Is East meets West really for the best?

MaryLou Costa is a key member of the Marketing Week features team and her blog brings her unique Australian perspective to brands. She also oversees the Market Research Focus weekly bulletin.

Westfield Stratford’s opening this week revealed an impressive structure and an overwhelming shopping experience, but are its overt references to East London a genuine addition to its brand identity or pointless gimmicky marketing?

As an East London resident I’ve been patiently awaiting the opening of Westfield Stratford for well over a year now. Every time I’ve been past it on a train, it has teasingly flown by, unfinished, unopened and off limits.

Until this Tuesday, when the doors opened with such a flourish that the number of visitors to the shopping centre caused the food court to be closed temporarily due to overcrowding, causing many disgruntled shoppers to be caught in un-moving people traffic.

Part of my anticipation came from, as I mentioned in a previous blog entry, being a big fan of Westfield as a fellow Aussie, and as I continually talk about, being somewhat of a shopaholic. Living in Hackney, just two train stops from Stratford, has also added to my excitement in that it would add yet another element of appeal to this colourful area of London.

I left Tuesday’s store opening with not just bags full of purchases but mixed feelings over Westfield Stratford’s overt keenness to be portrayed as an authentic East London experience.

From indoor billboards every five metres proclaiming “East meets Westfield”, to the photography of East London locations in the toilet hallways, to the overexaggerated “Great Eastern Market”, it all feels slightly forced and artificial.

Westfield
Westfield

I realise that a huge shopping centre filled with mainstream brands wants to do all it can to feel like a genuine part of its surrounding community, and Westfield would be in a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation. It probably would have faced more scrutiny had it not acknowledged its unique London location, but every reference to East London I saw felt like an afterthought.

The Great Eastern Market, with its independent looking coffee shops and Italian deli, is buried right at the back of the centre, and on top of that, is barely its own area, nestled in between a Waitrose and the rest of the regular tenants on the floor.

In recognition of the area’s cultural diversity, the food court features a bigger array than usual of multicultural cuisine, such as Vietnamese, Thai and tapas, but it’s hardly going to beat the local offerings in Hackney, Dalston, or Shoreditch, is it?

I stopped to admire the photographs of East London hotspots on the toilet hallway walls, but how many tourists are these images going to really resonate with? Chances are if you’re busting to use the loo you won’t be stopping to take it all in.

Westfield’s out-of-store marketing has also really tried to latch onto the East London link, with videos such as “100 years of East London style in 100 seconds”. It’s had over 200,000 likes on YouTube, so I might be completely misguided here, but I feel like the video’s attachment to East London is very tenuous. Some cute models dancing in front of council estates and graffiti? It sounds more East London than it actually looks, believe me.

It seems that every five minutes Westfield is shouting like a little attention seeking kid, “Look at me, I know East London! I’m as hip and cool as London Fields!”

Whose benefit is this for? A Westfield marketer would answer that it is doing its part to promote the area, but will visiting Westfield Stratford encourage someone to visit Broadway Market or Columbia Road? Probably not.

Perhaps the attempt to connect with the centre’s local demographic and culture could be seen as admirable, but it is largely pointless for the average shopper.

Simply, people will not be coming to Westfield to experience East London. They are coming to do what everyone does best at a multi-level shopping centre – shop till they drop. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with staying true to that.

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