Naked Ambition


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“We like to innovate in everything we do: from cosmetics to recruitment to ethics and campaigns.” Mark Constantine Managing Director Lush.

This is the time of year when aged aunts buy gaily-wrapped gift packs of toiletries for nephews who will probably never use them. The reason is that the products are often of poor quality because two thirds of the cost is in the packaging. This fact holds true for most cosmetics manufacturers. But there is one brand that boldly challenges this traditional thinking.

If you were lucky enough to receive a Lush Bath Bomb for Christmas I encourage you to use it. The vibrant colours, wonderful smells and fizzing effects will convert you to the world of cosmetics Lush style. Co-founder, Mo Constantine, invented the original Bath Bomb in 1989 and ever since Lush has continued its exploration into the world of bath time innovation and successfully exported its unique experience across the globe. Lush currently has 856 shops worldwide and is present in 51 countries, with manufacturing sites across the world.

What are some innovative principles we can learn from Lush and the brands we studied for our book ‘Bold-how to be brave in business and win’?

Challenge conventional thinking

The Lush inventors love to challenge convention. They invent and create new products faster than any other cosmetics brand. Says Mark Constantine Lush’s Managing Director; “We like to innovate in everything we do: from cosmetics to recruitment to ethics and campaigns. We believe innovation is going beyond someone’s imagination and seeing if you just can’t surprise.”

Lush was formed in 1995 and since then has spent years developing what they call ‘naked’ products that work really effectively. Why? Because these solid products don’t need preservatives or excess packaging, which is altogether kinder for the environment and allows the brand to invest 100% of the cost of production in using better ingredients. As they say in their promotional materials, ‘Simple really”.

The stores are just as innovative as the products themselves. As you walk along the high street and pass a Lush store, your senses will suddenly be bombarded by the smells, colours and hand-written notices calling your attention to the products that are displayed in all their ‘naked’ glory.

Think of a fruit and vegetable stall in a market and you might come close to visualising a Lush store. Handmade, natural and fresh merchandise; butchers’ blocks of soap; a myriad of orbs “fizzing bath ballistics” that are presented like perfectly round apples; chilled fish counter-style cabinets displaying Bio Fresh face masks; prices by weight, greaseproof paper wrapping (if any wrapping at all) and best-before dates. But what was the stimulus for such an innovative approach?

Mark Constantine puts it simply; “I’ve always loved the way fruit and vegetables are displayed in a grocery store”. One of the common characteristics of our ‘Bold ‘ leaders is that so much of their innovation is driven by what they like themselves. Sometime it’s just great ideas taken from other sectors, but they rarely stem from extensive research. But that isn’t to say that they ignore the customer.

Drive innovation from a deep understanding and insight about what target customers value

History tells us that most new products fail. So how do you ensure success when you are changing 30% of your products each year?

“The key is making sure the customers clearly understand what you’re doing and debating with them beforehand to make sure the product does what they want it to do at a price they are willing to pay”

Sometimes this approach leads to dropping a product that makes every kind of sense – except to the customer. For example, Constantine told me, “We sell millions of pounds worth of toner every year – you’re buying some lovely essential oils, maybe a few other elements but basically it’s water and preservatives and packaging. We would like to eliminate all preservatives and packaging in the next couple of years from all of our products. So, we invented a toner tab; tiny little tabs that you dissolve in water, when you wanted to use it. It lasted a week. It was a much nicer toner that you could make in the traditional way. There’s no preservative or packaging and the price is substantially lower as a result. Everything about it was perfect except the customers hated it because it was less convenient. So, we continue with the bottled toner because that is what our customers want. When you get yourself aligned with the customer, it isn’t about profit and loss or pushing your product. It’s about producing what your customers want to buy”.

Your people are the brand

For an innovative manufacturer and retailer like Lush you would expect that their focus lies solely on the product. You would be wrong:

According to Constantine, “You build a brand around people. Our people find us; we don’t find them. I don’t see that as my job. My job is to look at the people we hire and work out how I can fit the brand around them. I don’t get a sense that any of us feel particularly good at interviewing. I don’t think we believe we have great profiling techniques or skills. I think what we focus on is bringing people into the organisation and then working out what they can do best”.

