Truth in Beauty: The Body Shop 4.0?

It went through all trade magazines and most others in February that The Body Shop, the sometimes more infamous than famous poster girl of eco-beauty, is launching a new and quite ambitious CSR program titled ‘Enrich not Exploit’. Right in time for its 40th birthday this seems a very commendable but also much needed undertaking, given the brand has been pretty lackluster for most of the past decade.

But let’s do a quick recap first: In our book ‘Rethinking Prestige Branding – Secrets of the Ueber-Brands’ we cite The Body Shop as one of the most famous examples of a brand fallen from Ueber-Status because of questions regarding its genuineness. The Body Shop was founded by Anita Roddick in 1976 in the UK, but really started its at times stratospheric rise not until the mid eighties, after struggles around its name were solved and the brand went public in 1984. The success was from the get-go driven as much by the fun, down to earth style as by the brand’s five core values: Supporting Fair Trade, Defend Human Rights, Activate Self-Esteem, Against Animal Testing and Protect our Planet. Naturally for such lofty aims the brand was always surrounded by questions and critics, yet it grew heaps and bounds through the late 80s and 90s. But all this turned with the sale to L’Oreal in 2006. Most of the allegations that arose were never proven, but the sheer fact that The Body Shop was now seen as ‘sleeping with the enemy’ was enough for its fans to defect. Roddick had so much made herself ‘The Queen of Green’ (on that not matter what L’Oreal pronounced or Roddick promised, her followers were up in arms, calling for boycotts etc. simply because they didn’t even like the suspicion of or affiliation with controversial practices, animal testing being one of the most critical. Even Roddick’s famous argument that she sees herself as a kind of Trojan horse able to influence the industry’s and all our future on a much grander scale through L’Oreal did not fly. She died shortly after in 2007 and the brand has been tarnished ever since, unable to regain its status of the glory days – neither in growth nor in reputation.

And now: An ‘extensive program of global activity and measurable targets that touches all areas of the business’ as the Body Shop PR news release calls out. This could well turn into the second, or more correctly fourth coming of The Body Shop, counting the founding times (1976-84) as its first, the growth period (1984-2006) as second and the post L’Oreal decade as its third. Because at least according to Jeremy Schwartz, Chairman and CEO of The Body Shop, the plans are nothing but a complete re-set of the company trying to take it forward by going back to its roots: “The Body Shop courageously pioneered new ways of thinking, acting and speaking out as a company. Our ground-breaking campaigns were ahead of their time and changed laws on animal testing, domestic violence and human trafficking. We were the first in beauty to use community trade and we still have the strongest program in the industry. We are small, but we lead. Today for all of us, the greatest challenges lie ahead…For us, being truly sustainable means shaping our business to work in line with the planet’s natural systems so they can replenish and restore themselves…We have set ourselves a significant goal to be the world’s most ethical and truly sustainable global business’ the PR release reads.

The quote is interesting for two aspects in particular that touch on two of the core ideas we put forward in our book as essential for Ueber-Brands being successful in the 21st century:

  1. A True Mission

In the above quoted interview Mr. Schwartz continues: ‘The Body Shop’s 40th anniversary is the perfect time to reassert our aim for leadership in ethical business … with our commitment we’re challenging ourselves to go further than we’ve ever gone before to make a real, sustainable and positive difference’ ( Quite gutsy and grand to aim for leadership – ethical no less – given their current situation, but that’s exactly what Ueber-Brands must do. Set an ‘Incomparable Mission’ and translate it into clear goals and principles as The Body Shop seems to be doing with its 14 very specific targets clustered around the three pillars of Enriching People, Products and Planet. Principles that drive all actions and let the company radiate truthfully inside out – proactive and purposeful.

Anita and her shop in the early days

  1. Ring-Fence to Protect

The second aspect is particularly important for mission-driven brands within bigger companies – and the one that stopped The Body Shop’s rise. Ueber-Brands must beat their own drum and live by it. It’s paramount to ensure critical parts of their myth and mission are protected, rather than ‘normalized’ away for the sake of scale and higher short-term returns. We call it ‘ring-fencing’ and it may occur from the birth within a large corporation or when an Ueber-brand is acquired, as in the case of L’Oreal and The Body Shop. As important as it is to look for efficiency gains by integrating ‘back-office’ processes and operations for instance, these actions can quickly backfire if they undermine the heart of what made the brand ’Ueber’ in the first place. And it often doesn’t even take actual ‘compromising’ actions – the mere suspicion can be enough as The Body Shop’s past proves perfectly.

In order to be credible and live up to their own ambition and, more importantly, their consumer’s expectations, Ueber-Brands have to make sure they truly let their mission guide them in everything they do. And we literally mean everything – from company set up through sourcing and production, organization and culture all the way to marketing and – not the least – creating meticulously crafted brand experiences across all touch points. Because it’s not only the major strategic decisions that make a dream come true and a myth come alive. It’s often the seemingly insignificant aspects that can make or break an Ueber-Brand. Sure enough you also have to respect the brand’s core, its mission, but HOW this is being expressed and executed is what often gets overlooked by managers on a quest for efficiency and improvement.

This may sound like a lot of work with an endless number of pitfalls and potentials for failure – and that’s exactly what and how it is. But there’s no way around it. Modern prestige brands and their myths aren’t so much a rational contract as they are an emotional and a cultural one. The right thing to do can thus often turn out to be very wrong indeed – which The Body Shop and L’Oreal learned the hard way. The fact that they now have to ‘re-start’ in order to regain trust and credibility is testament to how fragile the biases and bonds are, which brands build today – and how vigilant and vengeful we consumers have become.

Let’s hope The Body Shop’s new program isn’t only a CSR one, as they call it, but a true revamp of the entire business. That their renewed conviction truly goes to the heart of the company and drives everything from there once again, as it seems by looking at the specific pledges they make. And lets hope that L’Oreal keeps the brand at a healthy distance as they have done with other acquisitions since, like Kiehl’s for example. Because then this often unfairly beaten icon of the 80s could really become a beacon again. It could truly have a chance to flourish again and take all of us forward vs. being held back by supposed practices of its holding company. And become what it once was and arguably has been all along – though not in the eyes of the public – a leader in ethical beauty.

 Further Reading:

For more insights what drives the success of Ueber-Brands read our book “Rethinking Prestige Branding”.

Here is Jon Entine’s 2007 article accusing Anita Roddick of plagiarism and ‘Unfair Trade‘ in the Daily Mail.

And here is Dame Anita Roddick’s point of view (now through her team) on her website.

This entry was posted in 1 - Mission Incomparable - The first rule is to make your own, 5 - Living the Dream - The bubble shall never burst and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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