Brave, foolish, rational, confusing: why Lush quitting social media is a move full of contradictions
If cosmetics company Lush viewed success solely through the prism of hot takes in the marketing trade press then, by any measure, their recent announcement that the brand was quitting its main social accounts (or switching up, to use their terminology) would have paid for bonuses for all of its store staff and then some.
For example, over the last week, I’ve had the following headlines from The Drum and Marketing Week respectively delivered to my inbox: “Lush is the new anti-social gangster, and for good reason” and “Lush’s social media exodus is a risk too far.”
Congratulations Lush, you are 2019’s Yanny and Laurel. So let’s keep the hype machine loaded with a later and probably overly long lukewarm take.
Behind any internet phenomenon is always a slightly more complex explanation. Assuming the announcement wasn’t just a stunt — and Lush have form in this area — then it’s perfectly possible to say that yes, Lush has done a good job of tapping into a sentiment against social media from both marketers and consumers, yes, they are taking a big risk, yes, it’s a brave and bold move, and no, it probably won’t kill branded social media accounts as we know it.
It’s worth picking apart some of Lush’s main points. There’s a lot to admire, and a lot to be confused about, especially as Lush themselves appear to conflate several different aspects of social media in their cross-channel posting that read like it was written by a slightly grumpy strategist who’d yet to have their morning coffee, decided whatever the job was that morning, it wasn’t worth it, and somehow the note slipped through into policy.
We’ve probably all dreamed of being that strategist one day.
Won’t pay, won’t pay
Let’s start with Lush’s initial point that they were fed up of paying to both produce and distribute content through social, at the whims of Zuckerberg, et al.
“We are tired of fighting with algorithms, and we do not want to pay to appear in your newsfeed. So we’ve decided it’s time to bid farewell to some of our social channels and open up the conversation between you and us instead.”
There’s a lot to like here, including a level of honesty. Plenty of brands still churn out significant volumes full of very average content that nobody wanted and few people will see unless they then add a few more dollars to the budget.
In essence, a lot of brands are already spending a lot of money of digital landfill, with no discernible effect, as the content is likely to be too bland to cut through or the distribution and targeting isn’t done at enough scale to shift brand awareness, while the actual content isn’t salesy enough to push the consumer at the bottom end of the funnel.
This isn’t to say that branded content, and especially branded social content, is a waste of time. Some is exceptionally well executed, with audience and objective in mind, and have a robust measurement team in place who can demonstrate meaningful results. And, to be fair to Lush, their content is generally well executed and often has clear objectives (and I don’t have sight of their results to pass judgement on the last point).
For these brands and advertisers, it’s understandable that social media is a point of contention. A lot of strategies I’ve written and seen emphasise less, not more social media, and flag other channels as equally, if not more, deserving of the budget. (That said, I’ve also written and seen strategies that make a compelling reason for always-on social.)
And who wouldn’t want to cut out the middleman and speak direct to consumers. It’s amazing how often email seems to be one of marketing’s hot discoveries of 2019. Building your own platform to own your customer data is rarely a bad idea.
But it still requires numbers. And even though Lush say only 6% of their followers are served their content in their newsfeeds, will they hit the equivalent numbers on Lush Player. Perhaps they may even reach fewer people who’ll watch for longer, which may ultimately be more valuable than 6% of people watching for three seconds.
What is confusing is, having said they want to open up the conversation with their community, then then announce that quitting social actually means quitting customer service on social.
“Over the next week, our customer care team will be actively responding to your messages and comments, after this point you can speak us via live chat on the website, on email at email@example.com and by telephone: 01202 930051. This isn’t the end, it’s just the start of something new. #LushCommunity — see you there.”
This is where I have slightly more of an issue with Lush’s decision to pull away from social. Social media marketing and social media customer service are not the same thing, even if they have an impact on each other. They’re often run by different departments with different budgets and different objectives.
You can waste your budget producing dreadful content that nobody will ever see or care about, and can still have a highly efficient and cost-effective team servicing customers through social media that delivers tangible ROI for that department.
The cash saving is probably not insignificant for Lush. The overall customer experience, however, will be poorer in the short-term. Email and phone have their uses as a service channel, especially for complex queries, but if even a proportion of their 569,000+ followers on Instagram, say, regularly use social for customer service, then it becomes problematic and ceases to be a customer-friendly solution.
Again, the sentiment of not being overly-reliant on social media may be right, even if the proposed remedy isn’t. And to the slightly frazzled time-poor consumer who just wants to speak to somebody now about a simple issue without having to wait for an email or use up precious minutes sitting on hold.
Cutting out the middle man
The last part of Lush’s puzzle is setting up its own platform to communicate direct to their customers. It’s not clear what form this will take, but it does tick a lot of best practice boxes.
Ownership of customer data? Tick. Direct 1-to-1 communication with their most ardent and loyal fans? Tick. Control over distribution of message? Tick. Not reliant on social platforms changing their process with little warning? Tick. Reach and scale of message? Hang on a moment.
There’s a lot to commend in investing your budget in your own platform. As a long term play, it gives you a lot more control over your message and the levers you can pull to support marketing activity. However, for a retail-based brand such as Lush, there’s one major problem, namely building your own platform tends to be more effective as a retention ploy.
This isn’t a sector such as travel, automotive or insurance, where first party data can be used to target and convert prospects, or take existing customers and target them intelligently at a big ticket repurchase point. No, at the end of the day, Lush need to keep selling more bath bombs, cosmetics and beauty treatments on a regular basis.
This particular strategy can increase the spend of existing customers, which is no bad thing, but Lush will need to keep acquiring new sign-ups and interactions to grow and hit target, as well as achieving a minimum number of active subscribers, of whatever the metric will be from their own site, to achieve a positive ROI. That’s not easy. And, yes, social can play a role in topping up that acquisition number.
A subtler pivot
It’s also worth noting that Lush’s stores and staff will still continue to be active on social, so it’s not like the company is quitting completely. It’s simply decentralising, which may be where their strategy suggests they’ll get the best return. Good on them if that’s the case — few brands would be brave enough to pivot in this way.
But one final point about the Lush community that they want to foister. Lush has a habit of running campaigns that rely on advocacy and amplification across social media. While this doesn’t require paid media, it does mean their social channels can act as somewhat of a hub.
Whether Lush.com, and Lush Labs, their other owned properties, have enough of a user base to achieve the same effect, or if the average social media user can be bothered to swipe through to the website instead of casually engaging (never underestimate the power of lazy clicktivism) remains to be seen.
As many of others have said, Lush have taken a bold move. It’s not contradictory to wish them luck in their efforts to own their communications while still being sceptical that removing their main accounts from social will actually contribute much other than saving on the salaries of a few social media managers. File under watch with interest and no small amount of baited breath.