The Lush campaign - principled and brave or daft and misguided?
by Ben Capper
Every once in a while, a marketing campaign comes along that grabs our collective attention and gets us talking. Very often, these discussions are the preserve of us comms-obsessives on Twitter and LinkedIn. But sometimes they’re the talk of the internet for days on end.
The latest of these is the current campaign by multi-national high-street cosmetics emporium, Lush.
You’ve probably heard about it by now. For their latest campaign, “Spycops” the retailer is drawing attention to the very real national scandal of how undercover police officers infiltrated the lives of political activists in order to inform the authorities of any activities deemed to be either illegal or anti-social in the name of whatever cause they were linked to. In many cases, male undercover officers formed long and apparently deep, personal, intimate relationships with female activists with the malign intent of spying on them. This realisation has had a devastating impact on the lives of the women in question; and contributed very little (if anything) to the security of the Realm.
A hugely serious issue. Devastating consequences for those caught up in it. Justice for those affected an absolute necessity.
If you’re struggling to see the link between this and selling creatively fragranced bath-bombs; you’re not alone.
This week has seen a lot of opinion pieces about the campaign; coming down on both sides of the argument.
It’s either (and I’m paraphrasing here):
For many people who either aren’t regular users or wouldn’t consider themselves the key target demographic of Lush, this entire campaign, and the furore surrounding it, seemed completely bizarre.
Why would a high street cosmetics retailer get involved in this?
Well, to be fair, a big part of Lush’s brand story is its commitment to issues that it cares about. A major strand of their proposition is that their products are ethically sourced. With that comes a big focus on environmental and conservation issues. This then leads into animal welfare. This brings with it provocative stunts and campaigns. This then leads into giving Lush users the tools to lobby and become activists for such causes. This then leads into a commitment to “activism” as a concept in itself. This then leads to campaigns about supporting “activists” and standing up for their rights.
And within this context, you can see perhaps how they ended up with the focus on the under-cover police issue.
So there is logic here. Lush’s online activism toolkit is actually a really impressive piece of work. There are practical tips, contributors from well known, credible sources, and what appears to be a genuine corporate engagement in the subject matter (backed up with corporate behaviour in how it contributes financially to certain causes relevant to its business).
All that detail is there if you want to look for it. And I would argue that the online content is actually not bad (the videos in particular).
And this campaign has definitely gained a lot of attention for both the issue and for the retailer. So, high-fives all round?
Well, not quite.
A big problem here is the old adage: a joke isn’t funny if you have to explain why it’s funny.
The imagery, whilst attention grabbing and shocking, needs a lot of context to go with it for you to properly understand what it’s about. The frantic crisis-tweeting by the Lush social media team over the weekend is testament to the fact that many people just haven’t “got” the message in the manner and environment in which it has been communicated. And on that basis alone, the campaign is pretty much a failure straight away – and an expensive one (financially and in reputational terms) at that.
It feels ill-thought through in terms of the impact such messages and imagery would have in such usually benign high-street environments. The shot of a policeman with the words “Paid to Lie” along with fake police cordoning with the words “Police have crossed the line”, whilst impactful, really fail to provide the essential context to the campaign; and are absolutely open to being criticised for general “police-bashing”.
Another problem that I feel about this campaign is that, while all the stuff about Lush’s history of supporting activism is absolutely true; there is an inherently big leap between campaigning about unethical animal welfare practice (which can relate quite easily and distinctly to the overall brand proposition) and police surveillance malpractice (which takes a lot of back-reading to make any kind of obvious link). So, as most people won’t have the time or inclination to really read the background or the corporate history behind it; it feels exploitative to the people involved, when you consider that Lush’s real objective is a commercial one: to sell more bath bombs.
So far, so commercial, and so private sector. But what can we all learn from this, no matter our sector or industry?
