Stealth stores yes, stealth content no

southwold books One of the offending Waterstones stealth stores

One of the questions that keeps coming up from content marketers is how to get consumers to trust their content. A good place to start is to adhere to the regulations that have sprung up intended to ensure that the brand behind the piece clearly shows that it is sponsored.

Examples of such regulation include those from the federal authorities in the US and the Advertising Standards Authority in the UK.

Transparency is tricky. On the one hand, you want to provide quality editorial. On the other, you have to make it obvious who you are. Does the The Sun need to put a big News Corp logo over a review of a movie from 20th Century Fox?

Stealth

Content marketing isn’t the only area to come up against this issue. Recently bookstore chain Waterstones was found to be opening new outlets that did not bear the Waterstones brand.

They were designed to look like the kind of independent store that was commonplace about 30 years ago.

Needless to say various local people (ie the press) were concerned by this. In response, Waterstones said the move was part of a strategy to help them blend in with the community. The Mail on Sunday said the chain was killing the high street and pushing up rates. It generously went to the trouble of finding people to back this opinion up.

Waterstones is not the first to be doing this. Starbucks has been opening non-branded stores since 2009. But it has had problems with it, too. These stores have been criticised as “local washing” and the city of Chicago even took steps to ensure one didn’t open there.

People do seek some sort of transparency.

So where does content marketing come into this? It is unsurprising that for reasons of their own some consumers may not want to hand money over to Starbucks – or even Waterstones for that matter. For them, stealth stores are an understandable problem.

Yet there is no legislation to counter stealth stores. At the same time, if Starbucks brought out a magazine dedicated to quality coffee, it would be forced to plant a big fat logo on the front cover.

Solutions

Put simply this is not a level playing field.

There are times when you want to push the brand forward. But if Waterstones can open a store without its name on it, why not a magazine? Let’s face it, if the consumer doesn’t like the content or thinks it is pushing a brand too much then they will leave and go somewhere else.

At the moment this seems unlikely to change; information is going to remain more regulated than where people spend their money. You are not going to trust a wolf in sheep’s clothing, even if it just wants to eat grass.

Oh yes, and one other point about the Mail on Sunday story. Waterstones had been running the offending stores for more than a year without issue.

Stealth stores yes, stealth content no is part of Content24, the blog for London content marketing agency FirstWord.

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