Retail

Beauty Store Lush And The Challenges Of (Nude) Shock Marketing

Observant fans of handmade bath and beauty products and cosmetics who shopped at Lush last week may have noticed something a little different in their shopping journey.

The products were the same — brightly colored, sweet-smelling oversized bath bombs, face masks that could double as dessert toppings, and a whole selection of all-natural, additive-free, minimally packaged beauty products.

The goods were the same — but the staff was … well, a little different.

Because last week, Lush employees weren’t only selling all-natural products — they were also matching the goods on offer and selling them au naturel.

Yes, last week, customers in many major metro areas — and the pedestrians on the streets outside their locations — were treated to the site of Lush employees stripped down to their skin but for their tastefully placed black aprons emblazoned with Lush’s equally subtle slogan: Get Naked!

And naked they did get.

All over America, at 12 p.m. sharp on the last day of May, many of Lush’s employees took to the streets in aprons, and only aprons.

Incidentally, the third most common stress dream in America is the one about showing up to work or school nude — so in a very literal sense, Lush’s workers actually spent a work day living many Americans’ worst fear.

Why?

Because as a brand, they are opposed to the overpackaging endemic to the beauty industry.

“Most of the plastic that has ever been produced still exists today, which is why it’s high time for businesses across all industries to take responsibility and present new generations of consumers with eco-friendly alternatives,” said Brandi Halls, director of brand communications for Lush.

And Lush, to force the issue, decided to bring attention to it in the most logical way possible — by stripping off their own packaging in the hopes that the sight of mass nudity in a retail environment will both inspire consumers to be more responsible — and remind them of the importance of a good all-over skin care regimen. A little over a third of Lush’s products are as packaging-free as the staff was last week.

“As a company, we tend to go all the way for causes we believe in,” Halls said. “If flashing our bums inspires consumers and industry to reconsider their packaging practices, then we’d say it’s definitely worth a few blushes.”

A few blushes — and also some photos with tourists; the occasional catcall from passersby who encouraged some staff members who only got partially naked by wearing boxers under their aprons to “take it all off”; and the sudden realization that their participation in this particular marketing stunt might be about to earn them viral status on YouTube.

“I definitely got a little nervous when I saw someone recording a video of this,” one employee told reporters, “and I realized that I might have to explain this to my parents.”

And those types of concerns have led to questions in the week since the viral marketing stunt as to whether or not it is fair or appropriate of Lush to ask its retail employees to actually come to work nude in service of a corporate cause.

“It’s pretty easy to see how an employee could feel coerced into this kind of thing — especially if they think that by saying no they are not living up to the brand’s high ideals. That is a very subtle, but very strong pressure to put on a worker,” labor attorney Brian Powers told PYMNTS.

Lush, for its part, maintains that “Get Naked Day” has been a long-running feature of life at Lush — it has been doing similar events worldwide for the last few years — and that participation is completely voluntary.

“There were no repercussions for any employee who did not wish to participate, and at any time that a staff member felt uncomfortable, he or she could choose to immediately stop participating,” Jennifer Graybeal, a Lush spokeswoman, told PYMNTS.

Graybeal further noted that safety was always the firm’s primary concern — and that store managers were instructed to end the event at any time “where it appeared things might be getting a bit out of hand — or if the clerks didn’t want to participate anymore.”

Critics, however, were unconvinced, noting that media reports and photos from previous years indicated that employees often most had an “icky” experience with being very publicly naked and that it is easy for marketing departments to come up with “edgy” social media-oriented stunts that require other workers to do the actually edgy part. One critic noted that Lush’s campaign bordered on “exploitation and sexual harassment.”

The consensus, however, is that Lush’s bare-bottomed employees — and the cavalcade of cheerful naked Instagram images they produced — were cuter than they were creepy; this is no doubt buttressed by the fact that very few employees themselves have complained about it. Also, edgy marketing campaigns are part of the Lush experience.

In 2011, one Lush employee hung herself from the ceiling for a window display, piercing her skin with giant hooks to protest the shark fishing industry. In 2012, the company hired a performance artist to endure force feeding and chemical testing in a store window to protest the plight of lab animals.

Still, it seems worth noting that the line between edgy and exploitative is actually fairly faint, and the team at American Apparel learned the hard way via going bankrupt that it is not so easy to win an audience back after a firm as crossed it.

This time, it doesn’t seem Lush has.  But it’s worth keeping an eye on, because brands that favor super edgy marketing campaigns have a tendency to cut themselves up on them by going just a little too far.

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