Lush has a habit of zigging where other retailers zag, a trait which has been key to the brand’s appeal over its 23-year history.
From creating 100% vegetarian products, implementing a strict ethical buying strategy, fighting against animal testing and leading on ‘naked’ plastic-free packaging, Lush is known for applying a fiercely independent spirit to beauty retailing.
On the policy section of its website, the brand even insists it does not “waste money on excess packaging, advertising and expensive marketing”.
Yet all this being said, the company’s decision to “switch up” its approach to social still came as a surprise.
Lush UK announced on Monday it would be leaving Twitter, Instagram and Facebook over the next week in a bid to establish stronger connections with consumers and free itself from the tyranny of algorithms.
The brand released a statement outlining its decision: “Increasingly, social media is making it harder and harder for us to talk to each other directly. We are tired of fighting with algorithms, and we do not want to pay to appear in your newsfeed. So we’ve decided it’s time to bid farewell to some of our social channels and open up the conversation between you and us instead.”
Walking away from arguably one of the largest and most democratised forms of communication instantly feels like a mistake.
As Lush is “made up of many voices” it believes the move away from social will allow more of those voices to be heard. It wants to put “social” back in the hands of its community to “drive change, challenge norms and create a cosmetic revolution” which it can’t do by “holding conversations in one place”.
Once the social feeds are closed, consumers will be encouraged to speak to Lush via live chat on the website, over email or by telephone. The individual shops will, however, maintain their personal accounts.
In a Twitter thread, Lush representatives explained that content will still be posted using #LushCommunity and in line with the company’s policy against paid advertising the focus will be on word-of-mouth marketing.
On a separate thread a representative called Emma described this decision as the “first step in reducing our reliance on the brand and injecting more personality and individual voices”.
As a brand with a strong campaigning history, driven by social advocacy and connecting with a diverse community of people, walking away from arguably one of the largest and most democratised forms of communication instantly feels like a mistake.
Whereas before Lush could harness the grassroots support of its online fanbase to publicise the campaigns it believes are of real significance to the wider world, that job has instantly become much harder.
Yes, there are big problems with social media, from brand safety fears and harmful content, to Facebook and Google’s digital dominance. It is admirable to want to build one-to-one connections with consumers and cut ties with the algorithms driving so much of digital marketing, but is it worth risking the wider business to achieve this?
Lush UK is choosing to break its connection with well over a million followers across social media, in the hope that they will join a new kind of community. It is walking away from a community spanning 569,000 followers on Instagram, a Facebook following of 423,216 and 202,000 fans on Twitter.
Of course there are clear advantages to owning the relationship with consumers without the social media interface getting in the way, and it could certainly prove a fruitful data capture exercise. But, if Lush did actually manage to migrate this million-strong audience to email and live chat, would it really be possible to engage and serve them all to the same standard?
Furthermore, the idea of “reducing reliance on the brand” feels strange given that everything the Lush brand stands for is so intrinsic to why consumers love the product. Celebrating diverse voices within the community is a great idea, but why does that have to be done at the exclusion of social media? Surely maximising the opportunities of social would only amplify these voices.
Knowing when to take stand
When pub chain JD Wetherspoon announced it was quitting social media with immediate effect in April last year, it was walking away from a community of just 44,000 Twitter followers. At the time, the company said it was leaving social over concerns arising from the “misuse of personal data” and “the addictive nature of social media”. Consumers were instead directed to its website and print magazine, the Wetherspoon News.
But Lush is a different case entirely. The hard facts are that not having a social platform is a missed opportunity for any beauty brand. Beauty brands receive the most user engagement on Instagram and Facebook, second only to fashion, according Socialbakers data from 2018.
Some 82% of beauty brands rely on social media engagement, such as likes, shares and comments, a 2018 report by Fashion & Beauty Monitor find. By comparison, just 50% of beauty brands rely on press coverage and 45% on web traffic.
Stepping away from a platform like Instagram is a big risk, especially given only last month the site went live with its “Checkout on Instagram” function, allowing shoppers to transact and track purchases without leaving the app.
Of the 500 million users who view the Stories function every day, a third of the most viewed Stories are from brands. According to Instagram’s own statistics, one-in-five Stories receive at least one direct message from a user. You have to ask if those are the kinds of metrics it’s worth walking away from.
Statistics aside, the news has split consumers on social media. While some on Instagram commended Lush for being “so engaged” with its customers and welcomed its decision not to be so reliant on social media, others were baffled by the decision.
On Facebook, in particular, comments referenced Lush’s controversial #SpyCops campaign and speculated the brand was scared of facing a similar backlash.
Last year’s #SpyCops campaign sought to highlight the undercover police officers who infiltrated environmental groups and started relationships with the female activists. Speaking to Marketing Week in September, Lush ethics director Hilary Jones explained the brand had faced a “huge and unexpected backlash” from the police community.
While Lush refused to stop actively campaigning on its website, it did end up dropping the campaign from its shop windows, saying in a statement it was doing so “for the safety of our staff”.
“Throughout this episode our customers and Lush audience voices were trying to make themselves heard among the online trolling campaign, telling us to hold steady and not be silenced, for the sake of the victims and the message,” Jones stated.
“Sometimes, when trolling is as organised and blanketing as this happens, trying to hear the voices of the regular public can be hard, but we felt it was essential not to allow bullying to silence an important campaign.”
Jones explained that Lush has a policy of only discussing issues it cares deeply about and then riding out the social media storm rather than altering its position “to appease detractors”. She argued that companies like Lush need to be able to withstand a “little online heat”, because every day ordinary people are silenced by hostility and threats.
What happens now they have stepped away from social media? How will these issues be debated and how will the brand step in and support the voices of its community?
I come back to the point that usually there really is so much to admire about Lush’s approach to business, which it describes as a “modern form of capitalism”.
In its latest strategic report, for example, the brand outlines the three goals of its ‘Secret Lush Cosmetics Master Plan’ – to make products for every need, be number one in every category and create a cosmetic revolution to save the planet.
As an employer, Lush also has so much to be commended for. The company is committed to paying its staff the Living Wage and in the wake of the Brexit vote even set up a “dedicated freedom of movement team”, providing staff with legal advice and financial support.
Lush is undoubtedly a pioneering business on so many levels. It is not afraid to take on controversial subjects with the potential to alienate consumers and is ready to lead the charge for better business. Sometimes it is good to be a pioneer, but sometimes it’s better to know when it’s a risk too far.