Mark Ritson: Lush’s moronic #Spycops campaign is a new low for brand purpose

Lush has only alienated consumers with its poorly judged #Spycops campaign, which has nothing to do with the brand as well as being of no benefit to society.

It’s a tricky time of year for marketers. A surprisingly good early summer and the arrival of school holidays means it can be hard to attract and then maintain customer attention.

Big brands, like cosmetics company Lush, face the very significant challenge of standing out during the long, lazy months of summer. Clearly the marketing team at Lush hunkered down at the company’s Devon HQ to brainstorm a suitable campaign and I can probably imagine what happened next…

Lush marketer 1: We need a big idea to drive the summer promotion.

Lush marketer 2: Well let’s walk through the brand position and work out something really special.

Lush marketer 3: Our product features are fresh, vegetarian, handmade cosmetics.

Lush marketer 1: The benefits to the customer are a feeling of freshness and efficacy but without any of the usual compromises on animal rights or ethical sourcing.

Lush marketer2: So the emotional benefit we have to communicate is one of feeling good without feeling guilty.

All 3 Lush marketers: We need a national campaign targeting the police and shaming them for (in unison) their infiltration of activists between 1968 and 2008.

Lush marketer 1: Nailed It! Let’s get to work…

No, it is not a script from a bad comedy about marketers, this really is what Lush launched last week. The campaign, featuring the hashtag #spycops, includes a picture of a shady looking police constable with the strapline ‘Paid to Lie’ and a menacing video in which another policeman is a total shit to a woman he has been investigating.

This “innovative” summer campaign also comes with some splendid visual merchandising that includes draping each Lush window with police tape stating “Police Have Crossed the Line” and various blue and white boxes featuring comments that include “Police Spies Out of Lives”.

As we like to say in marketing; what the fuck were you thinking?

Why ‘purpose’ makes no sense

The answer, of course, is that the moronic obsession with brand purpose has once again created another embarrassing, out of touch and entirely self-defeating bit of marketing stupidity. It joins the pantheon of fizzy drinks brands trying to solve global disharmony, coffee brands aiming to remove racial tension and beer brands hoping to break down the barriers between transgender people and their critics.

This time, however, the marketing team responsible needs to hang its head especially low for a shameful attempt to incite public distrust in our national police force. The campaign is obnoxious, badly executed and in incredibly poor taste. It’s hard enough for the men and women in blue to protect us without this kind of branding drivel making that challenge all the harder. You sell soap, for fucks sake, what makes you think that elevates you to the position of starting a public campaign against the police?

Yes, there were some very serious breaches of trust between undercover police teams and social activists during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. It’s been ably covered, particularly by The Guardian, and the investigations continue.

But this campaign pokes an amateurish commercial finger at all police officers when these bad actors were literally a decimal point of the nation’s police force. And, again, what on earth has this got to do with Lush?

People are not morons; they can smell the hypocrisy of taking up a purpose while ultimately pushing it for commercial benefit.

While the reports this week of retired police officers entering Lush stores and demanding the window displays be taken down must have been very intimidating for Lush staff, what did the company expect retired coppers would do when they saw giant pictures of a constable with the words “Paid to Lie” underneath? Just walk past? These men and women risk everything for us and this is the thanks they get.

For the sake of the ridiculous marketers at Lush and all the trendy marketing professionals who continue to follow this abject, embarrassing path of purpose can I attempt to explain why none of this makes sense.

First, there are some brands that are genuinely purpose driven. The clue to their authenticity is that the purpose usually preceded the products. By my best estimation they consist of about 0.2% of the world’s brands. The rest are commercially driven operations that are not necessarily evil and often take a responsible approach to packaging and other business challenges but are not in a position to intervene on major societal issues.

This current obsession with brand purpose stems, I believe, from marketers that are unhappy with the prospect of selling stuff. At some point in the last 10 years it became uncool to take professional pride in making splendid products, satisfying customers and generating significant profits. Marketers wanted to be better than that. Admitting you sell bath bombs and organic soap for a living is not good enough for these people. But working full time on social justice issues like police abuses of power – hey that’s more like it.

