Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

We are born to be different from the rest: David Boynton

On his maiden visit to India as the CEO of The Body Shop, David Boynton opens his heart about the challenges faced by the ethical beauty brand in getting back its mojo since 2017, on his bullishness on the Indian market and why brands must have an emotional connect

Rajiv Singh
Published: Dec 7, 2022 04:07:27 PM IST
Updated: Dec 7, 2022 10:02:13 PM IST

We are born to be different from the rest: David BoyntonDavid Boynton, CEO, The Body Shop Image: Amit Verma
“The mother had died, but then the stepfather had sold us…” David Boynton poignantly sums up his emotion when he took over as the chief executive officer of The Body Shop in December 2017. It had been a decade since the iconic British cosmetic retailer was sold to French giant L’Oréal in 2006. Anita Roddick, who founded the brand in Brighton in 1976, died a year later in 2007, and after a decade, L’Oréal sold the brand to Brazilian ethical beauty retailer Natura. “We'd kind of become an orphan,” he recounts. In 2017, he underlines, the ‘mother’ wasn't there to tell what to do. Though for a good 10 years, the brand had a ‘caring stepfather’, it was not enough. “The stepfather wanted us to do well, but his other children were very different from us,” he adds.

Back in 2006, the sell-off shocked ethically-conscious customers globally. The Body Shop’s new parent, they argued, had a dramatically contrasting business DNA as compared to the British brand known for making ethical products, practising fierce social activism and championing environmentally-friendly practices. The reputational hit and the consumer backlash led to a steady erosion in sales and profits over the next decade. “Honestly, it broke my heart to see what had been going on in the previous 10 years,” says Boynton, who had a 10-year stint at beauty firm L’Occitane, and a brief stint at shirtmaker Charles Tyrwhitt before taking on the mantle of the CEO of The Body Shop. “It was kind of the dream job for me,” he says in a free-wheeling interview with Forbes India.

The beginning, though, was nothing short of a nightmare. The brand had lost its mojo, sales had plunged, and the core was missing. There was also a feeling of rejection. The CEO explains. “There was the sense that nothing we can do in the business is good enough, and will never please our owner,” he recalls. Though there was a blueprint and a business plan to revive the brand, Boynton figured out that it was not sufficient to rejuvenate the brand. “We really felt that we'd lost a connection with Anita,” he says. What disturbed him most was the fact that the founder was kind of airbrushed from the past of the brand.

The new CEO had his task cut out. Boynton went back to the purpose of the brand. “Why are we here? What should we be doing? And why do we deserve to exist today,” he asked his team and entered a soul-searching exercise. The move paid off. The brand rediscovered what it stood for,” he says. “The Body Shop exists to fight for a fairer and more beautiful world,” he says, adding that the brand had walked the talk over the last five years. The brand went back to its roots and rolled out refill programme at its outlets, partnered with an Indian NGO ‘Plastics for Change,’ which supplies PCR plastic from waste pickers in the country, and started activist makers workshop stores to offer an immersive retail experience.

Five years into his role, Boynton reckons that the brand has got its mojo back. Till 2017, and for a good 10 years, the brand developed a reflex that it needed to be like the industry. “But we were born to be different from the industry,” he contends. The thing that's important for the brand, he outlines, not just from a financial point of view, and other classical metrics of success, is that it has to have an impact. “We want to change the way people think about our industry.” While conceding that there are profit and loss (P&L), quarterly results and financial performance to manage, Boynton stresses that the brand would never lose its sense of purpose. It, however, doesn’t mean that business takes a back seat. “I'm in business. I'm not running an NGO,” he says on his maiden visit to India as the CEO in the first week of December. “It's just a spectacular country. We're so excited about potential here,” he says.

Edited excerpts.

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Q. India is your fourth biggest market. How do you see the business panning out over the next few years?
We're not a mature business in India. With 200 stores in a country and the size of this population, we've got a long way to go. So our belief and the business plan that we've been working on is that we're going to double the business in the next three years. So for that to happen, there's some structural building blocks about what we'll do in terms of store expansion, renovation, and bringing new products to the market. But we have confidence in the fact that the market is going to grow well.

Q. UK, your biggest market, is still facing growth pangs. Is India better placed to tide over the looming global recession?
UK is really having a crisis of confidence of its own. We'll come through it. The Brits are resilient. But we're feeling very confident that India will ride the storm.
Globally, it’s a really difficult economic environment. India is already great, but it's going to be greater in the future. But our biggest market is the UK, and it has been difficult over the last year or so. But I'm an optimist. I don't think you can be in an entrepreneurial leadership role without being an optimist. So I think in 2023 more people will be coming back to offices, we'll be rolling out more of our workshop stores, making the stores more experiential, more fun, and more new products will be hitting the shelves. Notwithstanding the challenges of the economic landscape, I feel extremely optimistic about 2023.

