M&S in £25m search for a sexier image

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The desperate battle to relaunch Marks & Spencer as a store for the super-chic is about to reach new intensity with the launch of its most expensive advertising campaign.

The desperate battle to relaunch Marks & Spencer as a store for the super-chic is about to reach new intensity with the launch of its most expensive advertising campaign.

The troubled chain, which used to scorn such vulgar promotions, will now spend £25m reinforcing the fashionable new image it has cultivated by introducing sharp new suits and sexy knickers.

The Autograph range of tailored wear by designers such as Betty Jackson and Katherine Hamnett was introduced in March, along with daring underwear from Agent Provocateur. The Soho lingerie store, famous for suspenders and crotchless satin panties, is owned by Joe Corre, the son of punk royalty Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood.

The job of replacing Marks & Spencer's old-fashioned image with street cred and style has been entrusted to Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe. The agency relaunched the naff Seventies party drink Tia Maria with a cinema ad in which a glamorous woman chewed seductively on a gherkin; and it promoted Virgin using screen hardmen Steven Berkoff and Steve Buscemi. This is its first big deal since merging with the US agency Young and Rubicam.

Ordinary clothes and durable Y-fronts will not disappear from Marks & Spencer altogether, but newly appointed chairman, Luc Vandevelde, knows he can no longer rely on them to make money.

Last year the company suffered a spectacular fall in fortunes as even long-standing customers began to reject its clothes as boring and unfashionable. Profits plunged from £966m in 1996 to only £546m last year as shoppers judged High Street rivals such as Gap to be cool as well as reasonably cheap. The share price has fallen from a high of 650p in 1997 to just over 250p now.

Yesterday the company said: "We want to reposition the brand in the hearts and minds of the public. We think they are the right agency to do that." The new campaign will be launched in the next couple of months via television, billboards, newspapers and magazines, but its duration has not yet been decided.

This is a bold move for M&S, which scarcely advertised at all until the 1990s, relying instead on its reputation and the loyalty of its customers.

The appointment of Sir Peter Salsbury as chief executive was largely overshadowed by drawn-out speculation over who the new chairman would be. Although M&S's eventual choice of Mr Vandevelde, the chief of French chain Promodes, was well received in January, investors remain fairly pessimistic.

Mike Godliman, director of the retail consultancy Verdict, said: "It makes sense to have a partner who understands the whole business so the advertisements fit together like a jigsaw.

"They are targeting a lot of different people, so if they have one ad agency they can bring everything together."

But M&S is not about to chuck out all its V-necked pullovers. Sources insist that the move up market does not mean the company will stop selling more functional items.

The more expensive fashion items will only be available in a limited number of stores.

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