From a retailer’s perspective, Lush’s #SpyCops campaign had disaster written all over it from the moment it went live.

The story of the undercover policing inquiry is difficult and complicated to tell in a 10,000 word leaflet, never mind a window poster.

Simplistic marketing materials, open to misinterpretation, gave the impression the whole campaign was anti-police.

“I’d eat a lemon-scented bath bomb if the campaign had a positive impact on the bottom line”

Worse still, there was no context when it was unveiled. It was genuinely a bolt from the blue – or in this instance, a bolt about the blue.

Or as Jeremy Vine put it on Twitter: “I would not expect a seller of coconut & champagne bath bombs and lilac-scented leg scrubs to suddenly kick off about undercover police.”

There were no supporters, beyond the activists who were already advocates, lined up to tell Lush’s story.

When it turned out the leading police supporter turned out to be a local Dorset commissioner who’d been financially backed in his election by a Lush director donation, I probably wasn’t the only one shaking my head.

Within minutes of #SpyCops going live, social media was ablaze with outrage and I was not surprised.

Even Lush employees seemed unsure.

A serving police officer who was also a former Lush staff member disassociated himself from it.

Some stores never put the posters up.

Within 48 hours, it looked like they were all coming down anyway with overzealous pressure from ex-police officers as the excuse.

Hard questions

I have absolutely no idea from a sales perspective what it’s done for Lush, but I’d eat a lemon-scented bath bomb if it’s had a positive impact on the bottom line. Regardless of what people say about all publicity being good publicity, it’s just not true.

But it’s unfair to judge this on purely business terms.

Lush is a retailer led by a founder and team who aren’t afraid to stand up for what they believe in.

I’m guessing those are the terms on which Lush chief executive Mark Constantine is judging his campaign.

He’ll no doubt be proud that he’s put focus on an issue he cares deeply about – #SpyCops has got the story the headlines in a way traditional reportage has not been able to do.

However, the campaign raises wider issues about the responsibility of a charismatic leader’s personal beliefs and how they play out within the company they steward.

Launching a campaign, however well intentioned, that’s too far ahead of where even your own people are, never mind the public, was irresponsible and a mishandling of his responsibilities to staff.

It put staff, through no fault of their own, on the firing line last week as angry customers expressed their feelings towards the campaign, however much the team at Lush think it has been misinterpreted.

“No business can go further than its customers, staff and other stakeholders expect it to”

In organisations led by individuals with strong personal beliefs, it’s doubly difficult for senior management to challenge when they think those principles have crossed a line and may take a business off course.

Far easier to say: ‘The boss has spoken, it’s their business, we’re going to run with it.’

I’m certain members of the Lush team would have had misgivings about this campaign. That is why it was Constantine’s responsibility to ask himself the hard questions because those around him probably couldn’t.

I respect Lush’s position. It has the right to espouse whatever views it thinks it should. But it also has the obligation to think about the consequences for its own people, before it unleashes its next bath bomb.

Lush will get back on track. It’s a great business with many supporters. But no business can go further than its customers, staff and other stakeholders expect it to – especially when doing so puts a hard-won reputation in jeopardy.

To do so risks being scrubbed. Just ask Gerald Ratner.

  • Nick Agarwal is founder of Dixon Hill Consulting and works with retailers including Poundland. He is former director of communications for Asda in the UK and Walmart in the US