Holland & Barrett CMO: brands who don't live their ethics are headed for danger

Six months ago, Holland & Barrett decided to put transparency at the heart of its branding - starting with its Manuka honey ads

Holland & Barrett’s focus on honesty and ethics is yielding fruit, but with a host of brands – including Iceland and P&G – using marketing dollars to virtue signal, the health retailer’s chief marketing officer Caroline Hipperson says brands must tread a fine line.

“The one thing brands get wrong today is they tend to exaggerate a problem, or an issue or a solution to make a point, to dramatise. Really what [Holland & Barrett] is trying to do is talk plain truth and people respond well to that - especially in this era we live in now where we're not sure what is true or not,” she told The Drum.

Six months ago, Holland & Barrett decided to put transparency at the heart of its branding to cut through the noise in a world where wellness brands like Deliciously Ella and Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop are under increasing scrutiny.

The digital, social and in-store push launched with a £1.5m campaign in August focused on bringing transparency to the Manuka honey supply chain. Instead of focusing on product, Hipperson was clear that the wider message to consumers was about how the retailer was “genuine, ethical and true” as a business. These tenets are clear in the brand’s ongoing ‘clean living’ beauty initiative which encourages customers to buy environmentally-friendly, socially conscious and cruelty-free beauty products in store as well as its expanding Vegan food rage.

Tapping into interest in sustainable and natural product attributes to refresh and strengthen the brand is a move that’s ultimately paying off, with Hippseron saying the chain’s trust score are “going up continuously”. Sales are on the up too, in November group revenues increased by 7.1% year-on-year to reach £702.5m following a surge in UK and Ireland sales which accounted for a £561.8m slice of the pie.

The ex-Bacardi and Unilever exec noted it was just the beginning of the brand’s purpose-driven journey though. “We'll have to keep going for another few years before we can see the real impact,” she explained.

Walking the walk

While extolling the virtues of its own practices and beliefs has already proved profitable for Holland & Barrett, Hipperson pointed out that brands need to live and breathe their messaging if they’re going to go down this route.

Pointing to the backlash against Iceland, which found its stance against palm oil questioned with it removed its branding from items that contained the ingredient, rather than the product, itself Hipperson said: "There's been a lot going round lately where [brands] claim they're ethical or environmentally friendly and they may claim something that is not quite true and then they get found out… a lot of [brands] do that - they want to be at the forefront [of culture] but actually their actions don't really match their words.”

“That's a dangerous place to be because over time people will stop believing in you,” she said.

The specialist retailer is fresh from having won a Transport for London (TfL) competition which called on brands to better reflect the diversity of women in the city. It chose to present a campaign tackling what Hipperson described as the "last taboo" – menopause, featuring stories from a diverse range of women.

Creative agency Pablo is behind the ads which launched on Monday (28 January). Alongside £500,000 worth of free space it won across the TfL network, the brand is investing in PR, online and in-store promotions.

The creative will focus on the challenges women face during the menopause, including the loss of femininity, identity and self, pointing them to Holland & Barrett as a source of natural remedies for some of the physical and emotional symptoms they are experiencing.

Hipperson said the focus on diverse, inclusive messaging was something that would continue to feature in the brand's marketing following on from this campaign.

"It's very much how we would like to build our brand... we feel a responsibility to shine a light on some of the health and wellness debates out there. In this post-truth era we're living through there's a myriad of information out there online and it's difficult to navigate sometimes," she said.

She went on: "At the same time we see people trying to take more responsibility for their own health and wellbeing journey, there's less trust in the NHS and other authority bodies - so people want more information and they want to understand more and take positive action, especially in the preventative sense. That's already part of the brand, so to be able to utilise this competition to get this message to reach a wider audience was the perfect fit for us and that's why we could do it in a natural way, it didn't feel forced."

On why the brand is funneling its own spend to top up the inventory offered by TfL Hipperson said: "We were always going to support the menopause this year but we didn't it in an even bigger way because we saw an opportunity to create conversation."

The brand will track engagement as well as listening in on the conversation around removing the stigma of the menopause online, which Hipperson said will be one the KPIs the campaign is measured against. Sales of natural menopause remedies in-store as well as how many people ask Holland & Barret's trained staff for advice on the subject will be key barometers of success too.

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