CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE - BOOTS. The brand needs to restore unity to its advertising and identity, Mark Sweney says

Boots is feeling the pressure. One of the strongest brands on the high street is going through a crisis. Profits fell by almost 17 per cent last year as the big grocery multiples such as Tesco and Asda ate away its market share. Meanwhile, the Boots brand is in the midst of an identity crisis.

Much of its predicament is blamed on the diversification strategy, carried out under the outgoing chief executive, Steve Russell, which aimed to create a multi-faceted retail brand in health, beauty and lifestyle.

The strategy saw the launch of Wellbeing-branded products to offer services including dentistry, chiropody and alternative health remedies. Boots also launched a range of standalone Pure Beauty stores. And in a bid to expand its offering beyond the high street, it launched a joint venture trial with Sainsbury's.

But this year, it is making a u-turn. Wellbeing has been closed, the expansion of Pure Beauty stores halted and the joint venture scrapped. Boots is now facing job losses and is seeking £100 million in savings across the business.

Attempting to create a cohesive ad strategy to market such a divergent range of brands and products has left Boots' advertising in a pickle.

This hasn't been helped by a marketing department that is its own worst enemy. The different departments - say toiletries or sandwiches - have operated as separate fiefdoms with separate marketing budgets and agendas.

This has meant that in each ad, each department has scrabbled for a share of as much of the airtime to show its product range as possible. This has meant that the overarching brand message for Boots - a brand with a strong heritage - has become lost in the noise.

To try to sort the situation out, Boots hired Ann Francke, a former marketer at Masterfoods, in January as the director of strategic marketing and development. Francke is now considering the advertising options and strategy employed by J. Walter Thompson (Campaign, last week).

Merry Baskin, a partner at the planning consultancy Baskin Shark, argues that Boots needs to reclaim its core identity and brand heritage. "Boots needs a campaign to highlight the role it plays in people's lives, to position it as a single, trusted, cohesive entity, instead of a series of ads about disparate product lines available at various times of the year," she says.

"Shoppers need to be reminded of the terrific values of the brand - it should not be relegated to a mere sign off. Look at the 'One brand, one shop' positioning that has worked so well for Tesco. Using the difficult customer - Dottie - as the thread throughout means they can take the storyline almost anywhere, but it always comes back to service, which, at the end of the day, is what distinguishes most mass retailers from each other, rather than the products they sell."

In seeking fresh creative answers, Francke has put Boots' landmark global advertising deal with WPP under threat. Struck in 2000, the deal was one of the first global alignments to see all marketing functions pooled into a single group. At the time, the move was seen as the way forward and heralded the arrival of the mass-consolidation model.

Boots' latest moves are a further sign of the difficulty that the marketing communications super groups are facing in the current recession. With the smaller agencies hitting above their weight, it is perhaps only right that Francke, a passionate believer in creativity, should consider looking beyond the resources provided within the global deal if the creative advertising component is not delivering.