Q. It took you five years to come to India!

It's not my maiden trip to India, but it's my first trip for many years. I came in 2006 but the country is a very different place now. It's very exciting. Back then, especially after living in Asia, Mumbai was an absolute assault on the senses. It was very difficult for me to understand. When I came to Delhi, I loved the architecture, and it had a great feeling about it.

When I joined The Body shop in 2017, I had to prioritise where I was spending my time. Without flattering, they (our Indian partners) have been doing an extraordinary job for many years. And this was a priority market for us in terms of growth opportunities. But it wasn't a crisis that needed fixing. And there were crises that needed fixing around the world. So I focuss.ed my energy on going there. Now I am here, and am so excited about the potential.

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Q. Have your loyal consumers come back to the fold after L’Oréal sold the brand to Natura?
To be fair to that company, they tried really hard, and they spent a lot of money and there was a lot of passion. They're very smart people, and they do what they do really well. But what they do is different from what we do. And so it was the really important thing to recapture the essence of why are we here? And what should we do? And we have to be different from everybody. Yeah, that's what we were born to be.

Q. This September you rebranded your blockbuster skincare range Drop of Youth to Edelweiss, and shunned the language of anti-ageing. What was the trigger?
Lots of people said that I was crazy. But celebration of youth just felt completely countercultural to The Body shop. The brand stands for being comfortable in your own skin, whatever age you are. So why do we have a product that has youth in it? Everybody said, David, it's our bestseller. People looked at me and said it sounds good, but does he really mean it. As a leader, you cast a long shadow. You have to live up to the standard that you're setting for the organisation. I can't sit there as the chief executive and say there is a product that is not the kind of product which has values that are different from the values of The Body Shop.

So I had a discussion with the team and understood the key active ingredients in the product. They said, it's a combination of flowers, but the most important one is Edelweiss. I said, well, we should rename it Edelweiss. It's brave. Not many brands change the name of their number one product, but we did.

Q. For a brand like yours, how difficult is it to walk the tightrope of sustainability, ethical business and profits?
The way we operate business, it has three dimensions. We have a social impact, environmental impact, and we make money. But we have to do all three. We're not an NGO. And Anita was very clear on that. So we don't see it as a tightrope. What’s different is the way we do business. The thing that continues to inspire me is that we dare to be different.

Q. Your in-store refill programme is again a bold and different move. Apart from the environmental impact, will it also bring more people to the stores?
We've read many case studies over the last year or so where everybody said, there's a new normal, and the new normal is all online. And it turns out, guess what, that's actually not the case. People are social creatures. We'd love to interact with each other. We'd love to talk. We'd love to connect, share stories. You can't do that online. So stores have an important role to play.

It's up to us to give people reasons to come back to stores, which means experiential retail, workshop concept, playing and having fun with the amazing products that we've spent blood, sweat and tears over the last five years to create. And we believe it's going to come back and every quarter the evidence is that it is coming back, especially in India.

Q. But your brand still doesn’t cater to the masses in India…
There's a big enough market. It's impossible to deliver very high quality formulas, high performance, all the goodness that's packed into it in terms of packaging and social impact and yet being affordable for every single person in India. We know that's not the case. We have products that you can buy in our stores for Rs 250. We have one of the highest quality hand creams in the market available for less than Rs 400. So, from a value-for- money point of view, my benchmarks are very high. So the brand isn't for everybody. But we believe it's for a very big audience in India.

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Q. And you would still not play the price warrior?
We're not a mass brand. And we never have been a mass brand. And we feel the obligation to do the right thing to our supplier community and packaging for the planet. So there is a cost associated with that. We want to take a lower margin than some other brands. But we're never going to be in the mass game. We give people an opportunity to have very high-quality products with a social, ethical and environmental impact. It comes at a price that quite a large number of people can afford. We're not back in the days of 50 to 60 percent off every day. The challenge that you have with that is inevitably you have to cut corners and make compromises on your formulas. And we're just not prepared to do that.

Q. Why do brands need to have a strong emotional connect and story?

All good brands provoke love. But it's not enough to quite like it. That smacks of mediocrity. There has to be a passion. We are a brand that people get passionate about. The mistake that we'd kind of made in the preceding years was that we tried to appeal to everybody. And that's not what we are. The Body Shop is for people who care about what we care about. That's the story. If you care about social justice, beautiful planet, beautiful products that, then we're the right place for you. If those things aren't important, then you should go somewhere else.

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