OPINION: Mills on ... Bluewater

Get your diaries out and start counting ... oh my god, only 61 shopping days left to Christmas. Or, if you include 25 December itself (and why not - there's more than a few places open), 62.

For some years now, as the commercial cycle has spun ever quicker, Christmas has got earlier and earlier. There are many whose sense of time and season is now so warped they think Christmas takes place in late November.

Inevitably, there are certain guaranteed signs that Christmas is imminent.

Some say it's the first sighting of the Argos Christmas catalogue TV commercial (any time now). For others, it's the first hearing of Slade, Wham, Wizzard and the gang on permanent loop. For me, it's when every pub blackboard displays a sprig of holly and the legend "To avoid disappointment, book your Christmas party now" (first sign seen six weeks ago in suburban New Malden). Truly, these days, it's not just about shouting loudest, but shouting first too.

However, one of the paradoxes of Christmas trading is that the earlier retailers start flogging their Christmas wares, the later shoppers seem to leave it.

One organisation trying to beat this pattern is Bluewater, the giant shopping mall somewhere near the QEII bridge on the M25. Earlier this week it launched a pre-emptive strike in the form of an "early Christmas shopping" campaign on TV and print through Banks Hoggins O'Shea/FCB.

The 20-second TV ad is simplicity itself. On a blue screen we see subtle images of an Issey Miyake perfume bottle, a bracelet and a Sony Walkman. A leaf floats slowly across (it's autumn - geddit?); an acoustic guitar is gently plucked; a languid, some might say soporific, female voiceover tells us about "Christmas shopping with a difference ... it's not crowded ... it's not wet ... and it's not Christmas". The ad ends as a drop of water falls into the blue. As the ripple spreads, the words "Early Christmas shopping" appear.

It doesn't sound much, but this ad is more interesting than it might appear, as much for what it says as for what it leaves out. From the tone to the speed, everything is so laid back it's horizontal, the obvious message being that there's nothing stressful about shopping at Bluewater - especially if you go early.

But, say someone in the target market - anyone near or within the M25 circle - is considering shopping there. There are several things you'd want to know. Where is it and how do I get there? What shops are there?

What else is there? How big is it? What are the opening hours? And what's the parking like? As the saying goes, retail is detail, and the exclusion of significant detail like this seems, on the face of it, a little odd.

There are two explanations. One, that the accompanying print work is the appropriate place for that detail. Which may be fine in theory but to assume shoppers will see both is taking a chance. And two, that this is all about building Bluewater as a brand above and beyond its constituent retail outlets.

The ideal is a conversation that goes like this. Shopper A: "Where did you get that top?" Shopper B: "I got it at Bluewater." Not, note: "I got it at Warehouse."

Now some might say creating a brand out of a shopping centre has not only never been done successfully, but can't. I'm not so sure. If the definition of brand is something that denotes a clear set of values or product benefits, then from the people I know who've been there, the Bluewater message is beginning to get through. And I'm all for it, although I have no intention of going there. If that sounds like a contradiction, it's not: the more people who go there, the easier it is for those of us left behind.

Dead cert for a Pencil? Falling leaf? Swirly blue background? Go away.

File under ... A for ambitious.

What would the chairman's wife say? "It's crowd-free in Bond Street.

Let's go."

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