Customer first, not business first

The Body Shop has recently readdressed how it interacts with its customer base
Gemma Butler

RETAIL conditions across Ireland have been difficult.

Footfall across the high streets in Northern Ireland for instance saw a drop of 7.3 per cent during the spring of 2018, the region's worst performance for retail sales since 2015.

This downward trend is forcing key high street brands to change and put the customer's needs first rather than the business. The Body Shop, which was a mainstay of high streets in the 90s has recently readdressed how it interacts with its customer base.

Known for its social activism, which began with a joint anti-whaling campaign with Greenpeace in 1986, it was bought by L'Oréal from founder Anita Roddick in 2006. In 2017, L'Oréal sold up to Brazilian multinational Natura, which also owns another cosmetics specialist that emphasises its plant-based ingredients.

Under Natura, The Body Shop is rediscovering its activist roots. This shift in ownership certainly seems to have helped The Body Shop return to its founding principles. It is not just taking on that heritage – it is building it back into the brand and making it a core part of its offering again.

As well as launching new products that have been well reviewed on social media, The Body Shop has now pledged to turn its high-street stores into ‘activist hubs' that fully integrate its ethical stance. Confronted with the growing threat from online retailers, many bricks-and-mortar store owners recognise the need to differentiate themselves. There's a risk in focusing on in-store experience above product sales, because this can be an expensive investment, but if you can tie the experience back to your product, you'll be in a much stronger position.

That's exactly what The Body Shop has done and, despite increased competition from the likes of Lush, it is now poised to reclaim a prominent place in town centres across the UK and Ireland.

If you take a wider look and consider how larger retailers like the major supermarkets have changed it's even clearer.

After five years at the top, Aldi and Lidl have been split as the top two in YouGov's 2018 Brand Index rankings. The German discounters had taken the top spots for each of the last four years but, while Aldi is number one for a fifth time, Lidl has been overtaken by Netflix and It's clear the supermarket pair are still a great example of the value of strong customer relationships. They don't have dedicated customer loyalty schemes, but they have been transparent, consistent and, crucially, keen on price.

The most interesting trend from the new rankings is that the brands with the four most improved scores are all transport firms. British Airways turned a negative 2017 score into a positive, while Uber and United Airlines all showed strong signs of recovery. They had each suffered reputational damage for different reasons in the last couple of years, but they have all clearly recognised a need to change. Some have come further than others, and some still have a long way to go, but it's encouraging to see organisations such as these recognising that there is significant value to be gained in rebuilding customer trust.

It's clear that the brands that understand their customers are succeeding. In today's climate if marketers know their customer, understand their journey, and commit to keeping them – success will follow.

:: Gemma Butler is the marketing director at the Chartered Institute of Marketing

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