Wellbeing expert Liz Earle on the power of being a startup with heritage

Wellbeing entrepreneur Liz Earle on unlocking the power of founder-led brands and why it is a mistake to chase millennials.

Liz Earle

Thirty years before the nation became obsessed with spiralising, juicing and eating cacao protein balls, entrepreneur and wellness expert Liz Earle started her journey in health and wellbeing.

From writing about eating well and the fundamentals of skin health, to presenting segments on This Morning with Richard and Judy, Earle went on to co-found her eponymous beauty brand in 1995. Based on skin friendly natural botanicals, over the past two decades the Liz Earle beauty business has attracted a cult following, in particular for its award-winning hot cloth cleanser.

Now a permanent fixture on the British high street, the Liz Earle Beauty Co was sold to Avon in 2010 for an undisclosed sum, before being snapped up by the Walgreens Boots Alliance for £140m in 2015. Earle, who was awarded an MBE in 2007 for her services to business, stayed on as a global ambassador until May 2017 when she stepped away to focus on her own startup Liz Earle Wellbeing, which she founded in 2013.

With her name on the bottle it is easy to assume the Liz Earle Beauty Co was run solely by Earle. It was actually built in collaboration with her former business partner Kim Buckland, backed by a management team and group of investors, who collectively took the decision to sell. Stepping away from the beauty brand gave Earle the opportunity to revisit her first passion for creating health and wellbeing content, but this time on a much bigger platform.

“It was the right decision for the brand. Brands evolve, they grow from very small to medium-sized companies and, if they’re fortunate, global entities. And very often founders find themselves getting pulled away from their passion which first started them on that journey,” Earle explains, sitting on a sofa in her light filled Battersea studio.

“I feel incredibly fortunate that here I am in my 50s, yes back into startup mode, but also a startup that is actually built on 30 years’ of heritage, so we’re not starting from scratch. It’s like picking up the baton again, but with the added benefit of having had all those years of experience of branding.”

I’m puzzled as to why so many brands chase millennials.

Liz Earle

Encompassing books, a quarterly print magazine, a podcast, YouTube channel, social media and Fairtrade jewellery brand, the Liz Earle Wellbeing business is focused on creating meaningful health and wellness content that goes beyond the recent trend for wellbeing brands.

Earle believes that being a founder-led brand with a strong tone of voice and genuine authenticity is a huge asset, especially in the social media age.

“I think social media has obviously made brands more accessible and transparent so I think you need to have a genuinely good back story that’s credible and true, because you can’t artificially create your own heritage,” she explains.   

“Founder led brands have a huge opportunity because people love talking to founders and hearing stories about how things started. Your brand principles have to stand the test of time and not get diluted by committee. If you are that one person who is leading the way I think you have a better opportunity to protect the core essence of what your brand is about.”

Far from a fad

The key to building loyalty over decades is living up to your brand principles and not mining the latest fad, says Earle. This is the reason why all the insight and advice in her books and magazines is based on a sound scientific grounding and is created to be inspirational, but not unattainable. The magazine, for example, does not carry advertising that goes against the brand’s philosophy, meaning companies cannot just buy their way in.

“The downside is that I’ve never been truly fashionable, because by definition if you’re very fashionable one minute you’ll be out of fashion the next. Following fashions and trends is a risk and for me I think it would be a mistake, I would rather keep the middle ground,” Earle explains.

“Of course we do spiralising and make kimchi, but it’s very much the balanced view, it’s not extreme. I think if you look at something like Instagram, which I love, it is by definition based on pictures and images and it’s very easy to get seduced by the look of something and actually what really matters is its depth and substance.”

The Wellness with Liz Earle podcast is, for example, a key way of adding substance to the online content strategy. Recent episodes include interviews with medicinal chef Dale Pinnock and celebrity facialist Abigail James, with the first episode alone receiving 45,000 downloads. Earle believes that creating enriching, meaningful content will help brands cut through the noise on platforms like Instagram and drive engagement rather than just ‘likes’.

