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The Body Shop Goes Back to Naturals and Activism to Find Growth

More than 40 years ago, The Body Shop was a leader in natural and sustainable beauty products. Under new ownership, the brand has found itself again — and simultaneously discovered how to please the financial community.

The Body Shop is getting back into fighting form.

Under new-ish ownership by Natura Cosmetics SA, the once struggling business has gone through a period of reconnecting with its old scrappy individualism. That includes projects like collecting 8.3 million signatures against animal testing and delivering them to the UN, plus a plastics recycling and sustainability program in India. That brand of activism, which was at the crux of late Body Shop founder Anita Roddick’s business philosophies, is making a comeback at the newly anointed B Corp., which is now helmed by chief executive officer David Boynton. 

“This was a business that lost confidence in itself and what it was supposed to do,” Boynton told WWD during an interview at The Body Shop’s U.S. headquarters, a WeWork in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood. “If I could sum it up really, the big thing for the business is…me helping it to get its mojo back, frankly.” 

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Since he joined the company in December 2017, Boynton has presided over a period of both soul-searching and reorganization that has led The Body Shop back to both the core values of Roddick, with initiatives like refillable products and activism, while also heeding the dictates of the Wall Street community. Profit margins were up 250 basis points in the first half of 2019, on top of a 284 basis point increase from the prior year.

“We are seeing significant progress on margins and that’s…a combination of reducing discounts, reorganization, being more disciplined in terms of spending — so [the turnaround] is absolutely on track,” said Natura chairman Roberto Marques.

For its next act, The Body Shop is marrying its financial and philosophical goals.

The company is aiming to double its earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization by 2022, to between $120 million and $130 million, while increasing the natural-ness of its product formulations and raising its voice more loudly on the feminist and environmental issues it cares about.

“I am a passionate believer in conscious capitalism,” Boynton said. “If we want to do good stuff in the world, we’ve got to be a vibrant business.”

Right now, sales are around $1 billion, Boynton said, depending on the exchange rate. He said the 2022 target is sales “north of a billion pounds” [$1.23 billion, at the current rate]. 

David Boynton The Body Shop
David Boynton Mark Mann

To put the business on the road to recovery, Boynton had the team go back to The Body Shop’s roots in order to gain a clear understanding of the brand’s purpose. The six-month long process involved more than 100 employees, interviews with Roddick’s family and a 70-page deck. Boiled down, it became the company’s new mission statement.

“We exist to fight — and that word was important — for a fair and more beautiful world,” Boynton said. 

That phrase is now the company’s guiding light.

“I have worked with a number of founders. And the founders bring a beautiful clarity. It’s easy to make decisions because the founder built the brand and they can never be wrong,” Boynton said. “The challenge we had was that our founder wasn’t around anymore [Roddick died in 2007], so what could be our north star without Anita? We landed [on] this thing that just allows us to make better decisions — it’s this, not this — so that you can start to be much more confident about the choices you make as a business.” 

Boynton is an articulate veteran retail executive with an easy sense of humor who got his first big job running a London supermarket. He later moved on to spearheading L’Occitane en Provence’s development, rising to the post of ceo of the Western Hemisphere. During his decade there, he also held a series of senior management posts across Asia. Boynton acted as ceo of the London men’s wear brand Charles Tyrwhitt for a year. Then, he was recruited by Natura to spearhead The Body Shop’s turnaround, after a period of lackluster performance under L’Oréal ownership.

Some securities analysts were initially hesitant about the Natura takeover, but Boynton’s actions have helped change their tune.

“The Body Shop showed encouraging trends in both sales and profitability,” wrote Brazil-based Itaú Bba analyst Thiago Macruz in an August research note. S&P Global bumped Natura’s outlook to stable in 2018, citing in part, the company’s turnaround of The Body Shop (things have changed since Natura inked a deal to buy struggling Avon).

With the additions of The Body Shop and Avon, along with Aesop and Natura & Co., the company forms a global group of disparate but like-minded allies with different products and price positioning, and varying geographic strengths. Once the purchase of Avon is solidified, Natura is set to become the fourth-largest pure-play beauty company in the world.

The goal is for each company to retain its own history and identity. Marques calls it “autonomy with interdependency.”

“Aesop is more sophisticated, is more intellectual, is more premium. Body Shop is more masstige, is more activist, is a feminist brand. Natura is more the ingredients, it’s more the sourcing of the Amazon, it’s the biodiversity, it’s a Brazilian brand,” Marques said. 

Synergies exist, but are more about cooperation than cross-retailing, Marques noted. For example, a newly opened omnichannnel Natura store in Malaysia was opened with the help of The Body Shop’s franchisees in that market. “Natura would never be able to have the resources, the intelligence, the expertise on the ground in Malaysia if it wasn’t for The Body Shop,” Marques said. The Body Shop team was “advising Natura about what’s important for the Malaysian consumers.”

