What a storm the Lush "Spycops" campaign has caused over the last week. Yesterday (Thursday 7 June), the saga took a new twist as the cosmetics retailer decided to pull the in-store drive, claiming it had caused its shop staff to be intimidated by former police officers.
This fairly limited marketing initiative has attracted ire, bemusement and (in smaller doses) support from customers. It has created a lot of noise around the brand – and issue. It has also attracted the attention of the marketing community to question once again the merits of brand purpose as a platform for engaging consumers.
This comes a week after Oasis released a very funny spoof ad having a dig at other businesses who have produced purpose-led marketing - a bit of an in-joke among those who think marketing is becoming a bit too worthy for its own good.
Indeed, for those who think purpose is a load of old nonsense, it’s a great time to be alive. For consumers, I imagine they are just scratching their heads wondering what we are all up to.
Lush has an activist spirit and agenda which means it cares about, and tries to affect change, beyond its core product.
As an example of brand purpose, the execution of Lush’s campaign was not great. The activation was clunky and the focus on "spycops" very niche, but at the same time, risked being perceived as an attack on a much broader group (the police).
The issue of undercover police abusing human rights is little understood and known, which is useful to the extent that this halos Lush’s role in awareness raising, but is also the reason it has thrown up so much controversy among consumers and commentators. When there is debate, sensitivity or minimal awareness of issues, it isn’t enough for brands to stand behind a point of view, they must also bring consumer understanding along with them.
Although this may seem a jarring and sudden attempt to jump on the purpose bandwagon, campaigning on issues is actually very much part of Lush’s brand DNA. The brand sees its role in the world not just as the creators and retailers of lovely bath bombs. Lush has an activist spirit and agenda which means it cares about, and tries to affect change, beyond its core product. This is one of the reasons Lush has created a successful business, achieved standout as a brand and attracted fans.
What's the damage?
Much like the heritage of its rivals on the other side of the high street, The Body Shop, this activist spirit matters to customers. Anita Roddick built one of the most well-known brands in the world entirely on this model. Many might think the people at The Body Shop would be smiling wryly at the storm this has created and much of the bad press Lush is getting. However, I think they will be looking on enviously at Lush for launching a campaign that demonstrates the courage of its conviction.
Will this damage Lush’s business and brand? I think there will be very little material impact. The brand has started a debate - albeit with a dodgy campaign - both on the spycop issue, but also on the roles of brands and businesses in society. Neither of these are bad things. And unless you have a very strong perspective on a very niche issue, I’m not sure this will put people off their bath bombs.
And when it comes to this being positioned as another marketing fail by the brand purpose naysayers, let’s be clear on one thing - purpose is not a marketing strategy. Brand purpose is about businesses wanting to use their assets to reduce their negative impact in the world and (for more progressive organisations) as a way to deliver positive change.
Binary purpose arguments
Purpose needs to be delivered with substance and integrity, before you can even get into a conversation about marketing. It should be built out of what you are good at as a business and where you are uniquely placed to make a positive difference.
Yet the argument around purpose is frustratingly binary. Businesses are still categorised as either purpose-led or profit-led. This is nonsense. If you understand brand, you understand there can be nuances and tensions in your proposition.
Not every brand can be a Toms shoes, Ben & Jerry’s or Patagonia – organisations that have sustainability and social purpose front and centre of their business model and brand.
However, people care about this stuff. It can help consumers make positive purchasing decisions. And to that end, purpose should be seen as a critical ingredient in building successful contemporary business and brands. If delivered effectively, it will create positive change and increase sales (of bath bombs and beyond!).
Ben Hayman is managing partner of brand purpose agency Given