As others zig, Lush zags
The Drum’s founder, Gordon Young, reacts to our exclusive interview with Lush, where it revealed some surprising tactics in its failure to shun social media spend.
According to X, the online ad market is expected to hit a valuation of $680bn this year as it continues its inexorable growth.
But as the world zigs, one company has opted to zag.
Last week, cosmetics firm Lush told The Drum how it had to stop putting its marketing budgets into the likes of Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and Amazon two years ago.
It has now vowed to place a bath bomb under Google, Apple and Microsoft, saying it will cease spending with them by 2026.
So, has it done this without exfoliating all its sales?
The answer is a collaboration strategy it says has brought in £15m of sales in new over the last 12 months.
The partnerships tend to be fun, add to the brand personality and lead to earned exposure.
For example, it dealt with SpongeBob SquarePants to underpin its commitment to cleaner oceans. It saw Patrick Soap, Gary the Snail Bath Bomb, and Bikini Bottom Bubble Blower included in its subscription boxes.
Meanwhile, a deal with Barbie saw its boxes featuring pink shampoos and bath bombs, which featured in unboxing videos by excited fans.
Lush says the marketing support behind these activations is well below the market norm. Instead, it will invest in the products and trust that this will encourage customers to share their enthusiasm with their followers.
Annabelle Baker, Lush’s chief brand officer, told The Drum: “We’ve always relied on word of mouth, people loving and advocating for the product. People buy from people, and that’s critical. We could have put [content] out there that’s super slick, but we know people aren’t interested in that content. And quite rightly so.”
So, what are the lessons here for other brands? On the one hand, as the ‘zig’ line above, written by ad legend Barbara Nokes of BBH fame, suggests, it can pay to go against the herd.
Her line ‘When the world zigs, zag’ was written for Levis in 1981. That was the era of blue jeans. Levis decided to break the mold and go with black.
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And, of course, a huge body of research explains why outstanding work stands out. The most famous example is a study by a young academic, Hedwig von Restorff, in 1933.
She published a paper on memorability while at the University of Berlin before being thrown out by the Nazis.
In the study, she gave participants a long list of text consisting of random three-letter sequences interrupted by a set of three digits–for example, itp, qrt, leu, 173, yiy, etc.
Go on, which one stands out to you? The test proved that the digits were the most recalled. This became known as the Von Restordff Effect, demonstrating that different and distinct ideas cut through.
Now, on one hand, this seems pretty obvious. But if so, why do most marketers still abide by industry norms: car ads featuring mountain roads and rugged terrain, fashion ads with beautiful pouty supermodels, perfume ads with surreal plots, or watch ads that show every piece set a few minutes before 10 to 10 (apparently it perfectly frames the brand logo)?
Ad guru Dave Trott has a theory… he once said: “The problem is nobody ever explains to clients why the obvious is bad. They think it must be right because everyone in their market is doing it. Which is exactly why creatives think it’s wrong. Creatives want to be different, to stand out from the environment. But that just looks like flashy pyrotechnics to a client.”
But of course, there is a risk to being different too - if it goes wrong, there will also be pyrotechnics, sparked by the marketing team being fired. The herd can feel like a safe place to be.
And in today’s world, with a wealth of data to drive decisions, there is more pressure to comply with what consumers say they want. Of course, the problem is that consumers usually ask for what they already know, as Henry Ford observed. “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
There is no doubt that the Lush strategy is a very modern take on a classic zag. And it may not be as risky as it appears. As far back as 2021, titles like Forbes suggested digital advertising drove sales some brands might have achieved. It reported research by Sackla which found: “92% of marketers believe most or all of the content they create resonates as authentic with consumers,” but “only 13% [of consumers] said content from a brand is impactful and a mere 8% said influencer-created content would highly impact their purchasing decisions.”
However, Lush is challenging conventions in another way. It is not investing in slick social videos or creative - not, I suspect, what Dave Trott and Barbara Nokes had in mind when they encouraged people to break the mold.
But its partnership with the likes of Barbie underlines that getting creative outside conventional channels is possible.
Will the Lush strategy pay off in the long term? It is hard to say until it is fully implemented. But you admire what a bold, confident zag is.