Two Lessons to Learn from Waterstones Unbranding

Earlier this week it was discovered that Waterstones, the UK book giant, had recently opened three new stores in various locations across Britain.

Normally this would be a non-story but from the outside looking in, you’d never know these bookstores were owned and operated by Waterstones. In an unexpected move the retailer decided to “unbrand” and create new shops that looked and felt independent to the untrained eye.  

The only signifier of corporate involvement, in each shop, was a small, easily missed, sign and consumers didn’t like it.

The whole issue lead me to think about branding and marketing in general before coming to two simple conclusions…

Take Action

James Daunt, Waterstones CEO, originally comes from an independent bookstore background and has been a resounding success since taking the helm and his latest move can be vindicated to a certain degree.

Taking action and moving with the times is the surest way to remain relevant and present in an ever-changing market but clearly there is a right way and a wrong way to achieve this. Unfortunately for Waterstones, this time round, they chose the wrong option.

One local Northern Ireland example of noticing market changes and reacting, that thankfully happens to be positive, is Utility Bear. For those that don’t know Utility Bear is a luxury male and female underwear e-commerce brand.

From the outside looking in you might assume the business stemmed from somewhere as glamorous as London or New York but in reality the business grew from a normal menswear shop called Spences in Ballymena, County Antrim.

The team at Spences clearly noticed a shift in customer buying behaviour (a move towards online) and the need to relate to a younger audience.

Noticing market changes, wants and needs and taking action is a massive positive step but only if you apply it alongside the second conclusion of this piece…

Don’t Deceive Your Market

If you come to the conclusion that your business is positioned one way but that your target market wants something different it can be very easy to slowly get sucked into a world of deception.

Over the past two years I’ve worked with different clients operating within the food industry. Competitors were promoting an “organic” message but, due to small differences and legal requirements, my clients couldn’t.

It would be incredibly difficult for the general public to determine the difference and we probably could have gotten away with using the “organic” tag but we had to refuse the temptation and create different, alternative messages to market with.

This might seem like a negative but, in reality, limits and constraints usually lead to more creative thinking so the opportunities will always be out there.


It will be interesting to watch Waterstones next move. Let’s hope next time round it’s slightly more open and transparent.

Have you noticed changes and trends within your own sector? I’d love to hear about them!

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