The phrase “rebrand” has become synonymous with changing a corporate logo or company name, but a brand is much more than just a logo or a name. In the case of Barnes & Noble, its brand as a whole has undergone a major overhaul, from store design to its marketing mix.
What is a brand?
A brand is a name, term, symbol, design, or combination that identifies a product and distinguishes it from other products. Barnes & Noble is an example of a brand name. Brand identity is made up of many elements, including advertising, products, and, yes, even store design.
Barnes & Noble in crisis
After a decade of declining sales, widespread layoffs, and a rotating door of chief executive officers, it seemed America’s biggest book chain was in big trouble. In 2019, the big-box bookstore was purchased by hedge fund Elliot Advisors for $638 million and welcomed a new CEO, James Daunt.
Since 2019, Daunt has worked to make over Barnes & Noble. With more than 30 years of bookselling experience, Daunt wanted to take his knowledge of the boutique book-buying experience and apply it to the massive book chain. Daunt previously oversaw the turnaround of the U.K. chain Waterstones, making him a perfect fit for the task.
Taking the indie approach
With more competition than ever from e-commerce giant Amazon and the Kindle e-reader, Daunt decided the best approach wasn’t to match Amazon’s convenience and prices but rather shift Barnes & Noble’s strategy to look more like that of an independent bookstore, finding its own set of competitive advantages.
Independent bookstores are often valued members of the community, offering more services and delivering a more personalized experience for shoppers. These bookshops typically contribute to the local economy, support local authors, and build long-term relationships with guests. Additionally, indie bookstores have complete control over inventory, displays, recommendations, and more.
Daunt proved this strategy could work when he was tapped as the managing director of Waterstones. Before Daunt, Waterstones attempted to compete on pricing, but this proved to be a strategic error. He gave the individual bookstores more control over inventory and promotions so they could better serve their local communities. Bookshop managers had more autonomy over book selection, how to display books, and setting prices.
Daunt also set out to refine Waterstone’s product selection, cutting the quantity of non-book products to focus on the core product: books. This shift to thinking locally went against what many believed was the formula for success for retail giants, but it worked for Waterstones, and now it’s working for Barnes & Noble.
A books-first strategy
At Barnes & Noble, buying and promotions became more centralized over the years. According to Daunt, an indie bookstore is marked by the shop’s personality, its employees, the way books are displayed, and how the selection of books is curated. These are the elements Daunt has sought to improve at Barnes & Noble these last few years. By taking the company private, Barnes & Noble has been freed to some extent from short-term financial pressures, giving it some flexibility.
Now, Barnes & Noble is breaking the rules of corporate branding by offering a less-consistent in-store experience. In terms of design, many stores are doing away with its signature green walls and dark wood. Some stores will have lighter neutral tones while others have concrete floors, and others have colorful walls. And many of the traditional bookshelves have been swapped with modular shelves and moveable fixtures for greater flexibility. Daunt says design agencies and brand identity professionals would be shocked by this approach to interior design and in-store branding elements, but this is all part of Daunt’s unique approach to mass retail.
Some of the previous store designs had leaned into a racetrack retail layout, a loop that guides the customer through the store’s perimeter before leading them to the cash registers by the door, similar to a grocery store or superstore. The new design approach is meant to encourage browsing and improve customer satisfaction and engagement.
Of course, not all Barnes & Noble stores have benefited from decentralization. Daunt reports that about 25 percent of stores have dramatically improved while 25 percent have become worse. But he also points out that it’s much easier to focus attention on the struggling 25 percent than having to worry about the whole lot.
According to Daunt, his approach to management is more unpredictable and dynamic, but it works. After years of closing stores, Barnes & Noble began to open new stores again, announcing it finally had the profitability and confidence to grow once more.
In the Classroom
This article can be used to discuss centralization (Chapter 7: Organization, Teamwork, and Communication) and branding (Chapter 12: Dimensions of Marketing Strategy).
What elements make up the Barnes & Noble brand?
How did centralization hurt Barnes & Noble in the long run?
How is Barnes & Noble acting more like an independent bookstore?
This article was developed with the support of Kelsey Reddick for and under the direction of O.C. Ferrell, Linda Ferrell, and Geoff Hirt.
Maureen O’Connor, "Barnes & Noble Sets Itself Free," The New York Times, October 17, 2023, https://www.nytimes.com/2023/10/17/style/barnes-noble-redesign.html
Rob Walker, "How Barnes & Noble Transformed Its Brand from Corporate Bully to Lovable Neighborhood Bookstore," The Fast Company, January 13, 2023, https://www.fastcompany.com/90834188/barnes-and-noble-brand-makeover-comeback
Sarah Todd, "Barnes & Noble's Fate Rests in the Hands of a British Indie Bookstore Owner," Quartz, July 21, 2019, https://qz.com/1651414/barnes-nobles-new-ceo-wants-the-chain-to-be-more-like-an-indie