M&S hires Del Boy in attempt to ditch 'elitist' food image

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The Independent Online

The High-street giant Marks & Spencer has turned to Del Boy to broaden the appeal of its food offer during the credit crunch, marking the end of its upmarket voice-over on the "this-is-not-just-food" television advertisements.

From Sunday, the actor Sir David Jason, who played the Peckham wheeler and dealer Derek Trotter in the sitcom Only Fools and Horses, will promote its new range of M&S Italian ready meals. For the past three years, M&S advertisements, which some have dubbed food porn, have featured the voice of the actress Dervla Kirwan saying, "This is not just food, this is M&S food", over close-ups of the dishes.

Ditching the much-parodied advertisement marks the latest change in the retailer's food division, which posted a 4.5 per cent slump in like-for-like sales for the 13 weeks to 28 June and parted company with its food director, Steve Esom.

This summer, M&S started its first trial of 350 branded food products, including Coca-Cola, Tabasco and Marmite, at 19 stores in the North-east, while Mr Esom's successor, John Dixon, has introduced a range of initiatives, such as Wise Buy promotions to focus on value.

Freddie George, an analyst at Seymour Pierce, said: "I think the [previous] adverts were a bit elitist. Their objective would be to bring it more to the masses."

M&S said it had chosen Sir David for his "universal appeal with the British public", although the choice of Del Boy is likely to tempt industry experts to make quips or intensify their scrutiny of the price of M&S food, which some consider to be too expensive.

The first advertisements, which will also use other celebrities for voice-overs, feature ingredients being carefully prepared to make an Italian risotto before it is revealed that the dish is actually an M&S prepared meal.

M&S's executive director, Steve Sharp, said:"The new adverts not only show that M&S prepared meals offer restaurant-quality dining, but also highlights the quality of our raw ingredients to viewers, whether they arebuying fresh produce to cook from scratch or want us to do the hard work for them."

Despite the changes, some City analysts expect Marks & Spencer to deliver a disappointing performance in food, which accounts for half of its UK sales, when it provides a trading update on 2 October. One analyst said that he expected M&S to report like-for-like food sales to be down by 3 per cent.

Another said: "It will not be great in food. They are still finding life tough and the middle ground is not the place to be."

According to the market research firm Nielsen, M&S's food sales fell by 2.1 per cent for the four weeks to 9 August. However, the discounters Aldi and Lidl are registering double-digit sales increases, while Asda and Morrisons are also posting strong sales.

At the time of its trading update in July, M&S's executive chairman, Sir Stuart Rose, admitted to self-inflicted mistakes with its food strategy, such as on pricing, innovation and availability.

Separately, M&S declined to comment on the disciplinary hearing of a so-called whistleblower, who leaked details of its plans to cut redundancy pay to 70,000 workers. A decision on the employee is expected this week.