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2 March 2017

Why under-fire Waterstones was guilty…of marketing

Written by: Alex Eeles, Principal Writer at Edelman


Who among us doesn’t love reading? And perhaps more pertinently this week, who among us cares about where we buy our books from (assuming we still deal in paper and ink rather than downloads)? The answer is more than you might think given the thunderous reaction to the news Waterstones has been using unbranded, independent style bookshops to attract more customers.

For the last two or three years, the UK’s leading bookseller has been going undercover with what it calls “quintessentially local bookshops” in Suffolk, East Sussex and Hertfordshire. Why? To try to cash in on a growing consumer preference for the little guy rather than the giant conglomerates of 21st century High Streets.

Yes, it’s been argued it’s a little misleading and a bit gauche. Especially now they’ve been rumbled. But do Waterstones really deserve to be quite so roundly castigated? Isn’t their only sin to have tried a different – dare I say clever – marketing strategy? After all, it’s not like they were charging people entry nor (as far as I know) attempting to command a premium for the ‘local experience’.

How is it different to anything brands, and by proxy our own communications industry, do every day? We identify a consumer need or desire. We think about creative ways to meet it. Then we execute a plan to deliver it to the best of our ability. It’s not underhand, it’s just how the business of selling stuff works.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not for a moment endorsing outright lies. Product untruths, broken promises and false claims are unforgivable and, in a world of heightened consumer scrutiny and rampant social sharing,  probably a going-out-of-business model anyway. Just ask any of the hotels and restaurants found to be writing their own TripAdvisor reviews.

But for me, that’s not what Waterstones did. They simply realised customers in certain places like certain things, and acted accordingly. Does every coffee chain look the same? No. Is adding the word ‘Express’ to the name of a small, inner city supermarket deceitful? Surely not. Is going on a first date in your best clothes rather than the trackie bums and T-Shirt you normally slob around in unfair on your unsuspecting potential partner? If so, I’m glad I’m off the market.

Just like a lot of people, I like to buy from independent, local businesses when I can. And I don’t like feeling hoodwinked. But, ultimately, I also like nice shopping experiences that deliver what I want, where I want, whether it’s something for me to eat, wear, read, whatever. If a brand – no matter how big or small – finds a way to deliver that, should I really care what their store looks like?

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