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The Drum /

The Body Shop can be revived, but it can't do it on goodwill alone

The news that The Body Shop is set to appoint administrators has left some of us a touch misty-eyed. It’s hard to forget just how impactful the revolutionary beauty brand was in its heyday – championing environmental, animal and human rights with its charismatic founder Anita Roddick leading the crusade.

But brands that refuse to evolve with the times will inevitably gather dust and die. They get overtaken by the new, the more culturally relevant, and ultimately, they fail. Every time I’ve walked past one of The Body Shop stores in the last few years, I winced, thinking “come on, we want you to win the fight and stay in the game”. But a brand can’t live through rose tinted spectacles alone. As sad as it is, the brand’s struggles are a cautionary tale of stagnation and how to bore the shopper.

The news highlights yet again that any brand needs to constantly look to remain culturally relevant, especially on today’s rapidly moving high street.

In the case of The Body Shop, its brand owners were too reliant on the brand’s original purpose and emphasis on corporate and social responsibility. It was once a pioneer, yes. But today, being socially and environmentally friendly are mere table stakes to the game. Cosmetics companies with B-Corp status, pushing out their positive intentions to an audience that demands them have become two-a-penny. You can no longer stand out with that message alone.

The Body Shop arguably started to lose its cultural relevance when Roddick sold the company in 2006. Since then, it has over-emphasised the importance of stability and trust. Its string of owners focused on preserving the brand’s societal impact messaging, assuming it would be enough to keep a loyal audience. The result is a total lack of charisma and personality. Today, The Body Shop looks more like a trustworthy ‘green’ bank than an exciting cosmetics brand. It simply doesn’t resonate. In no way does it convey what the brand stands for or who it wants to talk to.

Competitors, meanwhile, have swooped in with the same stance on animal testing and social responsibility, but with a much more relevant and engaging proposition. Take Lush, with its unique product (the bath bomb) and sensory overload, plus a fun, handmade identity that looks cool. In addition, and most importantly, Lush knows how to tap into popular culture. Recent collaborations included Spongebob, Barbie and Nintendo, while its latest ‘Saltbomb’ launch (executed in the distinctly witty Lush TOV) went viral. Lush has occupied prime position as the entry point for an audience looking to explore cosmetics in a friendly, fun and culturally relevant way.

In contrast, The Body Shop feels tired and dated, it lacks any sense of joy or personality – in its visual identity, its tone-of-voice and in-store experience. We see this time again – Thorntons being overtaken by the sexy Hotel Chocolat, or Laura Ashley slowly fading into insignificance as its brand fails to move with the times.

If The Body Shop is to survive and win a place in our hearts and minds, it will need a total brand revolution. Its owners need to tease out a brand position that feels ownable and relevant to a new audience. It needs to rediscover what made it great in the first place. Roddick imbued The Body Shop with a Brighton hippie, free-love spirit. Why not reclaim that force of nature? What does that free spirit look like in 2024? How can The Body Shop turn on that charisma, fun and irreverence into an ownable message and brand experience? It has so much brand heritage to draw down from – founder personality, memory structures. There’s no doubt that it has an inherent essence that can spark a revival to once more help it win its fight for relevance in the world.

One idea would be for its owners to draw from the world of fashion, bringing in a culturally relevant Creative Director to spearhead the brand (like LVMH have done for Louis Vuitton with Pharrell Williams). For too long has The Body Shop been let down by a lack of creative leadership. There was no Tim Cook to Roddick’s Steve Jobs, the brand in many ways died the day she left the business.

As recent headlines show, the brand certainly has plenty of goodwill left to draw on. But it can’t rely on this alone to survive. The lesson for today’s heritage brands is that no amount of nostalgia or people willing you to succeed can sustain you indefinitely. If you’re not able to keep pace with the speed at which culture moves, if you don’t know what you stand for and how that’s relevant to today’s consumer, you just don’t stand a chance.

Richard Taylor - Founder