“We’re starting to see some trailblazing brands move in this direction,” observes Sabrina McPherson, senior MD and management consultant lead for consumer products, at digital business transformation consultancy Publicis Sapient. “People are looking for brands living their values and prioritising the right kind of relationship with customers rather than any relationship for easy bucks.” This requires a shift in success metrics, she continues. “You’re trading short-term revenues for long-term loyalty.”
For Lush, the move was prompted by broader news about social media whistleblowers and the negative impact algorithms have on users’ mental health — an issue that is particularly relevant to Lush’s core demographic of young girls. “Social media was not designed to look after people’s health, but our products are,” explains Lush chief digital officer Jack Constantine. “It is counter-intuitive for us to use platforms that keep you hyper-tense, engaged and anxious.”
Second time lucky?
Lush has taken a stance against social media before. In March 2019, the company announced it was switching off — or, as Lush put it, “switching up social” — tired of fighting algorithms and unwilling to pay for newsfeed real estate. During the nine-month break, Lush encouraged customers to engage with its staff and stores’ individual social media accounts, Lush hashtags, its e-commerce site and the Lush Labs app. After that, the pandemic hit and its digital team saw little option but to return to social media.
Constantine acknowledges that the company faced difficult choices. “We were a bit ahead of the curve,” he says. “Social media is addictive, and we struggled to convince our team to go cold turkey. During the pandemic, shops were closed and social media was the best way to engage with customers, so we used those tools again. Now feels like a more stable time to re-establish our position and stand by our digital ethics.”
While other brands sit back and watch, there are potential benefits to pioneering a shift such as this. “The move will create a buzz for Lush, and people will start seeing the company as a champion of this movement,” suggests Jared Watson, assistant professor of marketing at New York University Stern School of Business, but he points out the need to stay with it: “The fact that Lush has tried this before might undermine the perceived authenticity of this strategy.”
Risk versus reward
Watson argues that the growing apprehension and mistrust around social media gives companies such as Lush the opportunity to create “a zero-party relationship” with customers, but how that will pan out long-term remains to be seen. “If we go into this hyper-compartmentalised approach, there will be less variety-seeking from consumers. That might instil brand loyalty, but it makes it harder for Lush to win back customers that defer for whatever reason. If all companies do it, we might see a cyclical pattern of people expanding and contracting their own marketplace – similar to the shift in digital media from fragmented television channels to cable bundles, and individual streaming services to streaming bundles — so we’ll come back to where we are today.”