UK book retailer Waterstones has been at the centre of a very interesting branding debate in recent weeks. The British media made claims that 3 Waterstones outlets had ditched their name and visual identity and were ‘masquerading’ as small, independent booksellers on high streets in affluent tourist towns where such an image would certainly benefit them. The bookshops were given local names – Southwold Books, The Rye Bookshop and Harpenden Books – they have simple, tasteful exterior signage and there is almost no indication inside that they are owned by the large chain. The news was met with some outrage and Waterstones have been accused of hoodwinking the book-buying public and capitalising on the desire to bring independent shops back to the high street.

Let’s take a look at the organisations recent history. In the last 6 years the Waterstones brand has been turned around. Previously owned by major high street groups such as WHSmith and HMV, in 2011 Waterstones was bought by A&NN Capital Fund Management and James Daunt was appointed as MD. He abandoned the 2010 rebrand, which had never been successfully adopted by most of the stores, returning to something far closer to the original identity. In his words the brand is now “deserving of a capital ‘W’ and a font that reflects authority and confidence.” As regards the removal of the apostrophe he says that “in a digital world of urls and email addresses it offers a more versatile and practical spelling.”

He thoroughly examined what the brand had to offer and how it could face the challenges to book retailing posed by online giants such as Amazon. “Something was needed,” says retail director Rik McShane, “to make people fall in love with Waterstones again”.

The answer was to move away from a homogenous, ‘too-corporate’ image and pull people into the shops not just to buy books but to browse, relax and take some time out amongst books. Waterstones abandoned lucrative deals with publishers paying to buy window space and, instead, local managers were allowed to choose a large percentage of their stock giving each outlet a chance to reflect its own personality. In-store cafes were opened and calendars of community book-related events were implemented. Employees attended brand personality training to address the internal language being used; they were coached in how to avoid unnecessary jargon and how to ‘live’ the local bookshop ethos of Waterstones. McShane saysWe’ve found that the ‘recommended’ stickers we have in our shops are much more powerful if they have personality, if they come from the local booksellers, rather than just looking like a corporate badge.”

They have opened shops all over the country, many small, with a low turnover and in areas which have suffered from economic blight. They have a commitment to keeping shops open in places that are quite difficult. They are thoroughly dedicated to the idea of the bookshop and its importance in every community.

As you can see this is an organization which is committed to its brand and its product. It has reaped extraordinary benefits from these commitments – Waterstones reported a pretax profit of £9.8m for the year to end-April 2016. The year before it had seen a £4.5m loss. Six years earlier it was facing bankruptcy.

So, why has it abandoned its precious identity in these 3 particular locations? Is it trying to deceive the public? Is it an act of hypocrisy?

The ‘traditional’ British high street has suffered dreadfully in the last few decades – invaded by chain stores and giant out of town hypermarkets which have driven out independent retailers who simply cannot afford to compete and survive. Amongst some powerful consumer demographics there is certainly a will to return to the past and fill the high street with local businesses again, many happy to accept increased cost to the individual in order to increase the benefits to the local community. Some large retailers have responded to this and some, like Waterstones, have adjusted their brand position or created sub-brands which ‘fit’ into the new-traditional high street model. Of course this is not what that consumer demographic really wants but perhaps this is the compromise that they will have to live with?

The reality is that the vast majority of the UK’s small independent bookshops closed years ago. The majority of the UK’s large bookshops have also been forced into closure. Is it realistic to imagine that a tiny independent shop can compete with the huge online marketplace of cheap books which now exists?  If national brands are prepared to give individual stores some autonomy, a local personality and a community mandate surely these are steps in the right direction. In the future we can hope to see new ways in which the big players can support the communities which they rely on – partnerships with local businesses or community shareholding.

Back to the question – deception or not?

I would argue that there is no deception here. These 3 almost unbranded stores are an extension of a robust brand philosophy which operates beyond the visual. They are actually living their brand by adjusting themselves to the communities in which they exist. As James Daunt put it “They are very small shops in towns that had independents and very much wish they still had independents but don’t. We can’t open up great big Waterstones here but we can open up small ones. We are coming into quite sensitive high streets with predominantly independent retailers on them and we wish to behave as they do.” The logo and the brand name become less important when the essence of the brand character is that it redefines itself  according to the community in which it exists. Perhaps this is the future of retail brands: shapeshifting, camouflaged, adaptive and ultimately successful.

At the end of the day, in my humble opinion, it is better to have any bookshop than no bookshop at all?

Opinion written by Rachel Wheeler, Brand Strategist, Lamahat