“How many videos can you watch of somebody opening a box in their bedroom saying ‘Oh look, a lovely new pair of trousers?’ I think people will tire of that really quickly and search for content,” says Earle.

“It’s all about engagement and it’s not about numbers. Yes, you may have 500,000 followers but 450,000 of them might be teenagers in Korea who are never going to buy your brand. We know that we have very high rates of engagement, I think that comes through trust and content.”

I think social media has obviously made brands more accessible and transparent so I think you need to have a genuinely good back story that’s credible and true.

Liz Earle

Earle strongly believes there is a huge opportunity for brands to embrace the concept of living better for longer through diet, nutrition, exercise and lifestyle. That is why, she argues, it is a mistake to just chase millennials.

“Millennials are very interested in new things so there’s a newness and a real churn when it comes to selling to millennials and also they have less disposable income than the older generation, so I’m puzzled as to why so many brands chase millennials,” Earle argues.

“I think it’s really important to respect your existing customers and to continue to look after them. It’s about having people grow up with you.”

Trust drives loyalty

The trust Earle has built with her customer base over the past three decades has helped her bring them along with her on each new venture. Upon leaving the beauty company, Earle retained the rights to work in various spheres including jewellery. A chance meeting with ethical jeweller Cred led her to set up her Fair and Fine jewellery brand in 2015, which specialises in botanical designs made from Fairtrade rose and yellow gold.

Earle chose to adopt Fairtrade certification as it is the only official accreditation offering a 100% independent audit trail in the gold mining industry, protecting the rights of the artisan miners she works with in Kenya, Uganda and Peru.

Her support of Fairtrade comes at a time when brands like Sainsbury’s and Cadbury are moving on to create their own accreditations. Earle understands why brands might want to explore different options, as long as they commit to maintaining an independent audit trail.

READ MORE: Is this the beginning of the end for Fairtrade?

“I think if you’re doing this with a huge amount of knowledge and the best of intentions I think it can work,” she states.

“For example, at Liz Earle Beauty we didn’t sign up to any certification schemes because we had our own in-house checks and balances, and we would buy from ethical sources so we were our own brand guardians. The risk is of course that those get diluted at some point in the future.”

Earle has a saying that it takes 30 years to build trust and 30 seconds to destroy it. That is why she instils in her staff a commitment to be very careful about everything they write, post and create.

The team recently took the decision to add the ‘Wellness wisdom you can trust’ positioning to the front of the Liz Earle Wellbeing magazine in order to communicate to readers that every word is based on real insight and not a passing fad.

“It’s all very well to say that in conversation, but when you put it into print, especially the cover of a magazine, that is a big ask,” Earle suggests.

“I think people do respect that, it does resonate in a world where perhaps there has been a lack of trust in some areas and a sense of greenwash or spin. I want to be able to cut through, because I’m completely passionate about what I do and I think it is passion that persuades.”

Global vision

Thinking back 25 years to her BBC TV series ‘Eat Yourself Beautiful’, Earle sees the same themes being discussed around eating yourself well, the environment and sustainability, only now they are gaining even greater prominence. If anything, she sees the UK lagging behind Asia, Scandinavia and North America in wellbeing terms, supporting her ambition to take Liz Earle Wellbeing global.

Liz Earle

The team are currently exploring how to increase the distribution and circulation of the magazine globally, having tracked the brand’s growing international reach from a digital perspective. Earle’s books will also be published in North America for the first time this year, among them The Good Gut Guide, which claimed the number one spot in Amazon’s Popular Medicine list in May.

Stepping away from the security of the beauty brand has freed Earle up to explore a variety of new projects, including filming a mini-series on living well in Sardinia and Greece, which will be screened on ITV’s This Morning in January. For Earle, the shift back into startup mode has been nothing but positive.

“I feel totally re-energised, excited and very fortunate to have started out on this journey 30 years ago. I had an amazing opportunity building the beauty brand, but now I’ve been able to go back into content,” she reflects.

“I don’t look over my shoulder, I don’t follow trends. I think it’s more important to be balanced, trusted and authentic. I think that’s what gives a brand longevity and I intend to still be doing this in 30 years’ time.”