SO WHAT WENT WRONG? WHY BIG FRENCH DADDY L’OREAL’S SELLING OFF THE BODY SHOP AND WHAT’S NEXT FOR THE BRITISH BRAND LOTS OF US GREW UP WITH?
I’d just plonked my suitcase down in a Seville hotel room when a message arrived: “Can you call Mark at the Financial Times, he’s writing a retail piece on L’Oreal’s Body Shop sell off and would like your thoughts on this news and why you’ve never featured The Body Shop on The Beauty Shortlist?”
My heart sank. I loved The Body Shop. Like many of us, I grew up with it. Anita Roddick stood for everything I did. She was on my “If you could invite 6 famous people to dinner, who would they be?” list. Strong. A woman who stood up for her beliefs, helping others while her brand became a BRAND. Best of British. Global.
I remember thinking how weird it was (at the time) that Anita Roddick’s activist, philanthropic, from-the-heart, 100% indie spirited British beauty brand was even being sold to big French daddy L’Oreal in the first place? Lovely money to cash in with but “The Odd Couple”?? (Anita Roddick said she was delighted that her green vision was going mainstream).
But, a bit like when you’re at the wedding of a mismatched couple and there’s that uncomfortable feeling when you just know the day will come when it’s #timetosaygoodbye
The FT asked me what I thought of L’Oreal and I said I applauded their pro-age, pro-diversity campaigns. Mark asked if I could remember the last time I’d bought something at The Body Shop (“Um, about 3 years ago…?) It dawned on me right then that The Body Shop had become a 30-second pit-stop in an airport – say, if you’d forgotten your coconut shower gel and needed to pick one up quickly.
All hail Anita, who was “doing coconut oil” 40 years ago, before the rest of us cottoned on.
With The Body Shop’s colourful, “all over the place”, inconsistent branding, with too many products, too many stores in too many malls and a tangible disconnect from its original fans it’s barely surprising, then, that its supporters faded away and moved on to fresher, cleaner brands with delicious branding and more USPs than just “Fairtraded”.
Who knows what L’Oreal’s expectations or strategy were at the time of the acquisition but now the burning question is who’ll salvage TBS?
Just days ago, on 20 January, Retail Week ran a piece about The Body Shop’s new group shakeup which goes something like this….
The Body Shop’s new Deputy Zone Director for North America and EMEA is Simon Noble, a former Uniqlo director. He reports into MD for Europe and N. America Pierre-Olivier Morlaas (who’s based in Paris from what I can tell and has quite a long track record at L’Oreal, in its Luxury Division, as well as at Biotherm).
Former Swaroswki marketing chief James Shepherd takes on the newly created role of Global Retail Operations Director, managing retail operations, store design and staff training across the brand’s international estate, reporting directly to chief executive chairman Jeremy Schwartz.
A few BIG questions worth asking here?
Why is a man who’s been at Swarowski since 2002 running retail ops for a beauty brand? Why are the big guns at L’Oreal and similar companies so predominantly testosterone-heavy? And heavy on the business or retail side experience-wise, but with near zippo experience in beauty (I venture to guess). I’d love to quiz them about the emotional connection with beauty, why they think they are qualified to guard and honour the legacy of Anita’s brand? I’ve been writing about beauty for some 15 years now, but am I qualified to run the global business expansion division at L’Oreal? No way! But I sure as heck know what makes a good beauty product and why – just like music – you CANNOT sell beauty like you sell luxury cars, electronics, or life insurance policies.
The Retail Week news made my blood boil. With so many brilliant women in the primarily female-centric beauty industry, why would you give such a big salary and job to a man whose background is not beauty, but jewellery?
This is what happened when I worked in music – there’s a parallel in the story here:
A French (another French disaster) water and sewage company, one of the biggest in Europe, came and took over the cutting edge, digital music company I was at. Fast forward and you can guess what happened. Corporate alpha males, with brains like calculators and cars that cost more than a studio flat (and a few women whose minds were calculators too, but didn’t earn as much) suddenly descended on us all overnight. Jobs were lost, accountants took over from creatives. But what the French water and sewage company forgot was, they were taking on a hard to predict, fast-moving, emotional, creative company whose lifeblood was living, breathing, unpredictable, brilliant, anti-corporate, anti-bullshit musicians. They weren’t selling cars. They were selling music. They didn’t understand the musicians and they hadn’t a clue why one song sold more “units” than another. These were people who blasted the worst rock music in the car on the way home to their Californian hilltop villas and wondered why sales were dipping. They had no idea how to connect with 20-yr old alternative rock fans. It wasn’t pretty and it didn’t end particularly well.
I don’t care about generic business models/strategies – beauty is beauty, it’s not auto or electrical sales. I think men can run beauty brands but you need to understand beauty at its deepest level and have a special sensibility.
Music and beauty have that tangible yet magical emotional component, both are tied in with feeling good, feeling better…happiness…healing, if you like. Music is the universal language, and so – in all of its beautiful diversity, from black to white – is beauty. If you’ve ever given an elderly lady in a care home a manicure (or a new lipstick) you know first hand the true power of beauty at its deepest level.
The daughter of Italian immigrants, Anita Roddick did it all herself, her way. From her kitchen, then from the first ever Body Shop sandwiched between two funeral parlours in Brighton. Bravo.
After the call with the Financial Times, I unzipped my suitcase, and thought about the conversation we’d just had. Everything that The Body Shop meant to me came flooding back….shopping for Christmas gifts, my favourite coconut oil shampoo (discontinued), their Hemp hand cream which is so “now”, now that plant-based healing beauty is set to be huge soon…the frustration of popping into a Body Shop where neither of the two assistants seemed to know much about any of the products…that shiny, plasticky packaging that frankly looks all over the place and completely lacks consistency. Reading about exotic ingredients harvested by women in tribal communities so far from the grey winter skies of London, thinking how cool Anita Roddick was for all her philanthropic work and her commitment to sustainability.
