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Because books matter

March 28, 2011

Last week I had a conversation with Gemma about brands that we’d like to work on and I was saying that one of the top of my list is Waterstone’s.

This is mostly because I love books, and believe (probably delusionally and against hope) that there has to still be a place for a book retailer in today’s world.  And the fact that working out how it could position itself with ebooks and online retailers like Amazon in the world would possibly be one of the most interesting projects ever.

Sadly it looks as though things are going from bad to worse for Waterstone’s.  Following the high-profile closure of Borders in 2009 it’s looking like book retailers are going to disappear from our high streets entirely*

This article from Helen Edwards at Marketing, and this confirming that HMV are looking to get rid of the brand got me thinking.

Not just because she makes reference to someone else who loves it so much that they want to hang onto it and are prepared to buy it out to keep it alive.

But, given a blank slate, how would you reposition something as drastically as Waterstone’s obviously needs.  Getting rid of all the baggage that it has accumulated over the years, and stripping the proposition back to something that could really be different and true to what the brand could stand.

So how could Waterstone’s reinvent itself for the 21st century?

Books have always been precious.  A while back I went to visit the chained library in Wimbourne Minster .  This made books available to ordinary people, because they were too expensive to own.  So instead of lending them out they chained them to the shelves.

And the next evolution was the public library.  But now they are closing too (cue the brilliant speech by Philip Pullman, in defence of just as doomed a cause).

And when it opened Waterstone’s had the same ethos at its heart; bringing books to the masses.  Making them more and more accessible.

Now why can’t that still be brought through?  The same spirit should resonate just as truly today as it once did.  And there should still be a role for the brand to be the facilitator of that idea.

Now, I don’t know how this could manifest itself in today’s world.  But I have a hunch that there has to be a way for a brand like Waterstone’s to reinvent itself and remain relevant.

And I have a hunch that this lies in its credibility as an expert and as a place to recommend and get recommendations.  To share a love of books.  And to discover new ones.  Back in the day it was the place you went to find new authors. So why can’t this translate into some sort of social network – an online continuation of the spirit of the brand?

Yes, it would involve the scaling back of the high street presence – but there would still be a place for somewhere you could drop in for ideas.

And surely Amazon is diluting its proposition – becoming a more general retailer?

Plus what made Amazon so refreshing in the first place seems to be ebbing away (their utterly atrocious customer service has left a sour taste in my mouth the last few times I’ve ordered from them. Paying for first class delivery should not mean the delivery arriving ten days later, and they should check their records before demanding the return of products that were sent back recorded delivery months before)

There has to be a space for Waterstone’s to thrive here

Some very random musings.  No obituary yet though.  I’ll carry on being an optimist!

* The thing I find really sad is that this news has come out on the same day that the BBC reports that children read too few books.  Well, they have some anecdotal evidence that points that way, but the sad thing is the 90% of teenagers end up studying the same book.  And they end up studying it because it is short.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. March 29, 2011 9:55 am

    I’d love to see Waterstones reposition itself as a place to meet and Talk. Capital T intended. A space conducive to having a really good discussion with like minded friends about the stuff that matters. Surrounded by amazing books about the stuff that you yet don’t know matters.

    Waterstones could be the kind of place where creative and digital and knitting and foodie and parenting and businessey types chose to meet and put the world to rights. Perhaps it needs to stop thinking like a bookshop and start thinking like a member’s club?

    • March 31, 2011 12:45 pm

      Yes, I agree. A social networking space both on and offline. I still think that there is a real place for the books side of things as well though – just trying to work out in my own head how this might work.

      There might be a need to reposition stores – no longer high street, but more convenience – train stations, airports, places where people are waiting and want to browse something. Places where people are open to suggestions and ideas rather than focused on a task in hand. That’s always been the best thing about Waterstone’s as far as I’m concerned – the ability to find something unexpected and new, rather than finding exactly what you are looking for.

      And maybe there is something in the library role as well. With libraries shutting there must be a lot of displaced readers. I was reading about an airport that was leaving Kindle-esque ereaders around for people to pick up and flick through like a magazine. Maybe there is something in that as well.

      Hoping that something will happen to save it though!

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