The fact that two global brands – Dove, owned by Unilever, and Nivea, by Beiersdorf – find themselves involved in a routine copycat spat over, of all things, the brand attributes of real beauty is one small, but reassuring, element of Anita Roddick’s lasting legacy to mainstream marketing.
Roddick, it has to be said, didn’t have much time for the mainstream. She found corporate behaviour clonish, if not clownish, dubbed financial institutions “fascists” and described the beauty industry (quoting Elizabeth Arden) as “the nastiest in the world”. Even the marketing profession came in for some gentle ribbing. She once phoned up this magazine, explaining she had to prepare a speech for the Marketing Society: could we help, as she didn’t have a clue how to define marketing?
Arguably, acting the gadfly was Roddick’s greatest single capability (and she had many: entrepreneur, visionary and intuitive marketer among them). She never underestimated the power of the individual to bring about change; to use her own words, one mosquito can do a lot of damage in a room full of people.
Driven by this belief, Roddick transformed The Body Shop from a “series of accidents” in the mid-1970s to a revolutionary force within the health and beauty industry worldwide. But her scale of achievement is greater than that. Corporate social responsibility and the triple bottom line are now boardroom commonplaces; Roddick grasped their significance and integrated them into her business practice long before they had acquired those names.
The precursor also had the stamina and tenacity to outdistance almost all of the entrepreneurial cohort that was so marked a feature of the mid-1980s UK marketing scene: Sophie Mirmon at Sock Shop, the Tie Rack’s Roy Bishko, John Ashcroft at Coloroll, George Davies at Next. Only Sir Alan Sugar has really stayed the course, and the evergreen Sir Richard Branson alone invites comparison on the global stage.
In later years, some of the lustre wore off The Body Shop. This relative decline was, in part, a consequence of bad chemistry between Roddick’s way of doing business and that of the City. Yet it also concealed a flattering truth. The likes of Boots were overhauling the achievements of Body Shop only because they had been forced to adopt the same tactics and better them.
The business denouement when it came contained an element of bathos (some went much further and deemed it a betrayal of principles). The sale of the Body Shop to L’Oréal for £652m in 2006 left Roddick and her husband millionaires many times over, but people scratching their heads as to why they had sold out to the “enemy”. In truth, the deal has done much more for L’Oréal’s (and by extension, Nestlé’s) credentials than those of the Body Shop.
By then, however, the reputation of Dame Anita Roddick had long since transcended that of the retail health and beauty brand she had set up. She had moved on to another plane.
Stuart Smith, Editor