Why The Body Shop is a lesson for marketers

Why The Body Shop is a lesson for marketers

The retailer built its reputation on sustainability before that was even a watchword. What can marketers learn from the brand as it turns 40?

Back in the late 1980s, The Body Shop had a reputation for what we now might call sustainability or ‘social good’. The beauty retailer was among an early wave of forward-thinking brands signalling that the ‘more, more, more’ and ‘me, me, me’ ethos of the decade was changing. Young Gen Xers were turning to brands that cared about the environment, fairness, inclusivity and animal welfare – a wish list of ethical considerations that were meant to change the world.

What happened? It’s a long story but a quick lesson for marketers.

In 1986, The Body Shop had partnered with Greenpeace for a first social activism campaign: ‘Save the Whales’. In 1987, it became the first international cosmetics company to introduce fair trade as a retail proposition. By the end of 1991, it had stopped selling finished products or ingredients that were tested on animals. 

But by the mid-1990s, the brand had already lost some of its feel good sheen. Consumers were becoming aware that not all ‘ethical’ brands walked it like they talked it. Public cynicism in regard to the ‘eco-movement’ was increasing.

Much of the company’s marketing strategy had involved the public relations skills of Anita Roddick – a regular talking head on TV and radio – while ad campaigns were almost non-existent. In 1995, at around the time the company appointed its first board level marketing director, the Independent newspaper remarked that the brand’s communications were “regarded by many as confused and uncoordinated.”

Having expanded into the US, where competition in the beauty market was tough for an unknown British brand, the basics of pricing, product and positioning had been forgotten in the push for growth. The UK stores, operated on a franchise system, were perceived as falling behind in appearance and customer service.

Post-Millennium, with more beauty brands beginning to offer their own ethical-branded lines, The Body Shop had reached a point of inertia. The brand that had almost single-handedly invented the category had become almost invisible. The company was bought by L’Oreal in 2006 and Roddick, the inspirational founder, died in 2007. Could the brand survive?

In fact, the company had been continuing to live by its founding principles all along. It sourced raw ingredients and products via a community trade programme, remained committed to trading fairly with small-scale producers, developing good business, and working practices and pricing structures with them. 

What it hadn’t been doing was shouting about it. While CSR and sustainability had become the watchwords for all kinds of business, the company was seen only to be looking on. Even in recent years – its Stop Sex Trafficking campaign, which contributed to changing laws in 20 countries, and a successful animal testing campaign – passed mostly under the radar.

To change this, the company recently implemented a wide range of measures across customer touchpoints. It has reassessed its strategy for SEO, developed staff engagement programmes, redesigned its stores – using locally-sourced SSC-certified wood, LED lighting and non-toxic paints – and is moving towards completely paperless mobile transactions. Content is starting to be used extensively, with video at the forefront of social media campaigns, and the company is also testing Snapchat, Instagram and Pinterest to target the 65% of its customers that are under 35 years old. All of this sits under the banner of a new ‘Enrich Not Exploit’ philosophy.

The strategy is modern, but for those who clearly remember The Body Shop’s early heyday it might look like a perfectly natural fit. The lessons for marketers are clear:

  • Being an innovator in your sector provides initial competitive advantage, but newer entrants to the market will prove a threat, while established will play catch-up. This will occur even for a brand that has won early recognition for its sustainability directives.
  • Don’t forget the basics. Attend to the five Ps. A strong sustainability message won’t cut it alone if you don’t get these right.
  • A well-loved brand is an asset – but it needs to be constantly protected, nurtured and promoted. Sustainability, eco, green, ethical, fair – these are all words that incite challenges. If your brand uses them, prepare for those threats.
  • Times might change, but remembering and then revivifying your original, purposeful vision, is often a powerful tool in a marketer’s kit.
Martin Bewick Content Lead CPL
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