Consumers do not want brands to be evil, but they also do not want them to posture about purpose. People are not morons, they can smell the hypocrisy of taking up a purpose while ultimately pushing it for commercial benefit. A brief trip over to Lush’s Facebook page is all the customer insight you will ever need into how real consumers, former loyalists of the brand, feel about Lush and its current purpose driven agenda.

READ MORE: Why are brands failing to measure the impact of brand purpose?

“Maybe concentrate more on perfecting your products instead of slating people that will come to your rescue,” is a typical response. We saw the same comments from African American consumers when Starbucks’ baristas started “engaging them on racial issues” while they waited for their latte. And from drinkers confused by Heineken’s ‘Brewing a Better World’ initiative. “Will the beer still taste good?” was one bemused response. These are complex, nuanced issues that do need to be dealt with but not by naive marketing departments that are meant to be selling beauty products.

The ‘opportunity cost’

The reaction to an anti-purpose argument like this is for uber-trendy marketers to claim that there has to be more to these brands than just the product. I agree. I think Lush is more than soap. It genuinely delivers a high-end, differentiated and distinctive experience to its customers founded around fresh, ethical and raw cosmetics. But this ridiculous attempt to align the brand with social justice goes way too far. Clearly Lush is more than just cosmetics, but equally clearly it is not legitimately able to kick start a debate on 20th century undercover policing approaches.

You can always go too low on the benefit ladder (“look at our ingredients”) but you can also miss all the genuine brand associations and go too high on the ladder too (“look at this video of imprisoned freedom fighters from Bulgaria”). Finding that middle level is becoming a marketing imperative as this purpose-filled nonsense obfuscates so many formerly well-run brands.

To those that argue this kind of purpose campaign does no harm I would suggest you do not know what you are talking about. Brands have limited budgets for marketing. They only have a certain number of window displays. And only one Facebook page. The opportunity/cost of spending money on this nonsense and not on a more relevant brand campaign for Lush is something that should also be accounted for at some point.

Clearly this campaign will hurt Lush badly. But even if its anti-police message had been handled in a more nuanced manner the cost of farting on about social purpose would have still been significant because every day talking about undercover policing methods in the eighties is another day not talking about the brand and how it makes you feel.

We see so much bad marketing these days that most of us are immune to it, but this work from Lush sets a new standard. A questionable strategy, an inept execution and ultimately a horrendously divisive and unwarranted message.

Hide Comments23 Show Comments
  • Richard Fullerton 6 Jun 2018 at 7:47 am

    Spot on, Mark. It’s also worth adding that the founder of Lush, Mark Constantine, has distinct politics and a reputation for outlandishness. Presumably this is either why this campaign was started or certainly approved

  • Julian Pratt 6 Jun 2018 at 8:18 am

    Makes you wonder if this a personal matter writ public.
    Or whether its trying to capture the spirit off controversy like benetton in the 80s?

  • tom wright 6 Jun 2018 at 9:20 am

    I found this campaign astonishingly distasteful, but then I don’t have much sympathy with the brand at all, with veganism, or with a mislike of the police investigating environmentalists whose activities frequently border on terrorism. Alienating me will not affect sales. . . . . . the question is whether it wins them from those who do have sympathy. And this campaign undeniably speaks to the vegan moral ethos: the planet is better without meat eating and the accompanying environmental destruction, animal testing of makeup is cruelty in the name of vanity, and state repression of protest and organisation against the status quo is to be fought. Maybe the campaign goes too far in pursuit of the hardcore of hunt sabs and fur trade protesters, maybe we are looking at a genuine difference in intergenerational attitudes. The jury is out.

    • Kirby 6 Jun 2018 at 10:55 am

      Don’t you find the police abuse of women activist equally distasteful? Rape by deceit or fraud is still rape.