The Body Shop
The Body Shop Courtesy Photo

Other synergies include combining back-office functions and global procurement efforts — Marques called those “low-hanging fruit” — and potentially starting to manufacture The Body Shop soaps in Brazil, which would cut out importing costs and make them more affordable for consumers. Additionally, The Body Shop may glean insights from Natura’s expertise in fragrance and hair care that could be used for product development, Boynton said.

Product-wise, The Body Shop has big aspirations.

By 2022, the company is planning to have an average of 95 percent naturally derived ingredients across the product line. Right now, the percentage averages between 80 and 85 percent, Boynton said.

While The Body Shop has “an edge” when it comes to natural and sustainable products, it will need to do more to stand out “against the slew of competitors as sustainability becomes the rule rather than the exception,” said Hannah Symons, head of beauty and personal care at Euromonitor International. “Bearing in mind that efficacy is still more important for consumers than natural and organic ingredients or environmentally friendly features, The Body Shop must focus innovation on providing results-driven products that deliver.”

Since Roddick’s day, there has been an influx of innovative, young brands, touting “clean” and natural formula philosophies. The Body Shop now must catch up to the parade it started, Boynton admitted.

“We could have done more historically in that space and could have been more of a leader,” he continued. “But the agenda that we have over the next couple of years is incredibly aggressive.” Right now, the brand’s bestsellers include the Himalayan Charcoal Mask, White Musk fragrance and Chamomile Cleansing Butter, which has the potential to be bigger in more markets.

As part of the upgrade effort, Roberta Roesler, a senior level Natura executive, will take up the post of global director of research and development at The Body Shop on Nov. 13. At Natura, Roesler oversaw the implementation of new R&D centers, led the first lab and pilot plant in the Amazon forest and led innovation across categories.

The goal is not just to be more natural, it’s to elevate the formulations overall, Boynton noted, seemingly unfazed by the indie influx. “It’s not natural for natural’s sake; we won’t compromise efficacy,” he said. “What’s clean today is not necessarily clean tomorrow. The goal posts move so quickly on that stuff.”

There are other ways to win, he indicated. “If everybody’s playing in natural, we’ve got to keep challenging ourselves on textures, on formats, on products that are fun to use — maybe waterless, maybe packaging free.”

At The Body Shop’s new London flagship on Bond Street, an early stage of that experimentation is on display with refillable body wash. For 6 pounds, customers can buy body wash in an aluminum bottle that can be later refilled for 4 pounds.

The store concept, which Boynton noted will roll into 10 cities by mid-2020, also features a central zone for customers to play with raw ingredients.

Roberto Marques The Body Shop
Roberto Marques Mark Mann

“We have a sink — we didn’t have sinks before, which is kind of hard to believe in our industry,” Boynton said. The space also has a block of shea butter, which is meant for customers to get a sense for The Body Shop’s raw ingredients. 

Boynton, who tends to describe the task of rejuvenating The Body Shop as handling “many spinning plates,” also has an eye on the other product categories. For instance, makeup needed a clearer point of view, which was attempted at the new flagship. Skin care also needs updating, Boynton noted, adding that the category makes up more than 30 percent of global sales. “We will keep innovating and keep doing a better job in skin care,” Boynton said. Fragrance makes up 11 percent of global sales; makeup accounts for 8 percent. 

Cutting 30 percent of stockkeeping units — there were more than 1,000 when Boynton started — has been part of the plan when it comes to reenergizing the stores. “We had amazing products; nobody saw them because there were so many,” Boynton said.

Andres Estevez, an equity research analyst at Brasil Plural, gave Natura credit for “investing in the development of new products” to help create brand differentiation, which could help “link it with the young crowd.”

“The second thing they are starting is women empowerment,” Estevez said. “Power to women, femininity, and to be OK with your body and not to be hostage to global beauty.”

The biggest challenge for The Body Shop, according to Estevez, is to “get back customers’ appeal that was lost.”

With a history of pervasive discounting, The Body Shop now has “to convince their client that the product that they put on the shelves [is worth the price],” Estevez said. “Every time you passed through a Body Shop store, it was like 50 percent down, 40 percent discount.”

Boynton admits that discounting has at times distracted from The Body Shop’s message.

“We know that price and promotion — promotion in particular — has been part of the mix for us,” he said. “If the only thing you’re talking about is 40 percent off, how do you talk about ethically sourced ingredients? How do you talk about 95 percent natural? How do you talk about the social causes that you’re engaging in? How do you talk about community trade or forever against animal testing? There is just no space in the conversation.”

The demand for those discussions is global.

The Body Shop’s biggest market is the U.K., Boynton said, with strength in South Asia, such as Indonesia, and Australia. The business recently entered China through cross-border e-commerce with Tmall that allows the company to avoid animal testing, Boynton said. The Body Shop’s Tmall launch followed that of Aesop, which Natura used to test launching on the platform. For all brands, no animal testing has been paramount. “That’s why we are not in mainland China yet with physical stores,” Marques noted.

“It’s been a long process to get there because we had to be absolutely confident that there was no animal testing,” Boynton said.

