The Body Shop to turn its stores into ‘activist hubs’ to combat the high street decline

The Body Shop sees more of a role for its store as centres for its campaigning and lobbying going forward as it looks to bring its brand purpose to life and give people more reason to visit.

The Body Shop is planning to turn its stores into “activist hubs” in order to overcome difficult trading conditions on the UK high street and attract more visitors to its shops.

The cosmetics retailer has spent the past 18 months redefining its brand purpose with the aim of putting “activism at the heart of its brand strategy”. The Body Shop already had an activist branch within the company, which led on creating a new brand purpose, but it now wants to put this at the heart of the brand.

“One of my missions is to turn Body Shop [stores] into activist hubs. People love people, that’s human nature, and we want to be part of our community. We are working on all the ways we can do that in store,” says Jessie Macneil-Brown, the brand’s head of global activism, speaking to Marketing Week at media company TCO London’s event ‘Beyond Brand Purpose’ this morning (22 January).

The move comes as the high street struggles amid a weak economic outlook and low consumer confidence. BRC figures released earlier this month show that retail sales were flat in December, their worst performance in a decade and conditions are not expected to improve this year.

The Body Shop’s renewed brand purpose will focus on gender equality. Macneil-Brown explains: “We’re seeing our way into the women’s rights space because at the heart of our activism we want to work towards gender equality and be a real feminist brand.”

While stores will get a renewed focus, Macneil-Brown believes it is important The Body Shop communicates its campaigns through every touchpoint not just in-store.

“We have done a lot of work on how we bring product and activism closer together but also how do we use platforms? How do we use every event we have in-store to bring an activist message through and how do we do it without green washing and that is actually saying something of substance and creates long-term sustainable change?” she asks.

A core part of ensuring activism is at the heart of stores is up-skilling teams to run local activism projects. Despite being a competitor, Macneil-Brown cited Lush as a “huge inspiration” for its work with activist groups “to bring to life issues in store”. The company currently invites grass-roots activist groups into stores to provide workshops.

Despite her belief that channelling community spirit can help revive the high street, Macneil-Brown acknowledges that the biggest barrier is the rising cost of retail space. She says this means constantly having to ask “how much time do you dedicate to [activism] in store?”.

Working with competitors

Brand activism requires both public-facing campaigning and behind-the-scene lobbying, with Macneil-Brown saying these require different tactics. While a public campaign just required the company to be on board, lobbying needs cross-industry support.

“When you shift from advocacy to lobbying you need to go in as a coalition [because] that’s how you drive change and that’s reflected in the EU ban [on animal-tested cosmetics] because that was around a cosmetics alliance,” she says.

The EU ban on animal-tested cosmetics came into force in 2013 after The Body Shop, along with many others, successful lobbied the EU. Macneil-Brown says “collaborating with competitors” was key to that success.

Every brand and every business should be using what they do to have a positive impact.

Jessie Macneil-Brown, The Body Shop

She explains: “It is important to collaborate with your competitors because we all want the same thing. Industry and consumers all get that there is a better way of doing things [compared to animal testing].”

Despite a long history of campaigning against animal testing, The Body Shop struggled when owned by L’Oréal because of the wider company’s stance on the practice.

Macneil-Brown explains: “There is a stigma around L’Oréal and animal testing so we worked with the experts at L’Oréal to get as much information to be able to show that to customers and be able to be very up front with them.

“We also had to work with the senior leadership at L’Oréal to reassure them that us working on an animal testing campaign wasn’t going to bring attacks to them and we could drive change and effect it.”

READ MORE: The Body Shop on how its new owners are trying to revive its ‘activist spirit’

The Body Shop was sold by L’Oréal to Brazilian firm Natura in a deal believed to be worth £885m in 2017. Being under new ownership has enabled The Body Shop to re-evaluate its purpose and align it with activism.

“Because we had new owners and we felt the world had shifted we wanted to see if we needed to shift our brand [and ask] what is the role that we can play in society as a brand? We felt that we hadn’t evaluated that in a long time and with the new ownership we wanted to create something new together,“ Macneil-Brown explains.

The Body Shop has been involved in activism since its inception but Macneil-Brown doesn’t believe brands need a history of campaigning in order to have a view on societal issues.

She says: “Every brand and every business should be using what they do to have a positive impact. You don’t have to do everything, you don’t have to do it on a large scale but do something that comes back to your brand purpose, to what your employees’ believe in and what your customers believe in.”

Despite her commitment to campaigning, Macneil-Brown is clear that any campaigning work needs to fit in with being a profitable business.

“The change you’re making is the top priority but everything you do does end up being a brand builder,” she says.

“Campaigning  is just like marketing; you’re changing attitudes and behaviours and so you need to know what tools need to be used to change people’s attitudes and behaviours to get them to want to take action and to change.”