On Friday, Lush went from fame for having the smelliest shops on the high street to fame for its radical activism. I’m used to brands going for a dramatic repositioning but this was truly out there.
From the outset the story behind the new campaign was difficult to follow and verged on farce. I first heard about Lush’s window displays – which feature a photograph of a man mocked up as half-ordinary citizen, half-policeman, accompanied by mock police tape emblazoned with the phrase ‘police have crossed the line’ and signs referring to police spies – via outraged posts on social media claiming that the brand was tarnishing the name of the UK’s police force.
The campaign was backed up by a long blog post explaining its origins and boy, it needed this. Instead of being a comment on all police – which in the shorthand world of social media is how the displays have been interpreted by many – Lush has chosen to back a number of groups who are campaigning to raise awareness of the use of undercover police officers to infiltrate activist groups, which has at times seen the officers form long-term sexual relationships with female members.
This extra knowledge takes the campaign into more serious, thoughtful territory but still doesn’t quite answer the question of why Lush is getting involved. However, if you start browsing the Lush Times, the brand’s blog, it is clear that this is just the latest in a series of articles produced by Lush exploring ideas of ethics, environmentalism, animal rights and human rights. Delve further online and it’s obvious that the brand has long made political activism a part of its offering, alongside its more familiar bath bombs.
The odd thing now seems to be that I didn’t know about this before, though judging by the surprised and confused responses on social media many others didn’t either. But by virtue of this terribly executed campaign Lush has managed to transmit this message to a wider audience than surely even the most Machievellian PR manager would have expected.
The campaign quickly trended on Twitter and led to a plethora of think pieces in newspapers. Much of the coverage was initially awful – Twitter users cried out that we should #FlushLush and Home Secretary Savid Javid even waded in, telling the Daily Mail, “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.”
Yet, as is the way with these kinds of Twitter-led stories, the tide then began to turn, as journalists started producing more supportive reporting, especially after police were accused of ‘persuading’ individual stores to take down the displays.
Lush is of course not alone in getting into political territory as a brand. In fact mixing politics and advertising has been something of a trend of late, with brands as diverse as Budweiser, Diesel and Pepsi attempting to co-opt political messaging, with decidedly mixed results.
Unlike those brands, which appear to view politics as just another tagline, Lush’s intentions are obviously more deeply embedded in the brand. In fact, its recent actions bring to mind the early tactics of another smelly brand, The Body Shop, which in the 1980s and 90s, when it was run by Anita Roddick, was vocal on a number of social activism issues. Similarly, we have recently seen Jigsaw take a very personal position on immigration in the UK, and there are also echoes in Lush’s campaign of the shock tactics used by Benetton in its heyday.
As well as being eye-catching, Benetton’s ads were also masterpieces of clever, provocative advertising, however. This is not the case with Lush, whose displays seem clumsy and confusing in comparison. But with such naïvety comes an impression of passionate authenticity, a much-prized attribute in today’s world of slick and empty brand messaging.
In a recent article on brand purpose for CR, Nick Asbury cited Bill Bernbach’s observation that a principle isn’t a principle until it costs you something. Whereas many brands dabble with politics and activism as a kind of fashion statement, Lush has stuck its neck out for this point, refusing to take down the campaign despite a wealth of criticism. It will likely suffer some form of financial hit in return.
But while #SpyCops may have lost the brand some customers who were only in it for the bath bombs, in return it very possibly will have attracted others, who will be drawn in by its radical stance, and form a deeper and – Lush would hope – longer-lasting connection with the brand.