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Body Shop blues

The Body Shop pioneered ethical beauty, but now it needs to add a little excitement to the mix
Consumers always want it both ways
Helen Edwards

Helen Edwards has twice been voted PPA Business Columnist of the Year. She has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand.

After doing a talk at the Digital Copenhagen conference last week, and feeling the need for a little retail reward, I made a beeline for Sephora. I confess to a weakness for beauty brands and always like to see what’s happening on the shelves.

One brand caught my eye: Youth to the People. Catchy name, optimistic packs, come-on ingredients that read more like a health-bar menu than a dry list: kale, green tea, spinach and vitamins for its superfood cleanser; plant caffeine and dragon fruit for its ‘hydrate and glow’ skin mask.

A brightly lit poster gave the background to the brand’s ethical credentials. ‘The world of beauty is changing’, announced the header, before claiming ‘Good for you, good for a better planet, good for vegan’. Bullet points itemised the different ways the brand lives up to this ideal: eco-designed products, natural formulas, zero animal-derived ingredients.

Well, I was leaning forward. Who wouldn’t be tempted by that combination of sassy naturals and clear-eyed global citizenship? Who wouldn’t wish to jump on board this new beauty movement for change?

Except, of course, it is not remotely new. The ethical, natural, planet-friendly beauty approach was pioneered almost half a century ago, by Anita Roddick, when she opened the first Body Shop in a Brighton backstreet in 1976.

Consumers were educated about animal testing, harmful chemicals and fair-trade principles over the decades that followed, and they jumped on board in their millions. By the turn of the millennium, Roddick could justly claim to have changed the way business got done by encouraging people to think harder about what they bought. One of her most memorable aphorisms was, ‘If you think you’re too small to have an impact, try going to bed with a mosquito in the room.’ Ironically, The Body Shop itself has become good deal smaller over the past few years.

The merciless marketplace

My experience at Sephora got me musing on how merciless brand-building can be. You’re The Body Shop. You’ve dominated ethical beauty for decades. You’ve become synonymous with the virtues of sound sourcing and planetary responsibility. You’re headed into an era in which precisely those values are what consumers increasingly want. And what happens? Youth to the People is what happens. And death to the sluggish.

Not that The Body Shop is dead yet, but it is ailing, for sure. It never thrived under L’Oréal’s 11-year ownership, and you can perhaps blame the gap in ideological fit and the acquiring group’s lack of retail experience for that. But you’d have expected better when it was snapped up by Natura for £877m in 2017.

The Brazilian group’s big ideas for integration with its own, naturals-based brands never really got going and it ran into a financial storm when store closures during Covid got coupled with the rising cost of servicing debt. The upshot is that the once mighty Body Shop was offloaded at a knockdown price to private investor firm Aurelius earlier this month, leaving Natura nursing a £670m loss.

Has Aurelius got a bargain or a lemon? What are the marketing moves that will get growth going again?

Well, I decided to do my due diligence – and continue my retail odyssey – by wandering across to the nearest Body Shop, beautifully located in Copenhagen’s principal shopping street. At the risk of substituting anecdote for analysis, here is what my first-hand investigative impressions added up to.

First, where Sephora had been buzzing, this store was hushed. Second, all the classic Body Shop ethical codes and cues were there – with makeup refilling stations a nice touch. But in the end, there was no leaning forward. There was no temptation, nothing I just had to have. No real sense of reward.

The Body Shop feels like the responsible adult in the beauty room and these days it’s not a great thing to be. Where more exciting brands have added ethics to their offers, Body Shop seems to have done nothing to add excitement to theirs.

Aurelius, typical of private investor thinking, talks about exploiting ‘omnichannel opportunities’ of what has so far been a high-street focused, retail business model.

There is sense in this, but for me, the channels that Aurelius also needs to explore are those that link the eyes, the olfactory sensors and the pleasure receptors of the brain. There is work to be done at the brand, tactile and sensory levels, and without it, no number of alternative operational initiatives is going to reverse the decline.

What never changes

The Digital Copenhagen conference had been, as you’d expect, very future-focused, with some jaw-dropping scenarios of what will be different over the coming years. But it was good to see a couple of the speakers also going the other way, and acknowledging that some things, rooted deeply in human nature, never change.

If I were sitting in the Aurelius boardroom right now, pondering on the future of The Body Shop, it is one of those enduring human truths that I would take to heart: consumers always want it both ways. Given the choice between the satisfaction of acting responsibly and the rewards of indulgence in sensory pleasure, they would frankly prefer not to have to choose.

And you can bet there will always be brands that will find a way to reconcile that tension. The Body Shop does the responsibility bit right. It’s time for the brand to upweight the reward side of the equation – and give a bit more zizz to the people.