Liz Earle – She’s not the Messiah she’s just a bit of a naughty marketer

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.

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15 thoughts on “Liz Earle – She’s not the Messiah she’s just a bit of a naughty marketer”

  1. Pingback: Liz Earle sells out to Avon | Colin's Beauty Pages

  2. Very interesting article. I agree with your assessment of Liz Earle and she is clearly a clever business person. The one problem that I have is that people like Liz that use misdirection as a marketing tool muddies the water for the companies that prefer to use ethical marketing. There is a lot of hype about organic products and products that are marketed as organic or natural without actually being either. This hurts the organic beauty product market and creates a lot of mistrust within consumers.

  3. Actually I have to disagree with some of what you’ve said here. As a Liz Earle customer for many years on and off, my allegiance to the brand is just because “it works”. Any forward thinking company aligns their Google campaign to its competitor markets and I doubt very much whether Liz Earle herself is quite so calculating to consciously be pretending that the brand is organic. If anyone has ever watched Liz on QVC on the many years she’s been there it has always been about the product and the fact that the product works and uses natural ingredients wherever possible. I’ve heard her admit live on TV when there have been non-natural ingredients in something myself. I think this view is pretty harsh and there are many other companies and people which set a much worse example. To call her a naughty marketer is really off I think. I’m a former marketeer myself and I have a business myself so I’m not some uneducated numpty and nor do I have any allegiances either way. I can’t say I’m not bothered with the sellout to Avon, indeed this is the first I knew of it, but my only concern is that ultimately the product ingredients will change and I kinda liked having an exclusive product on my shelf that actually worked. But good on Liz for selling up, maybe articles like this cheesed her off enough to give the dream up in the end. I’m sure if a big name like Avon came along and offered me a giant wedge to buy my company I’d bite their hand off too. At the end of the day we all have to put food on the table and unfortunately people forget that business owners are just there to make a crust for the family like everyone else. I just hope Liz takes her big payout and does start an organic line – something I think is not too unlikely considering her views and philosophy.

    1. Thanks for a very eloquent and well thought out response Nikky. I wrote this article a long time now and I have had to reread it to make sure I hadn’t been too harsh on Liz Earle. I think I stand by what I said last year, and more so with the benefit of hindsight. I am reasonably happy that I have treated her fairly. In fact comparing your view of her with mine, I don’t see a huge difference. I was responding to blogs that were criticising her marketing, and I think I did make it clear that the marketing people responsible for the Google ad campaigns would probably see nothing wrong in what was being done. As a marketer you don’t see anything wrong either. There is nothing wrong with marketing per se. The thing is it is simply a process. A good marketer can apply their techniques to selling anything. Someone who has deep rooted beliefs and principles and who acts on them is not a good marketer, they are a prophet who is bringing a message to the world whether the world is ready for it or not.

      I doubt very much indeed that the sale to Avon had anything to do with this blog post or any other – everyone gets criticised on the web. The first time my name appeared on the internet was someone giving a talk I had given a bad review. I very much doubt Liz Earle is even aware of the existence of this blog. And I will be astonished if she starts an organic skin care company.

  4. Hmmm…was it this blog post being mildly critical or the $160million cash that persuaded Liz to sell up? I think perhaps the money had the greater effect!

    Don’t think Liz uses parabens anymore in her products – certainly the newish Superskin range uses phenoxyethanol. Just goes to show that she never really believed that parabens were the safest preservatives out there, she just defended them until she had time to reformulate with an alternative.

    So Liz Earle is no Anita Roddick. But then Anita Roddick was no Anita Roddick either – especially when it came to the products. Body Shop products were indistinguishable from mainstream cosmetic products – yes, they used some natural ingredients and they sourced them from fair trade sources, but they were your standard propylene glycol & paraben moisturizers that you got from L’Oreal, Eve Lom and…Liz Earle (until recently!).

    I wonder how Liz Earle will handle the animal testing question – there were calls for boycotts of Body Shop after L’Oreal’s purchase because although no-one expected Body Shop to start up animal testing, they still thought they would benefit from the ingredients research done by its parent, some of which came from animal testing. Liz Earle has a similar problem with Avon.

  5. Today Avon has been forced to remove from their own website that they do not test on animals. Uncaged made a formal complaint to the ASA stating that they are in direct conflict with the statement and that Avon have resumed animal testing. I have always known that Avon were all smoke and mirrors with animal testing and have point blank refused to buy or even use their products for years. When Avon bought Liz Earle my heart literally sank. I feel that Liz and Kim have sold their soul to the Devil for five pieces of silver so that they can make a few million. Had Liz and Kim remained firm and stood alone then they would have continued with a firm following and have grown it. If they needed external committment then outside investment corporations would have probably bought the company with ongoing funds in seeing the firm grow. Today I have ceased purchasing any Liz Earle products. The money which she generates goes directly back to Avon’s coffers and I will not nor will I ever have my money go to supporting animal cruelty. Liz Earle made a massive mistake in allowing Avon to buy their company and it is something they will regret – if they alreday have not done so!

