Over her five and a half years as marketing director of M&S Food, Sharry Cramond has earned a sector-wide reputation for increasing the brand’s recognition among younger people. On her watch, each store has established a unique presence on social media, from TikTok to Instagram to Facebook, representing a combined weekly reach of about 4 million people.
TikTok has proved especially important in engaging gen-Z shoppers. The M&S store in Romford, east London, used the platform to promote its own charity Christmas single, which reached number two in the iTunes charts. Meanwhile, the M&S Foodhall at The Springs retail park in Leeds has a TikTok page that’s attracted more than 700,000 views, thanks largely to videos featuring a member of staff called Michelle, who recommends her “monthly must-haves” from its shelves.
It’s little wonder that TikTok’s marketing team has praised the brand’s efforts as some of the best uses of social media by a retailer.
“What you have to do is speak to gen Z on the channels where they’re spending most of their time,” says Cramond, who became director of marketing and hospitality in April 2022, taking responsibility for 300-plus cafés. “That’s why TikTok is particularly important to us. When we started on the platform, a lot of people were asking: ‘Who’s running this? Is this M&S’s account?’ It felt quite ‘un-M&S’ to be leading the way on TikTok, but now people are absolutely embracing it.”
The secrets of M&S’s social success
Cramond believes that a key reason for the brand’s TikTok popularity is that the accounts are managed in house. She trusts store colleagues to post content without seeking approval from head office, although they do receive a template of subjects to focus on each week.
Her own department is also able to capitalise on social media trends quickly. This has been a big factor in the success of its Percy Pig and Colin the Caterpillar confectionery brands. Content featuring the #percypig hashtag has delivered more than 96 million views on TikTok, for instance.
“The team in the office keep a close eye on what’s emerging. They can get straight into costume and have a post uploaded within an hour,” she says.
Transparency has become a much more prominent part of the marketing mix too. Food provenance is an important consideration, given young shoppers’ environmental concerns.
“More and more customers are becoming interested in where their food comes from,” Cramond says, explaining how this led to a new documentary-style TV campaign called “Farm to Foodhall”, in which Michelin-starred chef Tom Kerridge visits suppliers and interviews them.
As the cost-of-living crisis wears on, she believes that demonstrating both value and uniqueness has become far more important for brands when communicating with consumers.
“In the UK, 89% of all marketing is ignored,” she says, noting that proving the value of your offering in a market as crowded as food retail is becoming harder for all players. To address this problem, her team created the Remarksable Value label, under which the firm sells a range of lower-priced items.
“This has been about finding a way to talk about value in a way that’s compelling, engaging and, most crucially, unique to M&S Food,” she says. “It is about fantastic prices, of course, but we make a point of talking about what’s unique about those products.”
Social networks bring brands closer to customers
Cramond’s willingness to innovate and challenge conventional marketing wisdom has won recognition from the M&S board and industry peers alike. She talks of how the marketing chief’s role has changed since the turn of the millennium, from “creating brilliant ad campaigns” to “becoming the voice of the customer in the whole organisation”.
A key part of doing the latter is “getting the organisation closer to customers”. To this end, M&S Food had been holding regular sessions where the leadership team chats with about 20 shoppers. It recently augmented that by forming a panel known as The Collective, with the aim of attracting 10,000 M&S Food “super-fans”. But only hours after an email highlighting the opportunity was sent, the number of sign-ups reached 43,000 and the retailer had to stop accepting them.
“We can put a question to The Collective and have the answer within a couple of hours,” Cramond says. “That shows us how customers truly want to influence the decisions the organisation is going to make.”
She thinks that marketing chiefs would be well advised to stay focused on differentiation to separate their brands from the pack, but adds that, just because there might be a gap in the market, there won’t necessarily be a market in that gap. Cramond suggests that a possible way forward is for their teams to finish the following sentence: “X is the only company that…”
Gaining influence through social media
Her team could feasibly complete that statement with “… embraces the power of social media influencers as an authentic extension of the brand.” It works with pop musician Matt Willis, TV presenter Rochelle Humes, YouTube influencer Zoe Sugg and boxer Tommy Fury, its latest recruit.
“These are people with a real passion for M&S. They genuinely shop with us,” says Cramond, who explains that each of them is asked to pick a favourite product to get behind. “I think about half of their followers didn’t follow M&S on our social channels, so this has introduced us to new audiences.”
Influence is not only the preserve of celebrities, though. M&S Food’s colleagues act as “micro-influencers” – pivotal work that began in 2020 during the first Covid lockdown, when every store was asked to create a Facebook page on which it could update customers on the availability of key products.
Each store now has its own social media champion, who is often a junior member of staff. Cramond notes that this has helped to attract younger customers.
“People believe those who look and sound similar to them,” she says. “Our colleagues live in the same communities as our customers and know many of them by name. When they’re talking about the latest new product or deal on TikTok or Facebook, that message is translated in a much more compelling way.”
Cramond points to a highly engaged customer base. The brand’s recent marketing emails have been inducing an 81% open rate, for instance. She attributes this to the authenticity of the messages being sent. For instance, she stresses to her team that they “cannot write cheques that the stores can’t cash”, suggesting that customers can see straight through any marketing hyperbole.
Customer-centred marketing starts with good data
Data – lots of it – has become fundamental to the M&S marketing team’s decision-making. For instance, Cramond has established an econometric modelling system in partnership with the firm’s finance and insights teams, which shows the return on marketing investment.
The system enables M&S to determine which factors are influencing the sales of any given product, including its “in-store location, the number of stocking points and the temperature that day”, she explains. “It’s very robust.”
Cramond also points to a database of 16 million customers that can, within an hour, send someone an email containing information about the provenance of a recent purchase. If that’s a chicken, for instance, the message may even include a simple recipe created by Kerridge.
The business is clearly keen to use all the tech at its disposal to deliver a personal touch at every opportunity. When a member of staff in the support centre sends an email in response to a customer query, the signature on that message will even include a product recommendation of theirs.
“The marketing team has to bring a real passion for products in the organisation,” Cramond says. “I pick my favourite M&S product every day on Instagram. It’s amazing how many people say: ‘I bought that product because I saw it on your page.’”
A constant quest for differentiating features
Having worked around the world in her previous roles, including as group marketing director at Tesco, Cramond would advise her fellow professionals to look far and wide for inspiration. Good ideas can come from anywhere – and it doesn’t always require big money to convert these into effective campaigns.
“Creativity will always cut through,” she says. “The lower the budget, the more creative you have to be.”
M&S Food’s move into ad-funded TV programming appears to have been a good idea. In 2021 it co-created the popular ITV1 series Cooking with the Stars, which is entering its third season this year. M&S retains half of the intellectual property. The competing celebrities use its ingredients to create their dishes and the programme is augmented by in-store marketing that points shoppers to the items featured in their recipes.
Also on ITV1, a documentary offering a peek behind the scenes at M&S last Christmas attracted 5.3 million viewers. A three-part version has been commissioned for this December.
Finding points of differentiation from the competition will always be a cornerstone of M&S Food’s marketing strategy, says Cramond, who advises her fellow marketers to never stop searching for the unique features of their organisations.
If such things aren’t to be found, she says, “it’s the role of the modern marketing chief to create and shape unique customer propositions”.