Why do acquisitions so often make great brands turn bland?
Coverage of the problems currently faced by The Body Shop highlights several factors that are all too familiar when retail brands face administration. They shouldn’t be news to anybody – least of all to global companies – but they frequently are.
The Sun: “High Street chain The Body Shop on brink of closure after sales slump – so what went wrong for trailblazing brand?”.
The factors boil down to what happens when a faceless corporation takes over a distinctive consumer brand: all too often the things that made the brand unique are gradually eroded until the appeal has gone. Why do giant, experienced companies keep getting this so wrong?
Whether it was the charismatic figurehead, the proud activism or the sense of originality – all three in the case of The Body Shop – that made a retailer popular, the transition to being a distant arm of a giant conglomerate changes things. It brings in economies of scale, a less challenging stance, a broader appeal.
In other words, it takes a distinctive asset and makes it bland.
You need to be of a certain age to remember just how important The Body Shop was in its heyday. In the 1980s no shopping trip was complete without a visit to a branch, a rare beacon of environmentalism on high streets where stores were already increasingly similar. More importantly, the retailer was a brave outlier, fighting pluckily against animal testing, campaigning to Save the Whale.
The Body Shop was at the front of the queue to highlight the dangers of climate change, pushing to protect the ozone layer in 1988, to save rainforests in 1989. Figurehead Dame Anita Roddick would stand up to multinational oil companies, and rail against entire countries, to do what she thought was right. She would appear on news bulletins and documentaries from distant trouble spots and danger zones.
This translated into a fierce loyalty from customers, who fully supported the brand’s campaigning stance. For them a resistance to what they felt was wrong was what The Body Shop was all about.
The Guardian: “I would mourn The Body Shop – it was a gateway to politics for animal-obsessed teenagers like me”.
“The shopping experience was one of living your values. No, it was better than that – you walked out smelling of your values,” writes Zoe Williams in The Guardian. And for many people that was exactly the point of The Body Shop.
But without a figurehead to guide it, The Body Shop’s commitment to specific causes lost steam. Its campaigning lost its edge. Watered-down versions of its environmental commitments appeared at rival brands everywhere, taking away its unique selling point. The chain failed to recruit, or create, a new generation of ethically-minded consumers.
A series of corporate owners shied away from controversy and distinctiveness – factors that are great for a dynamic founder but scary for shareholders – making The Body Shop just another shop on an increasingly quiet high street.
Big corporations always seem to chase after the excitement, creativity and originality of independent companies… only to smother it. If they can’t find a way to introduce some ‘hands-off’ investment into these brands, they will remain destined to kill the golden goose.