  6. I would like to thank you Colin for your blog “Liz Earle She’s not the Messiah”…..and the Avon and Animal testing link.

    I am a Liz Earle customer and I purchase through the shopping channel QVC.

    It seems to me that she is indeed a (naughty marketeer)! Liz and her colleagues appear on the shopping channel on a regular basis and there has been no mention about the Avon buyout!!!! in fact it has just been business as usual…..shame on QVC too!!!!! The brand Liz Earle and The brand Avon for me just seem worlds apart……so much so, the very fact that she has sold out to them seems that no thought went into who’s name her baby would be associated with in the future!!! and therefore one can only come to the conclusion that the big bucks were the only reason for the sale…..

  7. I was a fan of Liz Earle products for quite a few years,as I believed the ‘Hype’,about Natural Ingredients,that is until I started becoming interested,in exactly what these, so called Natural Ingredients were. I was stunned to discover,hardly anything was Natural,let alone Organic! I even questioned the Liz Earle Company direct,about this dishonesty. they assured me,their ingredients were as ‘Natural’,as they could be ie. Parabens were harmless,etc.etc. Needless to say,I do not use the products anymore,prefering 100% Organic for my skincare. I am still very disappointed that she has sold the Company to Avon. It just goes to show,’Money Talks’.

  8. How annoying, I’ve been a AVOn rep, left as sick of made in Poland products, I have been searching for a new skincare products, called Liz earle helpline to check their products are made in the UK and the lady confirmed they were, and now I see they are now part of AVON……arrgh……..well at least if they are made in england and they work I will continue to purchase.

    1. @RFH The last time I heard, the Liz Earle bit is still running as separate business with their own manufacturing and lab and much the same people as before. Big multinationals do as they please, so there is no knowing what the future holds but everything looks okay at time of writing.

  9. Eric Worsthorne

    Interesting comments and views – fyi I have just been interviewed for a role with LE on the supply chain side – specifically tasked to cut the cost of manufactured product sold by the company. The job spec was as follows…with spelling mistakes…

    “1. Identify and deliver cost saving targets ensuring appropriate sourcing strategies and policies in place to maintain an appropriate supply base, with key stakeholder buy in, and to ensure continuity of supply to LEBC to required service, quality and cost targets in line with agreed KPI,s
    2. Own and manage tactical sourcing relationship and development with identified key suppliers, including commercial negotiation, and continuous improvement opportunities, with particular emphasis on reducing cost whilst ensuring service and quality levels are maintained

    3. Work cross –functiionally to help achieve strategic objectives and to devise a robust costs savings program that achieves buy in and validation from Executive team.

    4. Manage cost of goods and other assigned cost centres whilst meeting or exceeding targets.”

    So basically cut back on costs with a big big axe…having done some research (thanks for the site btw) they have basically morphed into a huge American company who want to use the LE USP to push their own cheap, low cost products onto the market.

    You can already see the difference in primary packaging on the new product ranges – plus of course the whole 400 angry comments from loyal customers who appear to be on the verge of going all burning torches and pitchforks and invading the Isle of White to overthrow the abomination.

    Apparently they also had a cull of staff in December too…so if anyone out there is looking for a Supply Chain/Procurement specialist in Cosmetics/Pharma…

  10. I am 49 years old. I have no strong preference between natural and synthetic facial products. At this age I am not convinced that using synthetic facial products will be detrimental to my health although there is always the possibility that I could be wrong about that. I have used The Body Shop facial products for 7 or 8 years and I have been very pleased with them. In Dec. 2013, I began using the Liz Earle facial products simply because I wanted to try something different. Reviews that I read were positive enough for me to give them a try. After 7 months of use, I have been extremely impressed with the product results. My face is cleaner after each use of the products, my skin appears more flawless, and I have noticed that fine lines are not as prominent. Taking care of my face is a big priority of mine so, as far as cost, I am willing to pay for a facial product that I feel is beneficial to me. This review is simply based on personal observation, not professional research. I hope it is helpful.

  11. I always bought liz earle when products were described as organic after Avon became involved this word was dropped. I am sure the products have changed as I had reactions to them. Recently I received a gift set I am unable to return it as I do not have a receipt as proof purchase. I have tried it once again but still I find it rubbish compared to the original liz earle. I will never use this again. Why is it kept quiet this is avon.

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