      • Harley Mathieson 6 Jun 2018 at 4:51 pm

        Absolutely. But the cynical use of it as ‘brand purpose’ to SELL SOAP is still reprehensible. (as is possibly your use of your email address to sell your services in a forum where no-one else is)

        • Kirby 6 Jun 2018 at 9:11 pm

          I didn’t add my email address, Marketing Weeks’s comment system did. But think you should go and look up Mark Cavendish up if you really think that this this is brand purpose that is being cynically used to sell soap. He is selling soap because it supports his environmental activism and interestingly the ex-wives of the police officers who support Lush whereas Mark and all those who support him here are blokes.

          • Harley Mathieson 8 Jun 2018 at 4:49 pm

            Um yes. I accept his raison d’etre to SELL SOAP is to fund his activism. I have no problem with that. But it remains stupid and offensive to SELL SOAP by using said activism in this crass way. It attempts to crudely tarnish the reputation of ALL police (rather than the literal handful that broke the law two or more decades ago and are being held justifiably accountable for their actions in a court) using a poorly executed window display in a shop SELLING SOAP.

          • Harley Mathieson 8 Jun 2018 at 4:54 pm

            And frankly my sex has no bearing on my feelings about this whatsoever.

  • John Cove 6 Jun 2018 at 10:05 am

    Mark’s column should be made compulsory for anybody working in marketing! The killer section from this week’s column because it is so devastatingly true:
    ‘This current obsession with brand purpose stems, I believe, from marketers that are unhappy with the prospect of selling stuff.’
    How have we got to a point where people in marketing are unhappy with the prospect of selling stuff???

  • Kirby 6 Jun 2018 at 10:41 am

    Lush is one of the country’s biggest bankrollers of direct action groups including Plane Stupid, Frack Off, Hunt Saboteurs Association, antitax avoidance grouping UK Uncut, etc. Apart from the £1 million+ they donate a year to these are other groups, they also give their staff time off to attend demonstrations.

    Their founder Mark Constantine has been a member of Friends of the Earth for decades, does not drive a car and applies his environmental beliefs rigidly to his business.

    Political activism is part of that brand’s DNA and raison d’être, so this current activism is hardly off brand. If you wanted to raise the political consciousness of their largely teenage girl customers then creating a cosmetic brand with outlets across the country looks like a pretty clever strategy for founders who are clearly not motivated by profit alone.

    Their latest support for women abused by undercover police may well alienate parts of their market and could also be decisive but is has done a good job of raising an embarrassing issue that the establishment has tried to bury… even Marketing Professors are talking about it.

    • Matthew C 6 Jun 2018 at 1:29 pm

      And yet none of that is why people buy their soaps. Absolutely one – because they’re a soap company.

      I’ve bought their stuff for years – because IT SMELLS NICE – and I’ve only just learned about “political activism being in their DNA” (whatever that means) for your comment. Because they’re a soap company.

      I know what political activism looks like, thank you – and I’m a paying customer. I don’t need a soap manufacturer telling me that it looks like hating the f*****g police.

      The same police who, actually, also uphold the law by stopping illegal activity on the part of ‘political activists’ when they harass, intimidate and use violence as a mean to their ends.

      And I hate to state the bleeding obvious to you, but they’re still *drumroll*… a soap company.


  • Christopher Gilmour 6 Jun 2018 at 11:47 am

    The line ‘moronic obsession with brand purpose has once again created another embarrassing, out-of-touch and entirely self-defeating bit of marketing stupidity’ absolutely nails it. There’s an element of entitlement too – the arrogance of a high street soap brand in thinking it can dictate UK policing strategy and that it knows what ‘real’ policing (see Lush statement) is. Imagine the reaction of left-wing activists if they were on the other side as a major corporate dictated policing strategy…

  • Dominic Stanway-Williams 6 Jun 2018 at 12:22 pm

    This absolutely needs to be considered, and whilst I agree with most of this article, I’d say Lush have at least one foot in the 0.2% and what’s more have created a template on balancing commercial and societal gain. However, this campaign has gone way too far, they’ve allowed zealotism to take the steering wheel and drive them in the direction of the very anti-social behaviour they campaign against.

