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Is honesty the best policy? ……….I think so!!!

Is honesty the best policy? ……….I think so!!!

In a small town on the Suffolk coast, quiet uproar has begun. What might have upset so many residents and visitors? Perhaps parking charges, an unwanted housing development, or some sort of celebrity scandal? No – it’s the local bookshop. That’s because all is not as it seems with the quaint ‘Southwold Books’. Its unobtrusive, grade 2 listed front fits in beautifully with the local independent shops. The problem is that this bookshop is actually hiding a bit of a secret which you wouldn’t get at first glance – it’s actually a Waterstones book shop in disguise.

Southwold has a long history of encouraging small, local businesses into its high street. High street brands aren’t a common sight amongst the traditional businesses which populate the bustling high street, but local traders feel that with an increase of 177% planned for their business rates over the next five years, Waterstones and other big chains are going to start appearing amongst them as local companies are forced out. It’s a desirable coastal location with plenty of locals and visitors – Tesco and Costa both fought long battles to open branches in the town. Locals are fully aware of what a great opportunity it affords businesses, and while many of them are completely aware of the secret of Southwold Books, they worry that unsuspecting tourists are merrily spending their cash in what looks like a quaint independent bookshop, unaware that it’s actually Waterstones in sheep’s clothing.
Is it a terrible dishonesty? It certainly caused a debate in the national press, when it was featured in an article. Waterstones claim that there is no problem with their brand honesty. Styling branches as something more local, helps them to integrate into the local community, especially in close knit towns like Southwold. They maintain that this encourages their staff to act more as an independent shop, creating an identity which you wouldn’t find in any other of their branches. Each local branch develops its own brand values and brand purpose.

Waterstones certainly aren’t the only company who have tried to keep things hidden from their customers. Think back to the Volkswagen emissions scandal, where thousands of customers purchased a diesel-powered car, reassured that they were purchasing a vehicle with an engine tuned to minimise damage to the environment, when it eventually emerged that there had been some rigging of the test data, which would have shown these engines to be no better than those of a previous generation. There’s also the Whirlpool tumble drier story, where poor design contributed to machines going up in flames and being responsible for a great number of house fires. Whirlpool are still dealing with thousands of customers who have waited many months for a repair, and cannot use their machines for fear of their home going up in flames.

The impact on brand reputation, trust and equity has certainly been significant for Volkswagan and Whirlpool and it will be interesting to see to what extent Waterstones roll this concept out. Personally, I think they have gone one step too far. People don’t just choose a brand because of what the brand offers or how they deliver that offer, but more over WHY they do what they do.  Why did Waterstones feel the need to hide their brand? If nothing else it shows a lack of confidence in what they stand for; to get people reading. Why could they not of presented this as a local ‘sub-brand’, featuring local writers, employing local people, using local services, it would have built on the reputation of the parent brand; a brand supporting the local community not deceiving it.

Meanwhile, companies like outdoor clothing favourite Patagonia have gone in entirely the other direction, telling customers every single thing about their product, even if it might be construed as off-putting. They recently advertised one of their jackets with the slogan “Don’t buy this jacket”, and detailed how two thirds of its total weight again was wasted materials. A risky move, but a prime example of brand transparency. This didn’t seem to impact on their sales or reputation.

You have to ask yourself, as a consumer, where to draw the line when it comes to what you know about your favourite brands. It’s up to you whether you think this is a great piece of marketing or dishonest subterfuge on the part of Waterstones. One thing is for sure, getting people young and old to read has to be a good thing and only time will tell whether Waterstones have made the right move

We want to know a lot – but how much is too much? Do consumers know everything that they need to know, or are they simply depending on what the business wants them to know? Honesty and transparency is something we all claim we want. Can we be sure that we’re getting that?

In this digital age, should we not be applauding a new bookshop? After all, there’s nothing quite like that bookshop smell of freshly printed paperbacks which hits you the minute you step inside. With the nation’s school children celebrating World Book Day this month, it seems we’re keener than ever to encourage our friends and family to get into a book. Surely it doesn’t really matter where we get our books, as long as we are encouraging reading?

Stefan Kerridge is founder of The K Consultancy. Partnering with your business to bring expertise without the overhead. Working as part of your business to drive your marketing plan, execute key activities and help you realise your ambitions for more information visit www.thekconsultancy.co.uk follow on LinkedIn