The M&S Principle: When it comes to differentiation, motivate, don’t aggravate
Posted by Alan Morrison on November 4, 2009
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The levees have finally broken. After over a year spent dipping its toe in the water with regional trials in the North and South-East, M&S is starting to sell branded grocery products at all of its stores in the UK.
Normally branding consultants might be tearing their hair out at this news: why are they undermining a point of difference?
But M&S is actually doing the right thing here. The only brands being introduced are in what it calls brand-led categories, e.g., Pantene, Coca Cola, Gordon’s, Marmite, Persil, Kit Kat, Kellogg’s and Heinz. In other words, however hard M&S might try to fabricate a localised monopoly within its stores, these are the kind of destination brands which even regular M&S shoppers would be going elsewhere to pick up. Interestingly, M&S (or rather John Dixon, their Executive Director of Food) divides the brands it’s introducing into two categories:
1. ‘Products that we could simply never compete with, like Marmite and Kit Kat,’ i.e. brands like Guinness which are very closely tied to their product format/flavour/some other intrinsic. While this quality is normally a hindrance to the brands in question because consumers don’t give them ‘permission’ to innovate away from their core, in this case, it’s a quality that means any mimic M&S produce won’t ever be seen as comparable by consumers.
2. ‘Other areas where, whilst we have a great M&S equivalent, the leading brand dominates the market,’ i.e. brands which embody their category and offer the generic, mass-market proposition, e.g. Gordon’s ‘the G in G&T’ and Heinz ‘Heinz Meanz Beanz.’ These are the kind of brands who truly can claim market leader status; all of the marketing muscle they can heft over their central ground makes them basically impossible to unseat. So, as an aside, being selected by M&S as one of these brands is a real accolade, and it’s interesting to think that being chosen and endorsed by M&S may become something brands fight for. And if this is the start of a flood of brands to M&S’s shelves, it may be something that even non-market leading brands may fight for if they believe they have a motivating proposition against the core M&S range in their category.
In any case because the brands being introduced at this stage will only cover 7% of its product range and because they’re the kind of brands M&S simply can’t compete with, I think it’s a smart move. Being brand-free has been a distinct point of difference for M&S, but because that has been to the exclusion of these destination brands, that differentiation has been the wrong kind; it’s been differentiation for its own sake. It’s left consumers frustrated that they either have to put up with a compromised, own-brand alternative they don’t want, or make a second trip to a rival store to pick up what they do want. It’s why The M&S Principle may be a useful short-hand for an important point about differentiation: what matters is owning a compelling position in consumers’ minds. So when it comes to differentiation, motivate, don’t aggravate.