April Preston has three decades of experience that span the restaurant, retail and food manufacturing industries. Here, she explains how that cross-section of experience has led her to what she refers to as “the best job in the world” – Director of Product Development at M&S. “If you’re in product development you want to come and work here because it’s such an important part of the brand DNA and is so highly regarded. Our customers come to us looking for innovation.”
Tell us about your role at M&S?
I get paid to do what I love. My role sits at the same level as commercial director of marketing, on the board. Other organisations might report into another function, but at M&S product innovation is so important to our customers and our strategy reflects that. I do the testing, directing the team, working with chefs and I also run the business alongside my peers. We’ve been through various structures over the years but this is the one that, if we really want to protect the Marks & Spencer ‘magic’, works very well. My team is accountable for creating and protecting the magic, and making sure that magic is always there for our customers.
What is the M&S approach to innovation, and how has it changed in recent years?
M&S has always been a leader, not a follower. Customers come to us because we have new, different and unique products. None of that has changed. The thing that has changed is the pace, primarily driven by the digital age. The Love Sausage was the first product I launched when I came back to M&S from Harrods (where Preston worked as Executive Head of Food Innovation). We put it on Instagram, and then we literally couldn’t make them fast enough. Before the digital age it was customers going into stores and discovering things; it could be quite a slow burn. Now we’re finding you get a really quick read on whether something is going to be successful or not, and you have to get after it really quickly.
Does this make it more challenging to plan rollouts?
It makes it more exciting. This is where experience and gut feel comes in alongside data. The best innovators and product developers are able to predict which items will go viral and which will capture peoples’ imaginations. I work with a lot of trading people that only want to use data. But for me, if a product comes into a room and I see peoples’ eyes light up and hear lots of wonderment, I can pretty much guarantee it’s a winner. This is what some of our commercial colleagues will never get. There’s a lot of gut feel, combined with a lot of observing customers and understanding what’s important to them.
How much of your research is data versus consumer insight driven?
It’s 50/50. We use a lot of customer insight data. But customers won’t give you the answer, they will tell you the problem. Really good innovation is solving that problem with a creative solution. Besides, when you’re leading not following, the data isn’t always there because you are creating new things. So you do have to go with gut feel and there is risk associated with that. It means you have to be incredibly determined and resilient. In the product development world you are driving change and a lot of people don’t like change. You absolutely need to push those ideas through when you really believe in them, and know customers want them.
Can you give an example of an M&S product that was the result of that gut instinct?
Our Christmas snow globe gin liqueur was phenomenally successful. It ticked so many boxes. It’s a gift, gin is still a massive trend, and so many people love a snow globe. There is a real nostalgia and emotional connection there, which you wouldn’t find in data. You just need to see people pick it up. I started to show it to people in summer 2019 and I could see by the look on their faces and the way they were reacting, this was going to be a big line. I went to my trading colleagues and said however much you’ve bought, it’s not going to be enough. That wouldn’t have been found in data.
What are the biggest challenges of your role?
I believe innovation is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. Coming up with ideas isn’t the difficult part. I have hundreds of ideas every day and there will be some gems in there. The difficult bit is being able to make that product in mass quantities, at a great quality, and a great price, and ensuring it transports really well into stores and customers’ homes. We had a technical director, David Gregory, who said to me 30 years ago, ‘April we’re in the business of creating reproductions not masterpieces. It has to be the same every single day’. It’s true, you can have an amazing product created by a chef but you can’t match it day in day out. That’s where my time at 2 Sisters Food Group as Group Director of Insight and Innovation was invaluable. I got to really understand the manufacturing side.
What advice would you give product innovators?
Great innovations are about taking a challenge, and finding a creative solution to fill it – then you have to be absolutely relentless and determined. Because all newness carries a risk. And the default position for manufacturers and stores is – ‘we want to do what we know and what sells’. In innovation, it’s about constantly pushing the boundaries, and showing people it’s a risk worth taking. It can be quite lonely sometimes, because you may be the only person that can see something is going to really take off.
How is your industry faring with respect to gender equality?
The doyenne of product innovation was my predecessor, Cathy Chapman. She introduced the first chicken kiev ready meal in the 70s. All of the innovation leadership roles at major supermarkets tend to be headed up by women. The problem for me is women at board level and senior positions generally. Only six CEOs in the FTSE 100 are women, and less than 10% of women are in senior management roles. I think we are several generations away from feminine qualities being valued as much as male in the boardroom. There’s a fantastic quote from Jacqueline Gold, an amazing woman who heads up Ann Summers. She said: ‘we bring boys up to be brave, and we bring girls up to be perfect’. I have to stop myself and try to treat my sons and daughters the same. It’s as much down to women as men to change this.
What would be your advice to women aiming for board level roles in the industry?
Continue to be yourself. I’ve seen a lot of women take on male qualities to succeed, but I need to be authentic. That’s the only way I can be successful. That gut instinct and creativity, they are very feminine qualities that there isn’t much room for in the boardroom these days. But I don’t want to change that by becoming more male. I want to change it by being successful and people understanding diversity in the boardroom is really important.
How can we accelerate change?
There is a big mentoring and coaching role for women. And we have to bring our children up to understand that they can do anything they want. You have to constantly role model. I’ve always been the main breadwinner in my marriage. I couldn’t do it if my husband didn’t do what he did, which was to be there for the children at home – he also works full time. It’s a true partnership. But still, multiple times people have been critical of me, saying I’ve not been a good mother. My children are all incredible, successful, confident and loving people. It’s not to do with whether you’re there all the time or not – you just have to keep role modelling for them. I try to share that experience and encourage women to do the right thing for them. Everyone is different. I’m not critical of people that want to be the one that stays at home. I think if you have children, one of you has to try and be there if possible. But it shouldn’t be a judgment call on who is it.
Click here for more on how April transformed Harrods’ food halls and read on here for Happen’s work in the retail category with clients including M&S and Tesco.