Holland & Barrett promotes 'cleaner' beauty range with provocative campaign

Holland & Barrett is aiming for a tenfold increase in sales of its beauty range over the next few years - but first consumers need to know it exists, the brand's chief executive told Campaign.

"We’re still a blip on the beauty landscape," Peter Aldis said as it launched an online video campaign for the range, which is notable for being free of sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) – an ingredient which causes liquids to foam – and parabens, which are used as a preservative.

The video, created by Re:production, controversially depicts the products as though they are food. It ends with the text "our customers believe what goes on their skin is as important as what goes in their bodies". Running on social media, the video is being supported by print and in-store activity.

Holland & Barrett replaced its entire beauty range in 2011 to remove about 350 ingredients, Aldis said. In the last seven years it has grown to £90m in sales, in a £5.5bn beauty market – but he said that as far as "ethical beauty" goes, Holland & Barrett believes it has 25%-40% of the market.

That’s a term with no set meaning, Aldis admitted: "Some people would say ethical means not tested on animals, organic, Fairtrade – but our definition is ingredient-driven."

The brand also stopped using microbeads a number of years ago – a national ban on manufacturing has now come into force, and products containing the tiny pieces of plastic can no longer be sold from July.

Holland & Barrett’s ingredient-based proposition has a huge opportunity with younger women, Aldis said – but the brand has a fundamental challenge to overcome first.

"If you talk to an older female consumer, they don’t know a lot about parabens, they don’t understand what SLS is or what it does," he said.

"The younger consumer does know about it. We surveyed a couple of hundred people in Covent Garden late last year, younger women, and a high proportion of them had heard about parabens being nasty – but none of them knew where to go to find an affordable solution. And none of them knew that Holland & Barrett did beauty."

The brand had originally planned a "big splash" on TV last November, Aldis said, with a more extreme version of the ad now launching online, but but the creative was blocked by Clearcast on the grounds that it could encourage children to swallow beauty products.

Even after it was toned down, Clearcast still rejected it for its perceived criticism of parabens. "They brought in an eminent dermatologist, who said it is impossible for anything to permeate through your skin," Aldis said. "But we’re not trying to say parabens are bad – just, ‘why would you?’"

Although the origins of this campaign date to last year, it is launching after the brand bolstered its marketing credentials by appointing former Procter & Gamble brand director Roisin Donnelly to its board in January, and then last month hiring Caroline Hipperson – formerly global vice-president of Martini at Bacardi – as chief marketing officer.

The brand is now finding a stronger voice, Aldis said. "We haven’t been the greatest at really getting the message out," he said. In the past, he added, it had the attitude of "let’s not tell anyone about what we’re doing because they’ll copy".

But now, he will take it as a sign of success if the likes of The Body Shop start signing to the same tune. "In 20 years time we won’t be talking about clean beauty or ethical beauty," he said – "it will just be beauty."