‘People see why we came off now’: Lush has no regrets about quitting Instagram and Facebook
12 months ago, the beauty retailer quit social media. Its top marketer tells The Drum what happened next.
One year on, Lush talks about its social-media exit
Last November was a turning point for Lush; it had had its fill of Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok. It was already beginning to see reduced engagement on posts and there was a general stagnation in people coming to the brand on social media. But the final straw was Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen exposing the extent to which Meta knew its products were damaging teenagers’ mental health and spreading misinformation. The volume of people being harassed, abused and negatively influenced was too much to ignore. So Lush quit.
“It was a move that went against the grain. Social was a direction everyone was on. From a digital marketing point of view it had been a great way to reach customers, but the algorithms had been making that harder and harder. Especially when you don’t pay to play. Even before we made the decision for the reasons we did, social hadn’t been delivering for us,” recalls Annabelle Baker, brand and marketing director.
“It wasn’t surprising the marketing industry was aghast. But we could see how these social platforms and the way they were operating were going to come unstuck.”
It was a tough sell internally. Its leadership team was quickly on board, but individuals working at the brand were forced to reckon with their personal social media use, and that took time. Now, as Baker looks at the implosion of Twitter, Meta’s share-price meltdown and the increasing government scrutiny over TikTok’s data policies, she feels vindicated. “People can see why we came off now,” she says.
Though it had lost a marketing channel when it quit social media, it also lost a vital customer service tool. People were used to quickly direct-messaging Lush for information or complaints on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, yet overnight those channels were gone. It has since set up a Live Chat tool on its website and has scaled the team to handle incoming requests. But instant messaging is still a missing piece of the puzzle. Some brands have taken to WhatApp to great success, but – being a Meta-owned product – Lush refuses to go there. Instead, it is launching an SMS function in the coming months to better manage that direct relationship with customers. All in, it’s not been a massive headache for the group, Baker says.
But the marketing impact has been more acutely felt.
It has a significant operation in APAC, which has been largely unaffected by virtue of the fact they were not prolific users of Facebook, Instagram and TikTok. But in the west, “[coming off socials] has definitely affected the upper funnel, that brand saliency, especially in the US.”
It’s not unsurprising. Lush had over 12 million followers across those platforms that it stopped directly marketing to. The timing of the decision didn’t help; the effects of the pandemic were still being felt, with traffic to stores not yet back to pre-lockdown levels and experiential events difficult to plan. Without social, its marketing output quickly dropped to zero.
To remedy this, it launched Bathe, a self-care app that’s “the antithesis” of a social platform, and invested heavily in its retail offering in Europe to the tune of nearly £8m to ensure stores would be a go-to place for customers. In October, it began doing more experiential events, and will carry this into the first half of 2023.
To counter the loss of brand awareness that social media generated, it has doubled down on PR, hiring a string of top executives in Europe and the US to keep the brand front of mind at key retail moments. And, finally, it’s invested heavily in partnerships with the likes of Netflix’s Stranger Things and Lazy Oaf, brands with cult followings on social media where it can “borrow” the audience to help maintain its brand awareness.
Baker says it has “turned it around” from where the brand was when it first quit social media, and the approach it’s taken has helped maintain sales.
In the immediate aftermath of leaving social, its UK retail sales for the five weeks to December 26 2021 reached £41.8m; up 20% overall compared to the same period the previous year and up 2.6% on the same period in 2019.
But overall sales growth from its 104 UK stores paints a more complicated picture. Growth was 54.4% compared to 2020 (the year of the UK lockdown), but down 9.8% compared to 2019. Similarly, e-commerce sales were down 34.3% versus 2020, but up 108.4% versus 2019. It recorded a pre-tax profit of £29m in its FY22 audited accounts – up from a loss of £45m the previous year (when the pandemic was still impacting store trading).
Marketing spend has also gone up. Social media, though problematic, was admittedly cheap as a platform to advertise on, and by taking it off the table it is investing heavily elsewhere.
“The big thing we’re pushing is experiential events and collaborations. They are more expensive. But we’re not seeing a retraction in spend. We’re looking at investing.”
Exceptions to the rule
While it’s not on TikTok or any Meta-owned platforms, it has opted to build a presence on Pinterest and YouTube. Creating content for those platforms, working with influencers and investing in livestream shopping is giving it “great results,” continues Baker. It might seem incongruous – YouTube has not been without its fair share of criticism over misinformation, while Pinterest admitted just last year that it had allowed graphic material, including self-harm content, to spread.
“The algorithms are designed to bring up content that’s getting views, whether that’s positive or negative. Moderation is one of the most critical factors I see on social media. If they cannot get a handle on that, eventually there will be legislation,” she explains. While Meta has failed to convince her that they are taking moderation seriously, YouTube and Pinterest have.
“We are in conversations with Pinterest and it has been really interesting to learn what they have been doing in the last couple of years to make that platform safer,” she continues. “We’ve looked extensively over the past few months at YouTube’s moderation. It’s huge. It’s not catching everything, but it is catching significant volumes of harassment and hate. That’s what we want to see as a brand – no platform is perfect, but we need to see the processes in place. [YouTube and Pinterest] are not leaving those things. They’re dealing with it.”
There’s an argument that advertisers have a responsibility to hold platforms such as Meta and TikTok to account when it comes to better user safety and moderation. And they can only do that from the inside, not by cutting them off.
Baker would disagree. Too many chief marketers, she said, will temporarily pause advertising to avoid negative associations when these platforms are exposed for failing to protect users, but fundamentally have no concern over how harmful content is for their customers. “They’re worried about what it looks like if they’re advertising on there, but for us it was about what the impact of these platforms is on the customer. It wasn’t a commercial decision; in fact, it’s been counter-intuitive from a commercial point of view. It’s just performative to switch off advertising purely so they’re not seen on a platform that’s a ‘hot topic.’ It’s not because the platform is not safe – that’s not why they’re making that decision,” she said.
“If more brands put the pressure on like we did, we would see a faster change.”
Suggested newsletters for you
Has Meta contacted Lush since it publicly denounced the platform? “No, it hasn’t been in touch I don’t believe. It’s had much bigger issues with the share price and decline in the brand.”
For Baker, there is likely no return to Facebook – a site “that feels like it’s dying anyway.” Instagram is a different story. There was a moment Lush was open to a return. During the inquest into how social media had played a role in the death of teenager Molly Russell, Baker followed how Meta and Pinterest handled the requests for information and the steps they put in place afterward to prevent a similar tragedy.
“You can see all of the steps Pinterest put in place. But everything Meta did [...] there was nothing encouraging about wanting to be back on that platform. If it had handled the situation differently, like Pinterest, then we would be open to looking at [Instagram] again. But it did the opposite. It was insulting to the family.”
As for TikTok, the data privacy issues that have plagued the company for some time have yet to be resolved. Until then, Lush remains off.
Baker is now encouraging other brands to follow its lead and come off of Facebook, Instagram and TikTok for good.
“The hardest thing to do is to make the decision. They are addictive, and until you switch them off you can’t get out. You have to be brave.”