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.
“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.