Case Study: The Body Shop’s Ruby Ad Campaign

In 1976, when the cosmetics industry was making exaggerated claims about scientific advancements in skin care, Anita Roddick opened a store, The Body Shop, in a seaside town on the southern coast of England. Her product line, based on natural ingredients and age-old beauty secrets from Polynesia and the Amazon rain-forest, was a vast departure from the patented laboratory-created, animal-tested products that promised to stop the aging process, eradicate dark circles under the eyes, and otherwise correct a woman’s flaws. The products were plainly packaged, and they were not tested on animals and not promoted through extravagant advertising campaigns. Her company’s refusal to test products on animals, along with an insistence on non-exploitative labor practices among suppliers around the world, appealed especially to upscale, mainly middle-class women, who were and have continued to be the company’s primary market.

Body Shop Logo

Part of the secret of The Body Shop’s early success was that it had created a market niche for itself. The company was not directly competing against the traditional cosmetics companies, which marketed their products as fashion accessories designed to cover up flaws and make women look more like the fashion models who appeared in their lavish ads. Instead, The Body Shop offered a line of products that promised benefits other than appearance–healthier skin, for instance–rather than simply a better-looking complexion. During the 1980s, when The Body Shop dominated the niche it had created, it avoided the kinds of traditional marketing used by the more fashion-driven cosmetics companies. This ‘‘antimarketing’’ strategy defied conventional wisdom in several important ways: the company had no advertising agency, it did not hire fashion photographers to photograph beautiful women wearing its products, and it did not advertise in the usual women’s magazines. Instead, it relied on in-store promotions, including posters and educational materials that targeted its own customers, who then passed the word to their friends. This word-of-mouth approach, often regarded as the most effective form of marketing thanks to its built-in credibility factor, was augmented by a huge amount of favorable publicity generated largely by Roddick herself. Roddick was outspoken in her views on environmentalism and social justice, and in the 1980s her beliefs ran against the prevailing political and social climate in a way that appealed to her target market. One of the company’s best-known stands was its hard-line opposition to animal testing for cosmetics. It also instituted a Community Trade Programme, which attempted to find the company’s natural ingredients from grassroots cooperatives and other community-based groups, thus helping to ensure that the profits went to people in need rather than to exploitative subcontractors. The Eastern European Relief Drive, designed to fund orphanages in Romania, and the Brazilian Healthcare Project, which provided care for 28 villages in the Amazon, were other company projects having little to do with cosmetics and everything to do with building a positive image for its socially conscious customers.

These initiatives generated an ongoing stream of favorable press attention, and The Body Shop, along with the American ice cream maker Ben and Jerry’s, was hailed as a new breed of green, or environmentally conscious, business. As sales boomed, even the conservative financial markets approved of The Body Shop’s impressive profit picture, and a public stock offering in 1984 was successful. An expansion campaign followed. In 1988 the company entered the U.S. market by opening a store in New York City, and by 1997 the company boasted 1,500 stores, including franchises, in 47 countries. Antimarketing seemed to be smart marketing, at least as far as The Body Shop was concerned.


By the mid-1990s The Body Shop’s once invincible hold on its market began to loosen. Competitors, including The Limited’s Bath & Body Works, Crabtree & Evelyn, and Aveda, had launched their own lines of natural cosmetics, often through their own chains of stores. The resulting glut precipitated a market shakeout in which smaller, under-capitalized companies began to be forced out of business, and even the larger companies faced flattening growth curves.

The Body Shop found that, especially in the United States, its anti-marketing style was having difficulty in the face of much more aggressive efforts by its competitors. American consumers, long accustomed to being actively campaigned for by advertisers, were less loyal to brands than the English and were more apt to be tempted by new products, new brands, and new packaging. Gift giving–for Mother’s Day, Valentine’s Day, and other holidays–was important in the United States, but The Body Shop’s European management was late in realizing how great an impact this could have. By 1995 its profits from U.S. sales were falling, and as share prices responded to the disappointing profit figures, The Body Shop’s relationship with the financial community also became strained. In 1996, its 20th anniversary, the company faced a crisis that seemed to demand a new marketing strategy.

