Close-Up: Live Issue - M&S goes back to basics after Asda steals its clothing crown

M&S needs to concentrate on quality to challenge its rivals, Rachel Gardner says

The firm grip Marks & Spencer has held on the clothing market for nearly half a decade was broken last week when the store saw its pile-'em-high-sell-'em-cheap rival Asda overtake it for the first time.

The supermarket was crowned Britain's biggest clothing retailer after figures produced by Taylor Nelson Sofres revealed its George range had sold more items of clothing than any of its competitors. Its volume rose to 9.4 per cent, compared with M&S's share, which remained at a static 9.1 per cent.

However, in terms of sales by value, M&S is undeniably still the king, topping the Wal Mart-owned supermarket by around £3 billion pounds.

Added value has always been the stalwart positioning for M&S, but the TNS FashionTrak figures hint at a dramatic shift in consumer attitudes towards low-cost, disposable fashion.

A decade ago M&S dominated the "basics" market, with a business model constructed around people buying clothes to wear for five years or more.

But now the likes of Asda, Tesco, Matalan and Primark offer less expensive versions that sit well in an increasingly price-conscious market.

So what role can M&S's advertising have in bolstering the retailer's key women's clothing range?

Next month sees the inception of a new brand concept across all advertising, devised by Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R. There will also be clearer sign-posting, pricing and layout installed to combat M&S's sometimes chaotic in-store architecture.

"Your M&S", a strategy that co-ordinates all marketing under a single strapline, was signed off by M&S's marketing director, Steven Sharp, who was brought in by the chief executive, Stuart Rose, earlier this year.

Its aim is to return a sense of brand ownership to M&S's core 35- to 55-year-old customers by exploiting the emotional attachment that intensive research has indicated shoppers have to the store.

It will be used initially to showcase M&S's premium products across its menswear, lingerie and womenswear divisions, starting with the new Limited Collection, promoted by the supermodel Helena Christensen.

The autumn range is far removed from the M&S product of recent years, which has tried to be all things to all people and effectively failed to be relevant to anyone.

A past RKCR/Y&R advertising campaign, "exclusively for everyone", which launched five years ago, endeavoured to be inclusive of all consumers.

However, the campaign supported the M&S brand at the expense of products.

This was replaced with the highly stylised and iconic "perfect" campaign, which went to the opposite extreme, failing to promote M&S's core brand.

"Your M&S", however, is looking to build the brand's credentials without getting in the way of celebrating the clothes. The use of the corporate brand initials "M&S" for the first time in its advertising history is intended to convey a modernised, more relaxed image.

M&S cannot hope to revive sales by challenging its supermarket competitors on price and volume. Instead, it needs to cope with the threat they pose by improving its style credentials and maintaining its quality, which has always been its selling point.

Tesco, by comparison, has successfully built its Cherokee brand positioning around the notion of good design at a low price. Its ads, by Lowe, use unashamed price starbursts to highlight low prices, accompanied by the line: "Design by Cherokee. Price by Tesco."

Awareness of Cherokee, which only launched in August 2002, has reportedly tripled over the past year. A relative newcomer in a still immature market where all growth is rapid, it has made significant in-roads, seeing its market share leap an amazing 69 per cent to 6.5 per cent, according to the latest figures.

Leigh Thomas, Lowe's business director on Tesco, says: "People perceive Cherokee as modern, with a strong sense of family values. As always with Tesco, the success of the brand stems from a great product at good value."

Asda's success against the established retailers is based on the repositioning of George as a low-price, high-fashion brand. Created by Publicis, the ads demonstrate how the latest trends can be bought at the store at a lower price than other fashion labels.

However, Richard Hyman, the chairman of the retail analyst Verdict Research, disputes that M&S has lost customers to its cheaper supermarket rivals.

He points out that M&S still has more than ten million shoppers walking through its doors every day.

He says: "M&S does not necessarily fish in the same pool as Tesco and Asda and its brand is still very strong. But unless it can persuade people that its garments are worth paying the extra premium for, they are not going to buy them.

"The company has to make sure its product is made more relevant by communicating the added value better," he says.

RKCR/Y&R must remember how to capture the simple things that M&S does better than its rivals if it is to revitalise the company's share price and reclaim its crown as the UK's biggest clothing retailer.

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