BJL Planning Director Tony Evans looks at the lessons brands should learn from Lush’s divisive campaign about the undercover police scandal.
Does a cosmetics business have the right to talk about the bad behaviour of undercover police officers? It’s not a question I ever thought I’d be asking myself, but since retailer Lush got into hot water with its controversial #SpyCops campaign, this issue has been fiercely debated across the media. For marketers, it’s also a conundrum worth considering.
In case you missed the news, Lush has endured a wave of criticism by seeking to raise awareness about the unethical and potentially criminal behaviour of undercover officers, with its hard-hitting ‘Paid to lie’ headline appearing in shop windows and across its online channels.
The focus of its campaign is those police officers who have infiltrated political groups in order to spy on activists. In many cases, officers have been known to deceive female activists into having sexual relationships with them. Alongside the advertising, the retailer is inviting people to sign a petition calling for greater government transparency from the current Undercover Policing Inquiry.
Like many controversies that play out on social media, the backlash against Lush has been swift and angry. One of the most common complaints seems to be that the campaign comes across like an attack on the police in general.
Home secretary Sajid Javid reflected some of the anger towards Lush by tweeting: “Never thought I would see a mainstream British retailer running a public advertising campaign against our hardworking police. This is not a responsible way to make a point.” Meanwhile some Lush shops have taken down the campaign materials from their windows after staff faced intimidation from customers, including ex-police officers. One of the people affected by the undercover police scandal has hit out at Lush for selling soap in her name.
Others have argued that undercover cops deserve praise and support in light of their work in foiling terrorist plots and keeping the public safe. It certainly didn’t help that the campaign’s launch coincided with the anniversary of the London Bridge terror attack.
But despite this tidal wave of initial criticism, there have also been some compelling arguments in support of Lush’s campaign. Notably, a group of 67 politicians, lawyers, union officials and victims of the undercover policing scandal have signed a letter defending Lush’s right to raise awareness about the issue.
Public figures such as Doreen Lawrence, who has herself been a victim of police spying, are among the letter’s signatories. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has also lent his support to the campaign, showing that it has resonated with a particular political standpoint.
So with the arguments stacked on both sides, how should we view this initiative? Was it actually worthwhile for Lush?
Well, that will depend on what the business considers its criteria for success. If it was simply to raise awareness of a stalled inquiry into undercover policing, then it has to be seen as an unequivocal success. As a result of Lush’s bold stance, the issue has returned to the mainstream news agenda and provoked debate at the highest levels of power.
On the other hand, Lush has alienated many consumers and put its shop staff in the firing line of some very angry (even aggressive) criticism. It clearly got its execution badly wrong, resulting in a heavy-handed campaign that feels strangely disconnected from the normal Lush brand experience.
Before this controversy, when I thought of Lush my senses awakened! The smells, the colours and the textures. The bath bombs my daughter used to like. I saw it as a fun, uplifting brand, which also made its products ethically and that had a refreshing lack of packaging.
Consequently, the sight of faux police tape and damning statements about lying cops looks disconcertingly out of place. The #SpyCops campaign has simply confused many consumers who can’t see the connection with Lush’s core business. Customers needed to be brought on the journey with Lush, and in this case it failed to do so.
That’s a shame because if told clearly and effectively, there’s a powerful story here. Indeed since it was founded in 1995, Lush has undoubtedly developed a strong brand positioning built on strong brand principles.
The business has long had an activist streak, as evidenced by its annual Lush Summit where experts gather to discuss a wide range of real world issues such as climate change, online surveillance, LGBT rights and the refugee crisis. The brand also has an online platform called Soapbox where it broadcasts a diverse array of activist opinions. It is through such platforms and events that Lush has previously voiced its concerns about the role of undercover police officers.
The problem for Lush is that in the past, these messages have been carefully and persuasively expressed with a clear connection to the Lush business model. The most committed customers, who felt inclined to engage with the brand’s social causes as well as buy its bath bombs, could choose to opt-in to these discussions as they pleased.
The #SpyCops campaign, by contrast, is an unsubtle campaign aimed at all customers. If fails to resonate with the everyday shopper because it lacks a clear explanation of why it is relevant to the business or indeed to them.
Anita Roddick brought her ethical stance and her activism into the heart of The Body Shop brand and offer to create a very successful business, which also had a wider, positive effect on society at various levels. Critically, she created a brand people understood and could buy into as well as delightful products they could buy with a clear conscience.
By contrast – it seems that Lush hasn’t created that widespread understanding of their stance. Therefore, they would have benefited from taking its customers with them when promoting a cause so that they could better understand the reasoning for it and its relevance to both the brand and to them.
Furthermore, the business could also have done a better job of equipping its staff so they felt able to explain the Lush position in the face of customer objections. Taking the advertising out of its shop windows so quickly looks like the brand has folded to public pressure.
In other words, it’s never wrong for a brand to stand for something – but they must tell their story effectively, and bring the entire business with them when they do. Otherwise you run the run the risk of standing for very little, except needless controversy.