Advertising Strategy

In 1995 The Body Shop responded to its eroding market share by doubling its U.K. marketing budget while dramatically slowing the rate at which it was opening new stores in the United States. It also broke tradition by creating an in-house marketing department, something it had always resisted, and it named a marketing director and added marketing managers for individual product lines. In 1994 The Body Shop had hired the London office of the American advertising agency TBWA\Chiat\Day (since renamed St. Lukes), though only in a ‘‘marketing consultancy’’ role, and by the following year the company was poised to regroup its marketing efforts. At the same time The Body Shop was careful to back up its high, marketing profile with a series of initiatives aimed at convincing customers that the changes were more than just skin deep. These included a complete packaging redesign, a new hairstyling line, relaunches of the hair care and skin care lines, and several new fragrances. The company also announced a new direct home-shopping service and took its message directly to the American market with a 300-squarefoot show truck that toured selected cities with product demonstrations. And for the first time the company began to entertain the possibility of direct advertising at the local level in the American market. Ads began to appear, though not in any orchestrated media campaign and mostly in smaller alternative publications such as Mother Jones.

With these initiatives starting to take effect throughout 1996, the company was planning its boldest marketing effort yet, the ‘‘Ruby’’ campaign. Part of a broader ‘‘Love Your Body’’ campaign, the ‘‘Ruby’’ campaign in the United States began with in-store posters and an ad in Self magazine. In keeping with The Body Shop’s iconoclastic tradition, the company positioned itself squarely against an idea that had long dominated the fashion industry, the notion that there was an ideal beauty to which all women should aspire and that the ideal was decided by experts in Paris, New York, and London. The ‘‘Ruby’’ ad showed a redheaded, decidedly Rubenesque nude doll (hence the name Ruby) lounging luxuriously on a green velvet sofa. The headline had a blunt message: ‘‘There are 3 billion women who don’t look like supermodels and only 8 who do.’’ The concept was created in-house by a team that included Roddick; her husband Gordon, who was the company’s chairman; and Marina Galanti, the former international communications and media director for Benetton Group, the Italian clothing company known for its ads featuring social issues rather than clothes. In a U.S. interview with National Public Radio, Roddick described the setting of Ruby’s creation: ‘‘The girls in [British fashion magazines] are exactly what the media wants . . . they have no bodies, they’re too thin. They are passive. They are, you know, beaten up. So, we–three of us in my office–we came up with this broadsheet which was called ‘Full Voice.’ It was like a pamphlet on the body and self-esteem.’’ While working on the pamphlet, they found a computer image of a doll they altered, blowing it up to an ever greater size until it became the Ruby of the campaign. The Body Shop placed the image in 400,000 newspaper inserts, and soon afterward the campaign took off.

It was notable that, like the Benetton campaigns, The Body Shop’s new ad did not feature any products. It was satisfied to identify itself with a movement already well under way that held that a woman’s sense of wellbeing, self-esteem, and beauty should arise from qualities such as health and happiness rather than from external ideals. A company statement at the time proclaimed, ‘‘As the personification of The Body Shop’s commitment to self-esteem, Ruby is more than just an image; she’s a state of mind–strong, independent and informed. She doesn’t weigh her self-esteem against false standards. She loves her body and is true to herself.’’ Although this was an unusual message for a line of skin and hair care products, it came at a time when other companies were also making ads that questioned conventional images of beauty. In print ads for Freeman Cosmetics, for example, a woman was shown with her back to the camera. The caption asked, ‘‘How much do you need to see to know I’m beautiful?’’ An ad for Dove soap declared that its bar was ‘‘for the beauty that’s already there.’’ Even more blunt was a Canadian ad for Kellogg’s Special K cereal. Featuring a very thin model, the ad asked, ‘‘If this is beauty, there’s something wrong with the eye of the beholder.’’ But among the advertising campaigns in this trend, the Body Shop’s Ruby ad campaign was among the most provocative because it not only questioned the ideal of an exceptionally thin body–which most women could not attain–but also promoted a nude ‘‘size 18’’ doll as an example of beauty.

