In defense of Lush’s #Spycops campaign and other cause marketing

Lush's controversion SPYCOPS campaign / Lush

Recently, Lush has been taken to task for its #Spycops campaign, which drew attention to a UK investigation into undercover police officers infiltrating the lives of activists. The campaign included a menacing video depicting the alleged tactics and Lush stores across the UK installing window dressings featuring officers with the words ‘paid to lie’ stamped on them.

Leaving aside the merits of this particular campaign for a moment, some people’s criticism ignores the specifics of Lush’s history of activism and mischaracterizes brand activism generally - “purpose-filled nonsense” as one critic calls it - as a fad pushed by unhappy marketers who think it’s cooler to fight for social justice than to just sell soap.

I can see where someone unfamiliar with the brand would find irrelevancy in the campaign, but it’s perfectly in-line with the diversity of Lush’s previous campaigns – like ‘Death is Not Justice’ opposing the death penalty and ‘Error 404’ fighting forced internet shutdowns. In that light, #Spycops is hardly the work of bored in-house marketers, but rather a group that established long ago who it is and knows what its customers now expect of them.

And despite the vocal criticism, there are signs that the campaign was a success, particularly with its core and target customer base.

In the wake of the #Spycops hashtag launch, those opposed to the campaign created #FlushLush. As reported in AdWeek, the #Spycops hashtag outperformed the opposition tag in the first days of the campaign. Certainly not concrete evidence of success, but clear proof that the results are far less negative than some might have assumed. While the campaign may have turned off some casual customers, and sparked outrage from police officers, it most likely solidified among their base that Lush is a brand that isn’t afraid of taking a (controversial) stand.

Simply put, purpose-driven marketing campaigns can work to effectively drive brand affinity and purchase.

You see it in Dick’s CEO Edward Stack’s statement about its higher than expected first quarter earnings after dropping certain assault-style weapons from their stores. And in Whirlpool’s 6.6% sales increase following the launch of its “Every Day, Care” campaign. And in P&G’s detergent brand Ariel’s 111% increase in sales with its ‘Dads #ShareTheLoad’ campaign. And in Budweiser’s highest brand health marks in over a decade due entirely to its new purpose-driven marketing efforts.

And why do these work? Because its consumers that are the ones actually driving this push for purpose. According to the DoSomething Strategic’s 2018 Survey of Young People and Social Change, 76% of young people said they have purchased or would consider purchasing a brand/product to show support for the issues the brand supported. Almost 30% actively seek out socially or environmentally responsible brands and 26% say they often or always decide to purchase solely because they support the brand’s values. It’s no surprise then that survey respondents overwhelmingly mentioned Lush as brand favorite and a model for a brand living its purpose.

Certainly consumers—particularly the always-on, hyper-critical young consumer—can smell the hypocrisy of brands adopting a cause opportunistically or performatively. But that doesn’t mean that all cause marketing is “nonsense.” Purpose-driven marketing failures occur when brands aren’t listening to their consumers, combined with poor execution or poor brand alignment. Such failures do not demonstrate that all cause marketing efforts are doomed, but rather the importance of thoughtful, integrated efforts that reflect core values of brands and their customers.

The bottom line is that, yes, brands still must deliver great products. Cause marketing won’t cover up for poor products. And price and quality are still the number one drivers of purchasing decisions. But cause marketing is a differentiator that delivers results, both for society and the bottom line. And in a global economy that’s only becoming more competitive, no differentiator can be simply dismissed.

Meredith Ferguson, is the managing director of DoSomething Strategic

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