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Can you be still be a success as a brand without social media, and how would you go about it? That's an interesting question, since British cosmetics company Lush has ditched Instagram, TikTok, Facebook and Snapchat due to ethical concerns. We quizzed digital consultant Sean Revell and online marketing strategist Sjef Kerkhofs on the matter.

The recently leaked documents that revealed that Facebook doesn't seem overly concerned with the well-being of its users was the last straw for cosmetics company Lush. With a fair degree of hullabaloo, the British firm announced its withdrawal from social media. An earlier attempt to say Instagram, TikTok, Facebook and Snapchat farewell had failed, due to 'fear of missing out'. But this time, it looks like the effervescent ball brigade really means it.

The statement: 'For decades, the data proving climate change has been ignored and downplayed. This is also the case with social media: its negative effects are hardly acknowledged. Lush has been positioning itself as a leader instead of a follower since its inception, and has therefore decided to make a stand right now, and not wait for others to see the seriousness of this problem'

Taking a stand
It's a super smart strategy, according to digital consultant Sean Revell, co-founder of Tacomi, a London agency for technical and creative online marketing. According to him, the company is primarily demonstrating that it is actually concerned about the well-being of its customers. "Lush is very much in touch with social issues that concern their target audience, and clearly want to take a stand to raise awareness about safety issues around social media. This decision will grant the company the opportunity to show what it believes in." Revell is also sure that the free publicity that this would generate has been taken into account, as the media have massively adopted the press release, in which Lush compares social media to dark, dangerous alleyways that the company does not want to lure its customers into.

Pinch of salt
"Window dressing,'' says Sjef Kerkhofs, an online marketing strategist and director of the Amsterdam digital agency Daily Dialogues, regarding the choice of companies to turn their back on social media. "It's often a nice PR story that in reality usually doesn't have a lot of substance. I think we should take the forceful words of many brands with a pinch of salt every now and then, including where it concerns boycotting social media. But that doesn't alter the fact that the discussion about a marketing policy without social media is a very relevant one."

But is that a real option, to remain maximally visible to your target group if you're not utilising the possibilities of social media? Kerkhofs doubts it. "In that regard, social media is simply too embedded in modern lifestyles, especially those of young people. But of course you don't have to be present on every single platform. The average young person uses multiple social media, with a high overlap between the channels. So you can easily decide to select the channel that feels the best fit in terms of privacy and security."

Alternative channels
According to Revell, the importance of social media for marketing strategies varies per brand. "This partly depends on your audience. Is there a mutual understanding? Do people really appreciate you being there? Do you add real value through the platform, or are you just there because your competitors are there?" If you have to conclude that your social media presence renders more disadvantages than benefits, he says, you're better off spending your time and budget on other channels, such as search engine optimization (SEO), paid advertising, e-mail marketing, and direct marketing.

It's still a gamble though, according to Revell. "A large number of people use social media to distract or entertain themselves. If a brand decides to leave these platforms, something or someone will always take their place. It's important to remember that once you've removed yourself from a landscape, it's hard to come back with the same reach. You won't know what you've actually lost until you make the move."

The Wetherspoon fan base
But we can learn something from the handful of brands that left social media and still remained successful, such as Tesla and Wetherspoon. The latter British pub chain turned its back on social media in 2018, but saw revenues rise by 7.4 percent the following year. "Of course, this may have been influenced by all sorts of factors, but we can safely say that their departure from the platforms did not have a significantly negative effect," says Revell.

Revell characterizes Wetherspoon as a physical brand that was already established offline before it became visible online. "They have a fan base that will continue to make use of their services, regardless of opinions online or on social media. This lends them a degree of protection, and reduces the risk of them losing turnover after they turn their back on social media platforms." According to him, this also applies to Lush.

Elon Musk - ultimate promoter

As far as Tesla is concerned, according to Revell, it is quite clear that CEO Elon Musk is the ultimate promoter for the brand. "Any budget spent on social platforms can be seen as a wasted investment. The fact that Musk personally has such a large online presence has helped create an interest in Tesla that no social brand strategy could match."

Controlling trend
According to the two experts, Lush won't be the last brand to speak out against the major social media platforms through a structural or non-structural boycott. "I expect that users and brands will expect and demand an increasing degree of control over the algorithms - simply from the perspective of control and privacy," says Kerkhofs. At Facebook, people are apparently already aware of this, since the platform is currently actively experimenting with a timeline in which the users themselves are more decisive, and the algorithm is less impactful in terms of what they are shown. Kerkhofs: "This is all part of the steps that social media, as a still relatively new channel, must make towards a more mature and safe marketing tool." Revell also thinks a trend will develop. "If Lush manages to move forward without socials, it could push other brands to do the same." Unless there is too much income at stake. "Would a brand that is seeing significant positive results from its social media activities opt to leave? I'm not convinced it would."

That makes Lush the exception then for the time being, as the Facebook and Instagram accounts alone had 10.6 million followers when the text 'Be somewhere else' appeared there.  According to calculations by the company itself, this could harm sales by more than 10 million euros.

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