    Whilst I’m not sure you’re so au fait with Lush Mark, the point you make is hugely needed. As consumers, we’re tired to the point of weeping of brands trying to convince us that the core driver to what they do is social progress when it so obviously is not. In fact, Oasis have made a fantastic move in tapping into this bullshit with their summer campaign: – the video is also incredibly well done –

    Big brands have the resource to shape society for the better whilst still keeping shareholders in fine silks, but they must not move to veil their intentions and they must ensure their messaging/partnerships are relevant, otherwise, nobody wins.

  • Dom Graham 6 Jun 2018 at 12:57 pm

    I was just waiting for Mark Ritson’s commentary and this is a lot more restrained than I expected it to be… An absolutely idiotic piece of marketing. Such random off brand ideas like this don’t come out of thin air – I’m wondering whether a C level exec somewhere in Lush has a bee in their bonnet about this topic, pushed it out as a campaign idea and Lush’s Head of Marketing was too spineless to stand up and say no. For the sake of this marketing team’s reputation and future career, I really hope it was that…

  • Matthew C 6 Jun 2018 at 1:18 pm

    Spot on, Mark. You can picture the scenes as well as the marketing team dissects the bloodied, lifeless corpse of this horrific “campaign”… I’d bet anything they’re all sitting there now, indignant and certain above all reason that this has a place and was somehow the right call.

    Marketer 1 : Well that backfired spectacularly. Look at all this negative press.
    Marketer 2: There’s no such thing as bad publicity.
    Marketer 1: Well there is, because this was really, really bad. It seems as if we’ve gone above our station when we should be shifting products.
    Marketer 2: The publicity around the campaign didn’t help. Commentators have also took our message and turned consumers against it.
    Marketer 1: Well isn’t that our fault for not being clearer?
    Marketer 2: Unsure. Possibly, I did say I didn’t *totally* agree with the video storyboard at the time. Maybe we should just pick another cause and have another go.
    Marketer 1: Go on then.

    The mind boggles.

  • Poorna Bell 6 Jun 2018 at 1:35 pm

    Aside from the fact that the idea itself is bat-crap crazy, as a woman, I have to say, this ad makes me feel really uncomfortable. That whole dynamic between a visibly upset woman, opposite a stern man and a man in a position of power and authority makes me feel twitchy. Considering how abuse of power in the male to female dynamic is so prominent it is in the news at present, what were they thinking?

    Can’t for the life of me fathom why – when brands are trying to editorialise their message or do something bigger than straight marketing – they don’t engage more with people from an editorial background, and more importantly to check that it’s not too much of an over-reach.

    Lush sells soap, and there are a thousand ways to say that, or even push forward a message of activism if that’s what they want to do. But when I go in there to buy a Cheer Up Buttercup bath bomb, I’m not thinking of the police or their track record of false arrests.

  • Ekaterina Vasileva 6 Jun 2018 at 2:00 pm

    Some good ideas here. Lush’s HQ is in Dorset, though – in Poole. 😉

  • Olivier Kutz 6 Jun 2018 at 3:29 pm

    I might have missed this point, but aside of everything that was said – why NOW?

    • Kirby 6 Jun 2018 at 9:29 pm

      I think the two ex-wives of the undercover police officers that abused the female activist that have come out in support of the Lush campaign answer your question below. And in a letter to The Guardian they point out that the Lush’s campaign has done more to publicise the issue in a weekend than a public inquiry which started three years ago. They had the following to say:

      “Although the events in question took place many years ago, they continue to have a profound effect and we are still waiting for the officers concerned (as well as their chain of command) to give an account in public,”

      “Our view is that the amount of public money spent to date [£10 million] for such little progress is of far greater concern than the Lush campaign. Its campaign has not only drawn attention to the plight of some of the victims but has also brought into focus legitimate concerns about how the inquiry is proceeding, which we also share.”

