Waterstones’ Advertising – An Epic Fail?

Yesterday I was waiting for the tube when I noticed the following Waterstones advertising:


There are two kinds of advertising that get my attention – really good ones and really terrible ones. This one here I thought I could use for a spontaneous mini case study. And given that advertising is really not my specialty, I am looking forward to any helpful insights on this subject in the form of comments!

Everyone knows that book retailers are having a hard time competing with online retailers – primarily obviously with internet giant Amazon. It has not just become obvious with the more recent rise of e-books but it started long before that. This post will not focus on the shift in market shares and impact on profit margins (I will be honest: I have not even looked at those) but rather try to answer two key questions:

  1. What really is the difference in value propositions between online and offline book retail for the customer?
  2. How well does this Waterstones ad bring across the strengths of their business model?

To keep it short, both Amazon and Waterstones sell books (yes, really!), but their value propositions differ dramatically. While Waterstones offers the in-store experience of test-reading a book, touching it and taking your time in the atmosphere of a classic book store, Amazon has a different customer persona in mind. Amazon’s target customer is not inspired by the book store atmosphere or by physically touching a book so much: they want to be able to brows and test-read millions of books from the convenience of their home (very often their office when they should be working) and have the product delivered to their doorstep. They also want to see user reviews and receive suggestions for other, related products.

While this is really no big news, the following is: book retailers, especially smaller ones, do not understand that. I have had many conversations with different book retailers, and they saw Amazon as a threat for one reason, and one reason only: price. While it is certainly true that Amazon is cheaper (sometimes significantly), this is not why traditional book retailers struggle. It is because of Amazon’s not-so-secret main weapon: putting customers first! Something that nobody on the retailer side who I spoke to managed to pick up. Amazon makes it all about the customer, they are truly you-centric. Pricing is an additional edge, but that alone does not explain their tremendous success. It is the fact that they put the customer first in every possible way, while traditional retailers often put their own needs and convenience first.

What does that mean for the traditional retailers? They need to put their customers first again, and only then worry about prices. If they manage to re-invent their business model and excel in customer experience, the tables may turn again in their favour. This is a big challenge no doubt, but one that they cannot avoid if they want to remain competitive going forward.

Let’s come back to our advertising: “A browser. Much better to be one than to use one.” What does that actually mean? Does it tell us why we should go shopping at Waterstones? Does it give us some examples of what traditional bookshops have that Amazon does not? Does it appeal in a positive way to the customer’s emotions?

The short answer is: no! It does not carry any value proposition whatsoever, it does not tell us what Waterstones do well. Why is it better to be a browser than to use one? Because online shoppers are stupid!? It basically says: do this, no matter the reason, just do it. The only emotion I can see here is: arrogance. Arrogance usually does not sell well at all.

I wonder what the people behind this campaign were thinking of: Creating an ad which says nothing about the USP of the advertiser but instead tries to denounce the competition, again without presenting any argument whatsoever, is from my point of view simply sad and highly ineffective. Instead of a lame word play they could have come up with something that shows that Waterstones are on the ball and are taking their customers’ needs seriously. I believe this would actually have a chance of making an impact and bringing people back into their shops.

Key points to take away: Put your customers first, focus on your own strengths and do not look down on competitors – especially if they are driving the market.


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