Interview: how Mark Constantine made Lush the UK’s most admired brand without advertising

A recent study by consultancy Basic Arts sought to discover the most admired brand in the UK.  Naturally, there was a decent presence from the usual suspects such as Apple, Google, and Nike; businesses whose brands have become so strong as to almost be cliches.  However the identity of the top brand came as something of a surprise, not only because of its relatively small size, but because it has chosen never to do the one thing most companies do when looking to strengthen their brand: advertise.

That brand is Lush, the independent UK-based cosmetics company.

It’s the brand’s scale which has driven their “no advertising” approach according to their co-founder and managing director Mark Constantine, who we caught up with following the results.  “If you are small, you are just wasting money” he said of advertising.  “We tried it a few years ago, and it wasn’t very effective.  it’s not effective now and it’s very expensive.  Great if you have a billion pounds to spend.  The big boys do well as they blanket everything”.

Constantine’s self-identification as “small” is of course relative, with the business now turning over in excess of £700million per year through its 935 shops in 49 countries, which would allow it an advertising budget many businesses would envy – however when playing that game you’re competing for attention with with businesses like Apple who are 1,000 times that size, or in the case of one of Lush’s competitors L’Oréal, 100 times the size.  For Lush, this marks advertising out as a billionaire’s playground where anyone other than the global titans should tread carefully.

How then have Lush become the UK’s number one if not through advertising spend?

“You need to walk your talk and sustain the message you put out there”, summarises Constantine, highlighting the internal behaviours which have made Lush a highly distinctive presence in cosmetics – a market where differentiation is normally hard to discern, and consumers find most brands to be interchangeable. In essence they employ the same strategic and creative thinking found in advertising, but rather than applying it to units of media they apply it directly to the business itself, creating something unique and coherent.

This distinctiveness runs like a seam through the business, from core beliefs, to behaviours, to the end product itself.  “We want to restore people’s faith in human nature, which is particularly pertinent at the moment” he explained, a commitment which has seen the brand engage in many high-profile ethical battles from the reasonably uncontroversial (like animal testing), to more stretching issues such as Brexit, which has prompted the brand to offer roles within their new Germany facility for anyone wishing to leave the UK, all of which has gained them significant attention. Constantine sees having strong opinions and beliefs as a key ingredient in staying top of the news agenda without advertising spend – “we invariably have an opinion on the topics journalists want to cover” – a stance which would horrify the average corporate press office.

Crucially however this sense of purpose doesn’t end – as it does for many brands – as words on a page or statements to the press.  It carries over into the physical way they operate, which departs from standard industry practise in many different ways.  “We are the only reasonably sized cosmetics company where the formulators are also the bosses” he noted, a fact which creates an experimental, “home-made” feel in the brand.  This can be seen not only in their live streams from the “kitchen” (where they cook up highly limited and original creations which are sold briefly online never to be seen again) but also in every tiny moment both online and in store.  “Of course it must be the same message throughout the business”, he notes.  “Having the formulators at the top of Lush allows it to go through everybody… Each cosmetic brand has its own strengths and weaknesses. L’Occitane are great at packaging as they were packaging guys beforehand.  The Body Shop do discount marketing very well.  Everyone has different styles.  At Lush we formulate, work like hell on the quality of the ingredients and focus on making the finished product as effective as possible. We want to serve our customers”.

The end result of these strong beliefs and these unusual business practices is a product which stands out dramatically in its market.  Anyone who’s ever stepped into a Lush store will have been struck by the remarkable array of colours, textures, and shapes surrounding them, as well as the unconventional display style which has more in common with a market fruit stall than a high-end cosmetics array – appropriate perhaps, as their core offer is “fresh, handmade cosmetics”.  Crucially these superficial differences came as an organic result of the more high level thinking that came before them – not simply the jazzy creations of a designer with a good eye.

Ultimately what this allows, as Constantine sees it, is the ability to communicate to the world with complete honesty.  “The more honest you are, the more effective [your communications] will be”.

“Transparency is great if you’ve been telling the truth, but not so good if you’ve been lying… companies who have been using advertising to say they are something they’re not were never in control of the brand [even in the past]”.

It is only brands who see total honesty as an opportunity, rather than a threat, who are equipped to thrive in a world where other people are guiding the conversation.  For Lush, advertising is not an act of deception, merely an opening of the doors to let people see what interesting stuff is going on within. Few businesses, when being honest with just themselves (let alone the public), can say that this applies to them.

Such a thought experiment could be a good test for a brand’s strength in the internet age. If someone was to simply observe your business, warts and all with not filter in between, would it be able to sell itself? The answer to that question would likely be an accurate barometer of the success it’s enjoying – and that which might be coming its way.

Want to read the full report?  Go here and click on the download link.

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