A wolf in sheep’s branding

Nestling unobtrusively on Southwold’s ancient little high street is a charming book shop. Its attractive pale blue front offers a glimpse into a small, warmly-lit room dressed with rows of books. Southwold Books is everything an independent aspires to be.

And yet it’s not an independent. It’s an unbranded Waterstones.

It caused a stir in the news. So much so that Waterstones’ Managing Director has weighed in to defend the decision. Is the move a storm in a skinny latte cup, or a tempest used to lure in unsuspected shoppers?

A nail in the coffin of indies?

In my opinion, the decision to brand the shop as a different company is Waterstones admitting its part in cultural homogenisation. And by dropping the recognisable name from the signage, Waterstones is pretending to be something it’s not – which, in an age of authenticity, is a dangerous move. Leading customers to believe they are buying from an independent could damage the years of trust the brand has worked hard to build.

Perhaps I’m biased. Any book lover in Sheffield will name Rare & Racy as the city’s finest book shop. Since 1969, it has provided countless book readers and music listeners with esoteric and popular fare. Now its story arc looks to end with an unsatisfying resolution as it’s knocked down to make way for student accommodation. Sure this is a different problem, but both are nails in independents’ coffins, and both are driven by the hands of big corporates.

From an agency point of view, it’s also interesting to see a company leave behind its brand equity so readily. Granted, as a nationally recognised retailer, Waterstones will suffer little if no setback from the fiasco. Yet every brand we work with is striving to build and solidify its brand image. Even the industry leaders are constantly tweaking and improving to keep the brand in its sweet spot, and in their customers’ minds.

Are we entering a new chapter of unbranding?

So why would big corporates unbrand their business and risk a negative reception?

There’s the short-term gains, for starters. While the unbranded store’s true origin goes undetected, there is no downside. And even if a seemingly independent store does turn out to be a card in a corporate’s deck, there are those consumers who simply won’t care. Independent or chain, it really doesn’t matter to some. Not everyone is a staunch supporter of local business – to these people, range of choice, price and convenience are the factors that close a deal.

This isn’t the first time a global brand has shelved its own image for something else. Starbucks has opened so many unbranded stores that Stealth Starbucks has a Wikipedia page. And Tesco faced a very public backlash when it was discovered the brand was behind artisan coffee shop Harris + Hoole.

Starbucks, as an example, use unbranded stores as a test and learn exercise. It’s easier to trial store configurations and new drinks in an indie than it is in a recognised brand where customers have a perception of how it should look and how its drinks should taste. This way, the brand protects the reputation and integrity of its offer and image, minimising the risk of test and learn exercises.

Waterstones has given its own reasons for its choice, stating the move is to allow each store autonomy. Managing director James Daunt said, “If you want to enhance a high street you need to act as an independent.” Acting as an independent is one thing – posing as one is another. Your opinion on which side Waterstones falls on will ultimately depend on your level of cynicism.

Are there industries where we care more about authenticity?

As consumers, our relationships with industries differ. But does this mean authenticity is only an issue when we’re talking about brands we form intimate relations with?

Look at the examples I’ve discussed above. Book stores and coffee shops. Both sell consumables that illustrate an individual’s personality. People to buy brands that align with their values. As consumers we crave a level of authenticity that mirrors the products we buy and the places we purchase them from.

Would there be the same outcry if Staples opened up an unbranded stationery store? I’d say not. Because as consumers we interact with these brands from a distance. They are there when we need them because they peddle practicality, not personality.

Whichever side of the argument your views lead you towards, I think we can all agree that in today’s environment of fake news, questionable ethics and switched-on audiences, brands that don’t act with complete transparency could find themselves portrayed as the antagonist in their own narrative.