Concurrent with the ad, The Body Shop produced Ruby stickers, postcards, and refrigerator magnets for sale in its stores and installed 40- by 60-foot banners of the doll in 289 selected stores in the United States. Though by far the most noted part of the company’s new advertising initiative, ‘‘Ruby’’ was actually just one of a trilogy of issues-oriented campaigns that focused on body image, domestic violence, and aging. For the campaign on domestic violence, launched in October 1997, The Body Shop sold special whistles designed to call attention to what it had identified as another hot-button issue for women. The third issue, aging, with its natural tie-in to wrinkles and skin care, came closest to being a traditional product supporter.

These campaigns were supported by Full Voice, which, beginning as a broadsheet, was transformed into a company magazine. Produced in-house, the magazine was used to promote all of the company’s ongoing environmental and social causes. Its reasoned explanations of emotionally resonant issues fit well within the company’s overall strategy of appealing to the whole woman rather than just her body.

Target Audience

With its emphasis on natural ingredients and ethical processes, The Body Shop made it clear from the beginning that it was creating products for women who cared not only about their health and appearance but also about the environment. The company’s success, in fact, was built on its ability to blend a product line with an environmentally conscious philosophy, which was particularly attractive to the generation of women who grew up in the 1960s and ‘70s. These women saw the Body Shop as an ethical alternative to the beauty-at-any-price stance of the more fashion-driven cosmetics companies. But it was also an emotional appeal, one that promised customers that in buying its products they were doing something good for the planet. In its early years The Body Shop’s customers tended to be young middle-class women who could afford the extra expense that high-quality natural ingredients often entailed but who also bridled at the high prices attached to designer cosmetics. Over the years, as these early customers aged, many retained their ‘‘global’’ sensibilities, and The Body Shop continued to be a reliable source of products they could believe in. Beauty in the traditional sense as portrayed by other cosmetics companies was never a concern either in The Body Shop’s products or in its marketing. Thus, the Body Shop’s Ruby ad campaign, which questioned the ideal of a thin body for every woman, was consistent with the company’s long-standing principles. The campaign was also in line with another of the company’s beliefs–truth in advertising–which had strong appeal to its target market. If The Body Shop was not going to make exaggerated claims for its products, it certainly was not going to pretend that every woman could, or should, try to look like the extremely thin models that filled women’s magazines.

Advertising Outcome

The Body Shop’s Ruby ad campaign generated immediate attention both in the press and among the public. The New York Times and Good Morning America both ran stories, and the advertising press took note. Simon Green, creative partner at the advertising agency BDDH in London, wrote approvingly of the ad for the Independent: ‘‘Most women know that they are not supermodels, but there is no advertising out there that recognizes them for who they are without being condescending or patronizing . . . I’m not even in the target audience, but even as a man it makes me have more empathy for The Body Shop.’’ During the campaign the company reported a boost in sales in some of its markets, including a 12 percent sales increase in Australia and Switzerland.

Not everyone, though, was fond of the campaign. National Public Radio, which interviewed pedestrians passing by a Ruby poster in New York City, found mixed reactions. One person said, ‘‘I think it’s too bitterly honest. It looks kind of degrading.’’ Another pedestrian remarked, ‘‘It’s representative, but they could have made her look more appealing . . . put a slip or something on her.’’ Still another said, ‘‘It looks like a Barbie Doll that went wrong.’’ But others in the interview were impressed. ‘‘It makes you feel better about yourself,’’ a pedestrian said, reflecting one of the main goals of the campaign. The Body Shop, in fact, received thousands of calls and letters from women expressing gratitude for Ruby’s realistic portrayal of beauty–gratitude, the company hoped, that would translate into increased sales for its products. But Sean Larkins, corporate public relations manager for The Body Shop, said, ‘‘We don’t see profits as the be-all and end-all. We feel that business has a social responsibility to the self-esteem and well-being of its customers.’’

Reference: Encyclopedia of Major Marketing Campaigns. Thomas Riggs

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