In the U.S. market, where The Body Shop has struggled since Roddick’s day, the brand, which had a “very good Christmas,” is profitable. Boynton described the strategy as balanced, consisting of 100 retail locations, wholesale distribution through Ulta Beauty, and the brand’s own web site. The Body Shop would potentially consider opening more stores in the U.S., Boynton said.

“We think there should be potential to have many more [stores] than that if we can tell our brand story. Ultimately, you’re not coming to a Body Shop store necessarily out of need. If it’s a need, you’re going to go to a drugstore or you’re going to go to a grocery store. You’re coming because you’re curious about the brand and you want to discover something,” he said, stressing the need to amp up the experiential nature of the stores.

He also noted that in the past, The Body Shop may not have been certain of “which territory we were competing in, who was our competitor, how did we tell our brand story? Was it a giant, like [Bath & Body Works], or Kiehl’s?”

“In markets like the U.S. where we maybe haven’t punched our weight in the past, we think we have a great opportunity here because the people who could be buying our products in the U.S. very much care about the things that we care about, but somehow we haven’t found each other,” Boynton said. “The opportunity over the coming years is to make sure that the people understand actually what we stand for.”

To do that, The Body Shop is working on digital initiatives to acquire new customers and marketing campaigns that include influencers. “You can’t operate in our space and not be savvy and engaged with that world,” Boynton said. “We have microinfluencers, we do stuff with our store staff. We have a group called TBS Stars we are very creative in talking about product and we celebrate and amplify that…because we’ve got to get our message heard, right? So we need to connect with people that we know will want to hear our message. They haven’t been hearing us,” Boynton said.

Culturally, now is a great time for the 43-year-old company’s message to be heard, he noted.

The Body Shop
The Body Shop Courtesy Photo

“We really genuinely believe that there couldn’t be a better time for The Body Shop than right now,” Boynton said. “Activism feels more on top of people’s agenda than any other time since the Eighties. And that’s in our DNA — that’s our territory.” 

It aligns with the leanings of The Body Shop’s core customer — women, ages 18 to 35, who are “ethically conscious, engaged, aware of what’s going on in the world [and] typically college educated,” Boynton said. 

Those customers are the ones who need to buy into what The Body Shop is selling, noted Marques, who said he is excited by the “brand rejuvenation.”

“You need consumers to buy into the proposition,” he said, adding, “the team did a wonderful job on the new brand purpose…really almost bringing back the voice of Anita Roddick.”

He noted that early market reaction is “extremely positive.”

“This is now starting to cascade down in terms of new product development. New marketing campaigns and a new store design,” Marques said.

It was a long road to get there, though, and re-centering the business ideals has not come without hard, far-from-philosophical decisions. Since Natura closed on the $1.2 billion acquisition, The Body Shop has eliminated about 300 roles, closed 170 stores and cut about 30 percent of its sku’s. The company is now left with a business that has about 2,900 stores globally, about two-thirds of which are franchised; 900 employees, and about 700 sku’s.

The jobs that were eliminated were cut with the intention for the organization to have a more direct link to customers in any given market, Boynton said, noting that decision was the hardest one he’s made since he started in the role. “The organization had not been through anything quite like that. It was a really painful moment,” Boynton said. 

“Just prior to the acquisition, I went into stores and I just didn’t have a sense of Anita anywhere,” Boynton said. “When I’d looked at the recent history of the business, it was like we had become conformist,” he said. “We wanted to be like the industry. We weren’t born to be like the industry. We were born to be different.

“Anita set out to disrupt,” he continued.

After implementing big changes, Boynton now sees his role as creating “an environment of psychological safety,” he said.

“There’s a strong sense of purpose, certainly a sense of confidence in the business that’s growing. But it’s been a long time keeping our lights under a bushel. This is a big change for a lot of people, so it’s step by step,” Boynton said.

At the new headquarters, which was relocated from East Croydon to Central London, employees — including executives — are getting more in touch with one another. “We don’t have offices anymore. I don’t have an office, I just have a desk like everybody else,” Boynton said. “People are coming up to me and saying, ‘I just met three people that I’ve been in the same building with for five years. I didn’t even know they existed. I didn’t know they were in the company.’” 

This new spirit has summoned references to the founder. 

“We have seen, over the last two years, that there’s so much more reference back to, ‘Anita would have liked this, Anita wouldn’t have liked this.’ She has really become our muse and inspiration.” 

The word “fight” in the mission statement was chosen specifically for her, he added. “It could easily have been, ‘The Body Shop exists to create a fair and more beautiful world.’ We didn’t say ‘create,’ we said ‘fight’ because Anita was a fighter.” 

Boynton, on the other hand, seems to be a nurturer. 

Asked about the one thing he’d like to be known for implementing, he said, “The biggest thing is about giving this business the confidence back to be different. If I succeed, it is because I have been able to do that. This was a business that was not born to be like the industry. We will be successful only if we’re true to ourselves,” he continued, “which is by being different.”

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