      “We would like supporters of the police who are criticising Lush to be aware that we, as affected police ex-wives, endorse the points that Lush are now publicising. Lush’s campaign is not an attack on hard-working police officers and we ask critics of the campaign to hold an open mind, look into the facts of this issue.”

      Also coming to the defence of Lush is the son of an undercover police officer who abandoned him as a child. The officer kept his true identity secret from him and his mother for years.

  • Mark Ritson 6 Jun 2018 at 10:06 pm

    First Justin I want to thank you for your earlier LinkedIn message that I was, and I quote “a fucking rape supporter”. Second, can I point out that you are totally missing the point of the column and the debate here.

    This is not a question of whether a small group of police officers committed illegal/unethical crimes while working undercover between 1968 and 2006. In the column I acknowledge that and clearly one can only feel enormous sympathy for these women.

    The question is whether it is strategically prudent and tactically correct to portray British police officers like this and in association with the Lush brand. My expert opinion is that it is a stupidly inexplicable strategy, that it is poorly executed and the police (who have a very difficult job) are right to be outraged by the way Lush have hamfistedly done this.

  • Joseph Baladi 6 Jun 2018 at 11:58 pm

    This campaign is clearly incomprehensible. It is also clearly an opportunity for Mark Ritson to demonstrate his trade-mark outrage in his familiar provocative style. But his effort to deliberately conflate this crappy campaign with his personal animus to brand purpose (“…the moronic obsession with brand purpose…”) is disingenuous and continues to demonstrate his misunderstanding of a construct that is more complex than its characterisation as fuzzy, fluff that has no justification in marketing and business. Brands that misunderstand or deliberately misuse brand purpose provide fodder for critics. Better to assess the value of the construct through the lens of brands that are making an effort to better understand it and deploy in a manner that genuinely benefits both consumers and the brand’s bottom line. A good start might be Unilever’s “Lifebuoy” or Tide’s “share the load” or Whirlpool’s “care counts”. Managers of these brands have recognized a landscape fundamentally different to that of even a decade ago. Consumers expect more from brands (the data is unequivocal about this). Executed properly, brand purpose is transformative in a disruptive way to the organization in a manner that can and must meet new consumer expectations. Which is entirely appropriate in a disruptive era. Calling brand purpose moronic is the sort of thing I might have expected from Milton Friedman forty years ago but not today in an age when so many companies have more power and influence – and therefore more obligation and responsibility – than most countries. Particularly when it makes good business sense to do so.

    • Mats Rönne 10 Jun 2018 at 2:57 pm

      Consumers often SAY they expect more from brands, but if one researches the drivers behind which brands consumers buy and what the drivers are that influence their purchases brand purposes does not generally come very high on that scale . As we all know from David Ogilvy’s famous quote, what consumers say and what they do are two different things. Which also means that Simon Sinek was wrong: people buy what you do, and don’t care that much why you do it – as long as you don’t create a lot of negative effects.

      However, as often is the case, there are some exceptions. Research shows that there are two situations where brand purpose can indeed be important:
      1) If it creates status for the consumer to buy, or be seen using, the brand. In other words, if the brand (and its purpose) represents something that adds value to how the consumer wants to be regarded by his/her peers.
      2) In recruitment. People do prefer to work for companies that have values and ethics that correlate to their own beliefs.

  • Mark Higginson 25 Jun 2018 at 12:38 pm

    There is a really nasty reactionary undercurrent to this piece, many of the comments, and the wider criticism of Lush. The desire of the founders to support certain, often unpopular campaigns should be applauded, particularly during these increasingly authoritarian times. I recall their campaign against shark finning a decade ago – a direct confrontation likely to send people running away rather than into the shop.

    It may just be the case that this is a business with owners who have genuine convictions – which makes Ritson’s imaginary marketing team conversation about ‘brand purpose’ moot. The uncomfortable truth is that marketing is explicitly ideological – it’s just the sector as a whole doesn’t want to, or is too ignorant to confront the harm they have a hand in propagating caused by any major brand you care to name.

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