Last year, Waterstones came under fire for their new business venture. The chain bookstore was accused of dishonesty after it was found to have opened three new stores under different names. Small indie-looking stores ‘Southwold Books’, ‘Harpenden Books’ and ‘Rye Bookstore’ were all found to be subsets of the Highstreet giant, with the only hint that they were, a handwritten note placed in the window, which was itself a continuation of the independent bookstore aesthetic.
Attempting to fit into small societies, it seems Waterstones has caught onto the rise in community-based businesses and changed their established look, in an attempt to cash in on the trend. The bookstore aren’t the first to try this though, Tesco caused quite a stir when they invested in coffee shop, Harris and Hoole and turned it into a chain-run watered-down version of itself. Some of their customers felt they had been betrayed by a corporate Trojan horse, with local book-shop owner Brian Hitcham, stating “Tesco’s want the cream off everyone’s cakes”.
The perceived dishonesty seemed to contribute to their downfall, when their less than satisfactory sales ended in an almost forced sale to Costa Coffee only 4 years after their opening.
However this perception of a wolf in grandmas clothing isn’t a new concept. In order to make any money, most start-up businesses will have to at least buddy up with an established brand. House-hold names and (let’s face it) delicious food companies, Ben and Jerrys, Green and Blacks and even Innocent all started off as independent brands who according to the hippiest of us all, have ‘sold out’ to corporations.
Tea Pigs, whose independent look goes so far as using hand-drawn icons on their webpage as well as their staff in fancy dress pictures, hides their roots in quirky drawings and diary style text. In-fact in their ‘about’ section, they only site the founders Nick and Louise as meeting at “a really big tea company”, suggesting that they took the leap on their own. What they fail to mention is that the tea company in question was Tetleys, and that Teapigs is owned and always has been by the same conglomerate as the tea dynasty they both started at.
‘There are lots of products that dress as David, but are actually produced by Goliath. Companies have twigged that well-meaning shoppers will pay a lot more if they believe they are buying homespun, trusted goods.’- Channel 4 Documentary Supershoppers
The outrage that customers feel upon finding out this information isn’t based upon a complete disdain for chain stores, in fact many of the people surveyed about Waterstones’ new stores admitted to shopping at the chain in the past. The source of their anger instead seems to be the dishonesty and the fact that many people, when faced with the choice will go for the independent venture, in order to put back into their community.
Whilst we can feel disdain for those companies that try to ‘creep’ into our community, this change in attitude with high-street brands, can only be a good thing. In the modern world, where any little misdemeanour can be posted upon several social media platforms in seconds, the fact that consumer attitudes are forcing big brands to act like independents is drawing in a new age of production, meaning that the businesses that have the money to make a difference are making a difference.
Tea Pigs run several charitable foundations and have put 28 children through their entire education, they also make sure their employees are all on a living wage. Innocent place a huge amount of emphasis on being sustainable and their deal with Coca Cola has meant they are able to put more money into the areas from which they get their fruit. Similarly Tesco’s recently set up ‘Bags of Help’, a community grant scheme, which takes the 5p carrier bag charge and uses it to fund local projects.
Tescos failure with Harris and Hoole was less about their input and more about the fact that they were trying to look like an independent, without acting like one. Whilst using cute slogans and handwritten boards can go so far, in order to succeed, big brands are having to actually put some work into making sure their brand gives at least as much back to a community as it is perceived to be taking away.