Campaigns we love – Waterstone’s accidental lock-in

Sometimes the inspiration for a campaign comes from a surprising source.

It doesn’t need to be the obvious; it doesn’t need to fabricated or engineered. Sometimes campaigns just happen accidentally – or even by mistake, as Waterstone’s found.

In 2014 David Willis, a tourist from Texas, found himself accidentally locked in Waterstone’s Trafalgar Square branch. After entering the store just before the shop was closing, he went upstairs unnoticed to use the internet. After 15 minutes he came back downstairs to find the shop in darkness and the doors locked. He set off the alarm but still wasn’t rescued until he tweeted his predicament, waiting two hours to be rescued. His tweet was retweeted 9000 times in 24 hours – it became a Twitter sensation overnight.

Hi @Waterstones I’ve been locked inside of your Trafalgar Square bookstore for 2 hours now. Please let me out.
— David Willis (@DWill_)

And became Twitter gripped by the drama…

Anyone know how long #waterstonestexan has been in there. Or how long air lasts in a closed bookshop?
— Dan Hodges (@DPJHodges)

Thousands of people are filling Trafalgar Square holding candles. This story has touched so many people. #waterstonestexan #PrayForDave
— Stuart Provan (@stuartprovan)

Tom Hanks as #WaterstonesTexan #TheMovie Colin Firth as Store Manager Keira Knightly Check-Out girl & Hugh Grant hapless security guard
— Mark Gallagher (@_markgallagher)

Waterstones guy’s out. Dazed, wrapped in foil blanket, helicopters overhead, couple of Catherine Cooksons down his Y-fronts
— Michael Hogan (@michaelhogan)

After David was rescued Waterstone’s responded with:

We’re pleased to announce that @DWill_ is a free man once more. Thanks for your concern and tweets!
— Waterstones (@Waterstones)

It was a good-natured response and luckily David saw the funny side to the event. What Waterstone’s couldn’t have predicted is that the response to David’s predicament on Twitter was overwhelmingly positive – after all, what better place to be locked-in than a bookshop?

Is there a cafe in that Waterstones? He’s probably making himself a snack, nose in a book, happy as a clam.
— India Knight (@indiaknight)

I’m feeling jealous… Is that wrong?! x #WaterstonesTexan
— mascara for the mind (@ZoeMcCarthy)

Imagining that #WaterstonesTexan has made himself a nest/fort using copies of Robinson Crusoe and other such castaway, isolatory literature.
– Julie Danskin
(@thisisdanskin)

People mused over the titles they’d read, how they’d spend the time and how they’d enjoy the peace and quiet of a closed bookshop. For many it was a dream come true.

Instead of shying away from the ‘incident’ and brushing it under the carpet, Waterstone’s saw the positive spin and decided to embrace the opportunity. Using the traction from the social media responses, Waterstone’s launched a competition to win a sleepover in their flagship store.

This was with a little help from Airbnb who after seeing David’s rescue tweet responded to Waterstone’s asking whether they’d considered hosting an Airbnb venue there. Their timing was impeccable and people loved the response. This led to Waterstone’s partnering with Airbnb to offer the one night experience for a sleepover in their store as a competition prize. This enabled them to launch a campaign which collected thousands of entries.

Embracing the incident meant Waterstone’s could capitalise on connecting with a younger audience – one who had deserted book stores in recent years. They also found a new business partner in Airbnb through whom they could expand their reach. They could sidestep a potential PR disaster and connect with a target audience they’d desperately been trying to reconnect with for years.

So what does this little tale teach us? If your client is looking for an innovative campaign then don’t hesitate to ask them for some of the skeletons in their closet. Every brand has boardroom stories and office tales of unusual incidents in their history. With some careful management a disaster can be made into a brand building opportunity.

And you can’t manufacture the passion and humour that arises when people talk about a genuine event in the history of a brand. People love the fact these campaigns are built on real life events. They provide heritage, connection and inspire staff as well as customers.

So next time you receive a brief then get to know the brand, the stories and the tales of the boardroom – you might be surprised to find they inspire a legendary campaign.




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Becky Hesilrige
Becky Hesilrige
Becky is the Content Marketing Manager at Pure360. She studied Sociology and conducted her dissertation on online communication and relationships. Follow Becky on Twitter @beckyhesilrige
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