Context is everything
Lush’s history of support for activist campaigns can be seen as their reasoning for taking on this subject and using the treatment it has. But the leap required from animal welfare and green issues (which can be directly linked to their products) to this one is just too big at this point; and I think Lush have overestimated the public’s knowledge of their brand history around activism. It just seems out of kilter with their overall proposition, and results in a big feeling of cognitive dissonance. The issue they’ve taken on is a real and serious one; and from a purely technical point of view, it’s pretty decently executed.
But it lacks the immediate background context to get across the detail of the message at hand. It fails to properly appreciate the physical context in which the message would be received (the provincial high street – probably with a couple of friendly bobbies walking by). And critically fails to appreciate the cultural context too – being launched a week after the first anniversary of the Manchester bombing, and on the same weekend as the anniversary of the London Bridge attack – both terrible national tragedies, with innumerable stories of unimaginable heroism on the part of the Police.
So while the issue at hand is serious, and demands attention; the way it has been done and handled, is, at best, cack-handed, worse irresponsible; and at absolute worst: a cynical ploy to exploit people’s real suffering to flog Dream Cream Hand and Body Lotion.
Provocative x responsible x relevant = high impact messaging
Provocative can be good. Provocative messaging and campaigns have saved lives; and have made real societal and governmental change happen.
But provocation can’t be the full picture. Provocation without responsibility does nothing beyond un-necessarily pissing people off.
If you’re an anarcho punk arts collective, then fine.
If you’re a Danish Cinematic Enfant-Terrible, maybe.
But, (and I can hardly believe I have to actually write this), Lush are not Crass or Lars Von Trier.
Their shop displays of uniformed police officers with the words “Paid to Lie” next to them were indeed provocative, but really irresponsible. It’s not remotely clear on first view what the message is about, and give the immediate impression that the Police in general are not to be trusted. This was not their intention. But it shouldn’t have taken a social media storm to point out that this would’ve been the impact.
The lack of an obvious call to action again just lends the impression that this is about Police bashing rather than providing any actual tools or help in how to actually positively impact on the issue. Yes, there are apparently “post cards addressed to the Home Secretary” in the store – but this is really poor and inappropriately under-the-radar, considering the highly provocative nature of the initial impact of the campaign.
And lastly, the messaging really needs to be as directly relevant to your offer as possible. I’ve gone over Lush’s long history of activism already here. While there is indeed logic to the journey that took them to this point, the subject matter, on first glance at least, appears completely disconnected with the product and the general offering.
Don’t believe me? Well check out this classic “damning with faint praise” tweet from the Advertising Standards Authority
The messages “aren't directly connected to Lush products”.
Well, yeah. That’s part of the problem, I’d suggest…
There is such a thing as bad publicity
I feel like this cliché has been long retired anyway, but it’s definitely worth remembering why, in this instance.
The campaign has had publicity no doubt. And to be fair, some of it positive. But overwhelmingly it’s been negative.
If such metrics are to count for much, this post sets out some of the initial negative impacts to Lush’s online reputation straight away.
And that’s only this week.
What happens to sales over a longer period will be seen over time. But right now, the overall impression is very heavily weighted towards negative perceptions.
But another real life negative impact is on the corporate comms and social media team having to field a torrent of complaints and negative opinions. Let’s spare them a thought this week. I’m sure they probably realise now that there is indeed such a thing as bad publicity.
Be creative, but think it through.
Props go to Lush for creative bravery, and actually a decent creative execution.
But this work has been undermined by them not thinking through the impact, and not properly war-gaming for any unintended consequences from it.
They may well have done a proper risk assessment of the campaign – but it would appear to have been ineffective.
For people like us, the creative process is exhilarating. I personally find that campaign planning and creative delivery is the most fun part of being a comms person. But with that fun comes responsibility to remember our outcomes, and to make sure that we fully consider the implications of our actions. This is essential for our short term sanity, but also for the long term reputation and credibility of our organisations.
So as ever with social media storms, the reality is a bit more nuanced than what you see on Twitter. But I’m pretty convinced that this one will be popping up in marketing text books for years to come.
Ben Capper is director of marketing at Liverpool Students’ Union
image via Tullio Saba