M&S gets fresh (but there's no mention of a sell-by date)

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The Independent Online

"It's fresher," says a Marks & Spencer spokeswoman, explaining the advantages of the company's new palette of greens for its corporate design. "If it's fresher, how long will it take to go off?" replies her questioner, with the licensed cruelty enjoyed by those who know they are present at an urgent rearguard action.

Marks & Spencer is unveiling its new brand identity to the world, and among the display boards of food packaging, high street fascias and redesigned logos there is still a lingering whiff of corporate panic.

Alan McWalters, Marks & Spencer's director of marketing, naturally puts a brave face on the company's recent difficulties. "It's a phenomenal brand" he says, announcing a strategy to give that brand more clarity and definition.

But his evidence for this statement acknowledges the scale of the problem - he says it must be strong to have survived the concerted battering of recent months.

This has to be among the least desirable ways for a company to establish the value of its core identity and it served as a jolting wake-up call for M&S's management to put in overdue maintenance work.

The redesign, to be introduced gradually this summer, will hardly frighten long-term M&S loyalists.

The traditional green has spun off into a variety of tints - from lime to aquamarine - and the St Michael's name remoulded into a gold ring of confidence, a mission statement which stresses commitment to quality and value. Food packaging is less drably take-it-or-leave-it, and what the company calls "leading standards" photography - a glossy editorial approach to food and clothing - everywhere in evidence.

The 680 different label types which had accumulated over the years have been simplified to just two.

The other innovation is a zealous but somewhat belated conversion to communication. For years, M&S didn't talk to its customers. They finally gave up a haughty abstention from advertising only in 1999.

It didn't listen a great deal either. Market research, one spokeswoman admitted, has gone from having a budget of "almost zero" to being one of the company's "substantial tools". Now M&S is trying to transform itself from its traditional Trappist reticence into a positive retail chatterbox.

Swing tags on clothing will "use photography and an appropriate conversational style to tell compelling fabric stories".

If the examples on show are anything to go by the inspiration is partly oriental. "The absolute softness of cashmere" may be a few syllables short of a pure haiku but certainly owes something to the form's descriptive starkness. "Huddle up in wool" is more Mills & Boon. Even the new vans will be used for "conversations" with the British public.

"Delicious fresh food right to your door", says one, while another politely informs you of its ecological rectitude. Till receipts will buttonhole you about the advantages of a Marks & Spencer ISA and the shopfronts will carry cheering exhortations on the doors: "Summer days, enjoy them" reads one example.

"Tone of voice" guidelines are to govern all this talk - ensuring it is plain-spoken and informal - guidelines that don't appear to have been fully absorbed at head office.

When Mr McWalters was prodded on the important difference between design promise and retail delivery he admitted that the company's biggest task remains "to build a fulfilment capability".

The answer to whether they've managed that will be given in the blunter language of the cash tills.