Brands & Branding: The LUSH brand & the ethi-cool effect
by Emma Strumpman (@emmastrumpman) & Franci Cronje. Is a brand such as LUSH, offering personal care products, both ethical and trendy?
Fresh cosmetics brand, LUSH, once posted an image via its local Instagram account, featuring a young female consumer purchasing “Toothy Tabs” instead of regular toothpaste. The Toothy Tabs are part of LUSH’s ethically- and environmentally-conscious movement — underpinned by the tagline “Ditch the Tube, Use the Tab” — encouraging consumers to make a positive impact on the environment by using its innovative, vegan and preservative-free toothpaste tablets instead of regular toothpaste.
The post highlights an intriguing issue: young consumers might be willing to buy a drastically different type of product, even if it is a daily essential such as toothpaste, to align themselves with the ethical and sustainable values of a brand.
In an ideal world, incorporating CSR should be an inherent part of all branded products, so much so that consumers should not have to worry about considering CSR when making purchases, assuming that all products are ethically sound.
In this small research initiative, the majority of respondents indicated that the brand’s aesthetically-pleasing, ‘cool’ factor is the primary attribute as to why they are brand-loyal. The research found that youth are primarily loyal to LUSH’s ‘coolness’. They also find it aesthetically pleasing and stylish. Some participants were not initially aware of the brand’s CSR strategy since its product design doesn’t highlight this aspect. The LUSH brand’s success in appealing to the fashion- and style-conscious youth largely derives from its emphasis on fun, eye-catching product design.
It also appears that LUSH South Africa advertises its ‘cool’ factor mainly through social media engagement, whereas its ethical value is emphasised in the in-store experience. These platforms — the physical stores and social media platforms — are the two most-popular ways that youth interact with the brand. While respondents believe that LUSH does not promote its CSR efforts adequately, the brand is sufficiently communicating its ‘ethi-cool’ value to South African audiences through a combination of its two most-popular contact points. It seems that youths have been motivated by the brand to perceive ethical consumption as ‘cool’, but they have not been stimulated by LUSH to actively consume more responsibly, particularly for cosmetics.
In spite of this general awareness and display of compassion, youth generally do not incorporate elements of a conscious consumer — such as recycling, buying organic produce and purchasing ethical or Fair Trade brands — into their daily lives. This indicates that the attitude-behaviour gap persists among SA youth; in other words, youth claim to care about the welfare of the society and the environment around them but their day-to-day actions do not reflect this sentiment.
Response to this study reflect that SA youth would like more brands to focus on a brand’s ethical value. It is interesting to note that LUSH South Africa in 2016 launched a social media campaign conveying the brand’s cheeky, youthful personality, as well its commitment to a CSR strategy. The campaign bears the slogan, “We prefer to be naked like over 100 of our products”, similar to the promotions run by LUSH Australia in 2015. The local campaign comprised images of South African LUSH employees in the nude — posted on Instagram and Facebook — with various LUSH products modestly covering parts of their body, and a caption that reads: “Plenty of our beautiful massage bars, bath bombs, soaps (and more) are available completely stark naked. They’re better for the environment while still being as brilliantly effective for you.”
Sadly, despite the willingness to buy ethically however, young people see LUSH products as too expensive to acquire on a regular basis. They don’t form part of potential ethical consumption patterns since these young consumers generally do not have as much disposable income as an older, working-class market segment.
Rather than being a go-to brand for ethical cosmetics as such, it was found that more young consumers are becoming loyal to LUSH as a brand for products containing desirable natural ingredients. The latter acts as a key selling point for LUSH. That these natural ingredients are intertwined with the brand’s commitment to its value system to the extent that they are ethically-sourced is the most-important quality. Yet, most respondents that claimed to be loyal to the brand for the products’ natural ingredients didn’t mention the source of these ingredients as being important to them. In other words, youth prefer cosmetics to contain natural ingredients — as opposed to synthetic materials, such as the preservative methyl — but to them ‘natural’ doesn’t mean that they are necessarily worried about the production or sourcing of these ingredients.
When considering the brand’s communication style, it seems that LUSH is doing something right. Its social media platforms are the second most-common way that youth engage with the brand, next to viewing the products in-store. It successfully forms a strong bond with local consumers through social media engagement that is predominantly perceived as fun and friendly. Armed with a conversational tone, slang, cheeky comments, and referring to consumers on a first-name basis, the brand forms a strong emotional bond with youth.
However, this study revealed that, while almost all participants displayed awareness that conscious consumerism is necessary, the LUSH brand has not successfully encouraged them to actively consume with environmental awareness.
Change in mindset
Overall, while it is understood that the brand does not operate in a vacuum, LUSH has made headway in changing youth mindsets to expect all brands to be as transparent about and accountable for their actions, as LUSH is, in order to win their loyalty. A change in mindset is perhaps the first critical step in encouraging more youth to consume more responsibly. In so doing, the gap between youth attitudes and behaviour may be bridged. One participant put this in a nutshell: “If LUSH can do so well without animal testing, why can’t other brands?”
Emma Strumpman (@emmastrumpman) is a journalism and brand communication graduate. She’s a travel and outdoor adventure enthusiast, with a desire to use her creative skills to make a positive impact on the environment and especially marine conservation. Franci Cronje is currently the national manager of blended learning at Vega School and anchors the honours research projects there. Research for this article was conducted in the authors’ capacity as honours in brand leadership students at Vega School, a brand of The Independent Institute of Education.
The article first appeared in the 2017 edition of Brands & Branding in South Africa, an annual review from Affinity Publishing of all aspects of brand marketing — consisting of case-studies, profiles, articles and research — which may also be accessed at the brand-new Brands.MarkLives.com. Order your copy of the 2017 edition now!