Too many men behind a beauty brand can be a dangerous thing. So here’s a warning to any indie brands dreaming of being bought out soon. Make sure the new guardian of your brand does just that. Guards it, respects it, keeps it true to your philosophy, goals and ethics. Understands it. Because once your brand is “gone” it’s gone.
I hope Anita’s brand will be bought by a company or individual that understands what she created and stood for. We need more Anita Roddicks in this world. I know there are many about, because every day I’m in touch with them. They sweat blood to remain independent and are designing brands with strong USPs. Some of them will win a Beauty Shortlist Award on Thursday 2nd March.
There are 70 or so comments on my Instagram.com/BeautyShortlist at the moment on my post about the L’Oreal/Body Shop sell-off, so please do join in if you’d like to add your thoughts!
Here’s the FT.com piece that came out yesterday (Saturday morning 11 Feb) – L’OREAL COMES CLEAN ON BODY SHOP FUTURE and I’d like to quickly add some of the Instagram comments that have come in too – it’s an interesting conversation and a wake-up call for all.
Above all, thank you Anita Roddick – the Best of British. We’ve got everything crossed.
@LumityLife “Men selling to women and being in the big money positions at beauty companies is ridiculous – it would be like women heading up a Viagra empire. It all depends whether you are on a mission to make other women look and feel their best and that is your driving force…or to line your own pockets. A smart male entrepreneur would be hands off and have an all female team who all know what they’re doing and share the same vision and whose strengths fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. It can be done but the world is changing fast so if brands don’t keep up they get left behind”
@Nyrorganic.Katie “Really interesting to read and I always think it’s a shame when truly ethical companies sell out to big non-ethical brands…Neal’s Yard Remedies was started by a woman and bought by a man who was really passionate about the brand and the ethics. He actually made it his goal to make it more organic, more environmentally friendly, sustainably sourced. It’s still family owned, products are made at their eco factory in Dorset, the only carbon-neutral health and beauty brand….it just takes more time, love and effort to do it…”
@Fjordandfolly “I hate the way that money is more important than ethics”
@Moonstoneraven “I’ve always felt uneasy with the whole “no animal testing” put everywhere in the shop when it’s owned by L’Oreal”
@Mono_Naturoils “Can’t wait to read…it saddens me every time I walk past TBS – always empty, used to be heaving when I was a teenager. It broke my heart when it was sold to L’Oreal. My hope is that perhaps it will be sold to someone who can take it back to its original ethos…???”
@Ageingisnowanoption “Well said, The Body Shop here in Australia has nowhere near the market share it used to. It was a man that started TBS here and was very successful before he sold. You don’t send a baker to do a butcher’s job!”
@Palmandsolenorwich “This is such a hard story to read. I was one of the team that set up Anita’s cooperative Bond St shop in the early 90s. She was an amazing energy to be around and genuinely cared about fair trade green issues. She taught the team an enormous amount. Her legacy deserves to be cared for”
@Drinkteag “Before Anita died and even for a few years after her death, the Body Shop was a place for everyone who yearned for products that told a story, had provenance, offered beauty solutions that also abided by ethical rules and staffed by folks who believed in that ethos too. The “soul” of the Body Shop was lost though, following L’Oreal’s acquisition of it. It became a business, run by folks who did not truly understand why we as shoppers bought Body Shop products. L’Oreal was never the right fit.”
@Bodhiandbirch (a brand run by a man) “…It’s not a “man’s thing” but of one’s heart, empathy, authenticity and understanding. Indie brands often start on personal journeys of expression and passion, to challenge beliefs and often help change the perception of what is considered “the norm”. This individuality cannot be replicated by a machine. It can, however, be nurtured and grown by an equally passionate and dedicated “gardener”.
@Kirstymaws “I think we all remember the L’Oreal aquisition. I was at NYR at the time. The beauty industry calls for authentic brand ambassadors and passionate leaders who live, breathe and love our industry. It’s not just about shipping creams…it’s about so much more!”
@Mandy_barlow – Made For Life by Spiezia Organics “I had the huge privilege of meeting both Anita Roddick and Romy Fraser. Romy’s wise words to me when we first met were if you don’t have to sell, keep it. Running any business is tough at times. What I’ve learned is that if you’ve strong values which centre on authenticity then you need to chose who you might potentially partner with, carefully. Better in many cases to potentially don “the pants of power” and keep focused along with your team”.
@Beautyeditpro “As a child of the 80s/90s I lived for a trip to the Body Shop and it was a wonderland. Now it offers run of the mill makeup that doesn’t keep up with trends (even though it’s owned by L’Oreal!)The high street retail business model that the BS exists in needs to be scrapped and perhaps bring the brand back to life as a concession with a smaller offering…I am always sad when I hear of indie brands being bought out by the big guns – it may all look rosy at the time but time tends to tell a different story”
ANITA RODDICK – MY STORY (The Body Shop)
“It was all about storytelling…we painted our first shop green, it was the only colour that covered up the damp patches…we had 25 products but that was all…we were different…we had opinions, we were interesting…my advice to a entrepreneur would be, don’t think big, start with small steps, think brilliant, think different, network like mad – women are brilliant at networking…you don’t find that that much in organisations with men but women do that…and thank people consistently…I never, ever, ever stopped and said “Oh my God, I wish I’d been to business school”…nowadays you’ve got to come up with products and services and ideas that are outside the box. I hate the idea that women have to be male impersonators.”
Anita in her own words…WATCH HERE