Hiring people is one thing, getting them to ‘live the brand’ quite another. WHICH? magazine members rated LUSH top for customer service in their annual ?’Best & Worst Shops’ survey in 2011. I can understand why.

The most striking thing for me whenever I visit a Lush store is the enthusiasm and consistency of their people. How do you achieve this level of consistency when you have 10,000 people?
“Training and development is the key to all of it. The best example we’ve got of this is our spa therapists. There is no shortage of people who would like to come and work with us but if even if you’re a fully trained spa therapist the first thing that you’re going to have to do is come to Poole for three months while we train you. You may feel that you are fully trained already but you’re not trained in what we want you to know. Before you will be allowed to work with customers you will need to be personally signed off by one of the founders on every treatment that you give”

Keep the main thing the main thing.

Lush started with the metaphor of a fruit and vegetable stall and this remains at its core. It is able to afford the extra cost of using natural ingredients because of the savings from eliminating packaging. It is therefore able to stick with its principles and ‘keep the main thing the main thing’ in the face of pressure from competitors who are less differentiated and compete primarily on price.

“Freshness is intrinsic to Lush – it’s at the heart of our philosophy. It means we can minimise the use of synthetics and it means that we can create wonderfully effective products when the ingredients are at their most potent. When Lush products reach the customer, they are literally weeks, days or even just hours old. No product in any of our shops is more than 6 months old.
We’ve been working with fresh produce for many years and have vast experience on how to formulate products that incorporate whole fruits and vegetables. At Lush, we believe that using the whole fruit or vegetable is infinitely more beneficial than isolating a property and removing it from a fruit, vegetable or natural material and adding it to a cosmetic product to try to recreate its function.”

This unique approach leads Lush to squeeze the following fresh ingredients every year to mention just a few: 25 tonnes of organic fruit and 50 tonnes of fresh fruit and vegetables; the oil from 20 million lemons, 6 million fresh bergamot fruits and 900,000 Sicilian mandarins; 10 tonnes of Fairtrade and organic cocoa butter; the juice of 90,000 zest lemons 33,000 fresh oranges; 8,000 bunches of fresh flowers; and 20 tonnes of olive oil.

Purpose beyond profit.

A relentless focus on what makes you distinctive is common to the Bold brands we studied. Another, and very closely allied characteristic, is their sense of ‘Purpose beyond profit’. That is; their concern for a cause that is greater than their pursuit of profit. But in fact their business grows because of it. This is what Mark Constantine has to say,

“Here at Lush we believe that our products should be effective, fun and safe for you to use. We believe that the most effective and humane way to safety test both the ingredients we use and our finished products are through modern non-animal tests and a panel of human volunteers”

Lush are firmly committed to a policy which not only precludes testing its products and ingredients on animals, or engaging with third-party suppliers to do so on their behalf, but they will also not buy any ingredient from any supplier that tests any of its materials on any animals for any purpose. This policy is unique in its field and is pioneering a new way to stop animal tests for cosmetics.

Embrace digital marketing

In many ways Lush is a throwback to a bygone age – handmade products made from natural ingredients sold in a store that is distinctly low tech and an adherence to human values. So is there a role in the future for technology and in particular, digital marketing?

“We’d really like to be the Internet choice for cosmetics. There’s a vacancy at the moment and we’d like to fill it. The internet allows us to provide so much more information to customers. I can tell you where we buy our chamomile oil. I can tell you what our practices are with regard to obtaining it. I can tell you an awful lot about the quality of the chamomile oil. You can even see a video about it if you wish. The lovely thing about the Internet is that it allows you to be totally transparent because it tailors information to each individual.

As far as I am concerned, there is no such thing as a mass market; it’s a series of individual customers. You can’t keep grouping everyone together and expecting them to want the same thing. That’s why I think we are a perfect fit for the Internet because our competitors haven’t got a story to tell. They’re not interested in the ingredients. They’ve not got a patented product, so they can’t describe the invention process. They’ve just got a product that they probably copied from someone else.”

Lush is a great example of a Bold brand and epitomises the mantra: Be Bold; Be Brave; Be Different. After all, you can get no bolder than to go naked.

© Shaun Smith 2012


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