failed to find the right fit, the marketers decided to co-develop a new format. Cooking with the Stars launched on ITV in July, pairing eight celebrities with a professional chef in an elimination format. All the ingredients featured on the show were exclusively provided by M&S and the release of the programme was supported by in-store advertising, collaborations with influencers Woody and Kleiny, leaflets and editorial to 11 million registered customers.

Unless we’re all feeling slightly uncomfortable and a little bit nervous, then we haven’t pushed it far enough.

Sharry Cramond, M&S

“The night before it went on air I was absolutely terrified, because we’re used to looking at our daily sales and of course we are not used to looking at viewing figures,” said Cramond.

“It is terrifying, but I believe it was the right thing to do for the brand, because we wanted to show people you could do that broader shop and all the ingredients and food on Cooking with the Stars was from M&S Food. So, you’ve got to keep pushing yourself.”

To better understand which consumer habits will stick post lockdown, M&S recently commissioned its biggest qualitative and quantitative study into how Britain eats. When analysing the insights, Cramond noted the work of behavioural scientist and Marketing Week columnist Richard Shotton, who discusses the changes that occur when people go through a dramatic change or traumatic event.

“For the first time since the Second World War the whole country has been through quite a traumatic event, because in different ways it has been quite traumatic for everybody and everyone is looking to develop new habits,” she said.

“Therefore, as marketers it’s our time to say: ‘What am I going to do with my brand to make sure that we get a share of these new habits people have developed?’ So because of that I feel quite confident in the future and I think it’s up to us to say: ‘As people are open to developing new habits and interacting with new brands, what are we doing to make sure that our brand will be in the frame of reference?’

M&S Food uses Cooking With The Stars tie-up to encourage people to do a ‘broader shop’

Taking risks is part of the DNA at Channel 4, explained fellow panellist Zaid Al-Qassab. The Channel 4 CMO and inclusion and diversity director explained the broadcaster’s reason for existence is to champion unheard voices, which often means going against mainstream thinking. However, he stressed taking risks does not mean being careless.

“There’s a misconception that means being fly-by-night and not thinking about it. The risks we take are managed, talked about, mitigated for, planned for. So yes, we want to take risks and our creative work does. Most of the creative we do, we know there is someone it is going to offend, I would probably go as far to say, and we spend time talking to people and working out how offensive it is and working out what we’re going to do if that blows up in our face,” Al-Qassab said.

“So, risk-taking isn’t about shooting from the hip and just being contrary, risk-taking is about deliberately wanting to do it and planning carefully so you can get away with it.”

Confidence of your convictions

The Channel 4 CMO explained how, from a talent retention perspective, he positions the broadcaster as a place where marketers can come to do their best work and promote social good.

A strong sense of purpose is also the guiding light at insurer Direct Line. Managing director of marketing and digital, Mark Evans, explained how the team entered lockdown with a spring in their step for several reasons, not least because in November 2019 the company explicitly stated for the first time its purpose to be a force for good.

The second reason was that just a month before lockdown the insurer had replaced its long established and award winning ‘The Fixer’ campaign with the new ‘We’re on it’ superheroes creative, a move Evans recalled was a big deal internally.

Calling it a “high confidence campaign”, the marketers orchestrated a big internal push to get the wider team on board, buying media around the Direct Line offices with the message ‘You’re the real superheroes’ to reinforce how valuable the employees are.

“I think that’s what buoyed us into the lockdown and don’t get me wrong it hasn’t been perfect, but we have seen record NPS scores and we’ve managed extremely well through some very destructive things,” said Evans.

Risk-taking isn’t about shooting from the hip and just being contrary, risk-taking is about deliberately wanting to do it and planning carefully.

Zaid Al-Qassab, Channel 4

He also noted the power of the Direct Line purpose, which ramped up two years ago with the appointment of CEO Penny James and her desire for the brand not only to protect the planet, but to be as proactive as possible in relation to diversity and inclusion.

Evans recalled the summer of 2020, when Direct Line invited the lead of its BAME group to talk about her experiences in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, an experience he described as profound and a catalyst moment for the wider organisation.

“Insurance is seen as the preserve of the pale, male and stale, old fashioned and not very customer oriented, so I think we’re going through a bit of a continued epiphany about our role in the world and that does manifest in that we want explicitly to make insurance personal, inclusive and a force for good,” said Evans. “Those words have real meaning, primarily because they come from Penny and it’s evident in all the behaviours.”

Having a meaningful legacy is something that really matters to Cramond. She discussed her book Win Your Lottery, which draws on her experience growing up on a “very rough” council estate in a family “with literally no money”.

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The M&S Food marketing boss remembered starting secondary school and her family not being able to afford her new uniform. Cramond and her mum eventually found a blazer at the local second-hand shop, but when she knocked on her best friend’s door on the first day of school, she was abruptly told the blazer was in the wrong shade.

“I don’t know where I got it from, but I said to my friend ‘Yes I do know, but I prefer this colour’ and she accepted my answer. That’s the first day of school with 300 kids and they all said it was the wrong colour and to each and every one I said: ‘Yes I do know, but I prefer this colour’,” Cramond recalled.

She explained that this experience taught her several things – to be nice, that if you tell yourself something over and over again it can become the truth and that it’s ok to be different.

“In fact, it’s good to be different and particularly in marketing when we’re looking after brands and businesses that have to find a way of standing out from the crowd,” she said.

Having spent her career to date trying to understand the psychology of achievement, Cramond is passionate about showing people from backgrounds like hers that it doesn’t matter where you come from, you can succeed. As part of this work she mentors a group of 14-year-old girls from a school in a deprived area of Arbroath, Scotland, in a bid to show them they can achieve anything.

Relishing responsibility

Looking back on her marketing career, Cramond described working for M&S as a huge honour and an equally big responsibility.

“I do worry about my job because it’s such a huge privilege and I think, my gosh, I’ve got to be very careful with this brand, which not only do so many people love, but so many people’s jobs and mortgages depend on me making this brand a continued success,” she said.

The fact people love working for M&S Food is a big inspiration for Cramond, who highlighted one of her first campaigns – #MyMarksFave – which encouraged office employees to share their favourite M&S Food product on their email signature and store staff to wear badges promoting their hero item.

For Cramond, this campaign characterised the three core jobs of marketing, jobs she fears some marketers forget.

“Job number one in retail is driving trade, because we’ve got to get the numbers. Number two, build the brand and of course we have to build the brand because that’s the role of the marketing department to drive that across the whole business,” she explained.

“Number three is engage the colleagues and these are not in order of decreasing priority, especially in retail. Colleagues, they are your brand and so whenever we’re looking at any campaign I always make sure – is it going to drive trade, is it going to build the brand and how are we engaging colleagues?”

When it comes to developing creative, M&S has moved away from having a retained agency, a move Cramond explained means working with different creative partners to meet different objectives.

“We had our Fresh Market Update series [TV campaign] that ran all summer long and a lot of the creative was actually done by our media partner’s creative team, by ITV Creative,” she said.

“The idea we’re going with this Christmas was an idea that the agency that we did have on retainer had a couple of years ago, so what we’ve done is go back to them. We weren’t contractually obliged to go back to them because we own the IP, but it felt like the decent thing to do. That was the creative team that the developed the idea, so that’s the creative team that should get to bring it to life.”

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