Blissful Discontent

Opinion

It’s no easy thing to celebrate your company’s success without projecting a little complacency. But M&S CEO Stuart Machin has mastered the business world’s answer to the familiar humble brag: the art of being ‘positively dissatisfied’.

Machin’s mantra was pushed out to the press again last month when M&S announced its half-year results (to 30 September ‘23). Whilst it makes for great media candy, what purpose does such a catchphrase serve?

M&S’s approach is reminiscent of Amazon, which regularly reminds employees that it’s always ‘Day 1’, ensuring it never becomes too content with its own success to quit chasing progress. Amazon describes Day 1 as “both a culture and an operating model” rather than a mantra. But for both M&S and Amazon, distilling your corporate mentality and packaging it up into a single, succinct phrase has its advantages in onboarding employees, suppliers and investors.

When it comes to wryly contradictory terms, retail is awash with them. Tesco’s ‘Perfectly Imperfect’ fruit & veg and The Vegetarian Butcher brand spring to mind but they’re just two of many. Such oxymorons tend to stick in the mind due to their mind-bending meaning.   

And just as Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin’s ‘conscious uncoupling’ entered the modern relationship lexicon, so too might ‘positively dissatisfied’ come to reflect a more contemporary approach to business.

But what does positive dissatisfaction mean in real terms? M&S defines it as ‘always seeking to raise the bar’, with Machin expanding: “We’re positive about the progress and the work we are doing, but we have to be dissatisfied because there is so much opportunity.”

So, is ‘positive dissatisfaction’ prose with purpose or just another snappy soundbite? Well, M&S’s results last month suggest its strategy is (quite literally) paying dividends. Whether or not this is down to its permanent state of peppy restlessness is anyone’s guess. But it does beg the question: with such sparkling results, is there still enough to be positively dissatisfied about? Definitely maybe.

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