I recently bemoaned the lack of committed entrepreneurs in the cosmetic industry. I was thinking of people like Steve Jobs of Apple, the kind of person who eats, drinks, lives and breaths their product and who understands every aspect of it from the formulation through to the packaging, the distribution and the marketing, and who stirs things up and creates innovation. The nearest I could come up with was Anita Roddick, formerly of the Body Shop, who sadly is no longer with us. One name that did come to mind, but who I quickly dismissed, was Liz Earle.
Liz Earle is a television journalist who started her own personal care brand in 1995. Her husband was a marketing executive for a big hair care company. So she had some pretty big advantages over the average woman in the street in the first place. But even allowing for that, she has been pretty successful. Her products are sold in her own two shops and are also distributed in up-market retail chain John Lewis. She has also deployed her television skills in selling on QVC, where her appearances attract something of a cult following. The website is also very well put together with lots of information about the products and a blog where Liz herself sometimes posts stuff about what the company is up to. Customers can, and do, post their comments and opinions.
I have to confess that I have yet to try any of her actual products. But they are talked about a lot on-line. They seem to be well regarded by people who use them. Looking at the ingredient lists there is nothing much to distinguish them from other premium products, but the price point is not at all outrageous so I have concluded that they must be reasonably good value for money.
One interesting feature is that they are very fond of using parabens as preservatives. This runs counter to what a lot of consumers want, but they justify their use on the website. This is courageous, and even if you disagree you should respect a company that stands by what they believe rather than following the latest trend.
But the plain fact is that Liz Earle is not a game changing disruptive influence in the way that Anita Roddick was. The Body Shop was always in the news for all sorts of reasons. Although in the end the Body Shop became incredibly profitable and Anita Roddick was able to sell it for a huge amount of money, there were many times in its history when its demise was being confidently and credibly predicted. The commitment to non-animal tested and ethically sourced raw materials proved to be hugely popular in the end. But it was far from obvious at the time that this would be the case.
The initiative came from the personality and belief of the founder, not from market research. Anita Roddick was an outsider who created her company from nothing. And not only her company, but a whole new category of product.
Liz Earle is not cut from the same cloth. In all fairness, she has never claimed to be. Liz Earle the company is an effective business run to make a profit. There is of course nothing wrong with that. Looking at the general state of the British economy we could do with a lot more like it frankly. But it does mean that the impulse behind it is financial not ethical. The recent sale to Avon for an undisclosed sum has made this pretty clear to everyone who takes an interest in the beauty business.
The reaction has been interesting. For a start there was a lot of comment on the forum on the Liz Earle website itself. There was a fair bit of support for the move, but some posters were far from happy and there were some lengthy and well thought out posts criticising the sale. There were over 200 comments at the time of writing this, and Liz Earle deserves credit for leaving them up.
But a lot of people are clearly disappointed at the discovery that their idol has been an owner-operator of feet of clay for a number of years. And the bad vibes have spread. There was an interesting post on the (highly recommended) British Beauty Blog complaining that Liz Earle were buying advertising on Google linked to the keywords ‘organic skincare’. The Liz Earle offering has never been organic.
I can see the logic that the marketing people at Liz Earle were following. People looking for organic skin care products are quite likely to be interested in non-organic products that are natural. So organic consumers are a valid target market. The other thing that this Google strategy does is associate Liz Earle with the organic market in people’s minds. This is what marketing types call ‘positioning’. You see the same thought process going on when glamorous perfume brands fight tooth and nail to stop Superdrug stocking their products. And presumably it works in terms of actual sales. If those adverts weren’t generating sales there would be no point in continuing to pay for them.
The trouble is that although this approach works if you think like a business person, it doesn’t work if you think like a human. British Beauty Blogger felt that she was being misled – as indeed she was. This is how it probably sounded in the sales meeting.
‘Our products have a strong natural image so if we position them alongside pure organic products there should be a lot of crossover from organic consumers, who represent a growing segment of the market.’
I have a feeling that people who buy organic products don’t really think of themselves as a category of consumer. They think that organic products are made with genuine natural ingredients that have a beneficial quality that synthetic ones don’t. It isn’t a lifestyle choice – it runs a bit deeper than that. They aren’t making a purchasing decision, they are trying to live according to their philosophy.
The whole green movement has grown out of a suspicion that our modern lifestyle is neither natural nor sustainable, and can be harmful. What the committed organic consumers are looking for is a bit deeper than just using a few organic raw materials in an otherwise standard formulation.
People don’t trust brands anywhere nearly as readily as they trust people. Liz Earle the company’s biggest asset was Liz Earle the person. She is good on telly which brings her to the attention of a lot of people, and also is good at writing so she can knock out books and articles. So she is able to establish a lot of credibility and connection. It is much easier to trust a product made by a woman you have seen and know exists in the real world. I don’t suppose anyone has any idea where say a Radox foam bath is even made let alone who might have been involved in its creation. (If you are interested it’s Slough.)
And this is why I think the sale to Avon has caused such a stir among her most loyal customers. They thought they had a special relationship with a person who shared their values. In fact Liz Earle the company is smaller than most high street brands but its values, like its products, are perfectly okay but are simply nothing special or different. The formulations are good and represent reasonable value for money. But they don’t represent some overarching philosophy or commitment to a particular world view in the way that Anita Roddick’s products did (at least in the beginning).
Yes they use natural ingredients, but not at the expense of functionality or economy. And looking at the ingredients that they use and comparing them to mass market brands, there isn’t really anything that is distinctive about Liz Earle products. The chemists employed in their labs seem to be pretty good – I don’t know any of them personally so I am not flattering my friends here – but they obviously draw from the same set of brochures that we all use. The naturalness of the products is supported by the materials they use to some extent, but even so it is mainly the marketing that positions them as natural. The use of parabens I have already referred to is a case in point. Parabens are safe, effective and cheap, so there is no reason not to use them. It might alienate a few customers, but they have no doubt done the calculation that the cost of reformulating and the higher cost of a more natural preservative system is not justified.
So that is what Liz Earle is. It is a business motivated by profit. The products are good, the customers are satisfied and the bank balance is healthy.
I am not in any way critical of any of this. In fact I would go further, by the standards of the beauty industry Liz Earle is one of the more ethical ones. The website discloses a great deal of information about the products allowing consumers to make an informed choice. They don’t commission advertising that plays on women’s insecurities about their appearance.
The only thing that is a bit suspect is the way they position themselves as being more natural than they really are, but even in this they are only as bad as many others.
The marketing departments of all the big cosmetic corporations are doing what marketing departments in big corporations are supposed to do. Finding out what people want and giving it to them in a profitable way. They are quite happy to sell you the sizzle rather than the sausage. If that means promoting a skin care product so it looks more natural that it really is, well that is just how the marketing game works.
So that is how Liz Earle products end up in your Google search for organic skincare. It is dishonest, but not in an obvious way. Certainly no laws are being broken. Most people simply never notice what is going on.
I suspect that the vast majority of Liz Earle customers will neither know nor care about the takeover by Avon. The products are not likely to change much if at all. The people who are disappointed by the sale feel let down by the way it nakedly reveals the kind of company Liz Earle has always been, which is one that at the end of the day has always been about turning a profit, not making the world a better place to live in. She’s not the Messiah, she’s just a naughty marketer.
Update: Someone has pointed out to me that it wasn’t Liz Earle’s husband but her partner who was a hair care marketing executive. I think I was caught out by the modern way of referring to one’s husband or wife as a partner.