Opinion: Perspective - M&S must rely on advertising to ease its troubles

In the battle for the nation's pant drawer, Asda has it by a nose.

And the news that Asda has overtaken Marks & Spencer as Britain's biggest clothing retailer has been joyously received by the business community as further evidence of the M&S malaise.

New figures from Taylor Nelson Sofres' FashionTrak survey were revealed this week to great furore and triumphalist newspaper headlines such as: "By George they've done it." M&S's woes make for great copy and its stuttering attempts to improve sales performance and shore up its share price have done nothing to quell the analysts.

Into this cauldron of criticism comes a new marketing effort. M&S stores will begin adopting a new positioning, "Your M&S", over the next few months, with a campaign from Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R set to sweat the message that customers have some ownership of the M&S brand.

But scratch beneath the excitement over the TNS FashionTrak figures and a rather more interesting - and obvious - picture emerges of the challenge M&S and its agency face. Yes, the TNS sales data does suggest that Asda's George range has beaten M&S to a pulp in the three months to the end of July. But while Asda now sells more clothes than M&S by volume, M&S is still way ahead in terms of sales by value (a whopping £4 billion to £1 billion).

That George should sell more shirts, trousers and pants than M&S, though, is really not surprising. A pair of Asda trousers costs £4 and you can get a couple of polo shirts for your kids for £2.50; this is clothing that sits quite comfortably alongside the loo rolls and soap powder in the shopping trolley. M&S, reliant on clothing for the foundation of its business, cannot match this high-volume, low-cost approach.

Yet this is the advertising arena in which it must compete. Tesco, whose share of the clothing market has risen from 3.9 per cent to 6.5 per cent in the past 12 months, has beautifully proved the effectiveness of price-led advertising in this sector and is about to unleash a new series of TV ads where the price is as much the star as the clothes.

However, M&S's advertising, though always slick and beautifully crafted, has struggled to change impressions of the chaotic retailer. Yes, the new M&S logo and in-store identity are being combined with a programme of store refurbishments and new layouts. But none are original initiatives and these fundamental tenets of retailing have long appeared to be beyond M&S's grasp. There is no doubt that its store architecture is a mess and its buyers appear to be ever more out of touch with customer demands. And the store's autumn clothing ranges will already have been ordered before its chief executive, Stuart Rose, took up his post, so the product itself is unlikely to be improved by the crucial autumn/Christmas period.

So it's the advertising that will have to work hardest to drive footfall and persuade customers to persevere. But when its main competitors are pursuing a simpler, more impactful and, clearly, appealing price-led marketing strategy, clever branding work seems almost something of a luxury for M&S.

The fact is that M&S is a store so ubiquitous and familiar that it's almost impossible for advertising to counter the reality of the store experience. Yet it's crucial RKCR/Y&R pulls it off if M&S is to retain it's position as the nation's biggest clothing retailer by sales value. If it looses that, then the door is surely wide open for BHS's Philip Green to try another assault.