When I was growing up, Boots the Chemist was a retail stalwart of the British high street. Every Saturday afternoon, my mum would take me ‘into town,’ and Boots, along with Marks & Spencer and WH Smith made up our itinerary. Before we ended up at the tea rooms for a chocolate éclair…
As a kid, I scoured Boots for birthday and Christmas presents. Occasionally I managed to sneak a quick spray of Chanel No5. I bought my first makeup there. And in my twenties, I started using their iconic Boots No7 range of cleansers and moisturisers. Boots was part of the landscape of my formative years, and my level of brand loyalty was high.
But as competition on the high street intensified and it became more convenient to use supermarkets for everyday products, I shopped less and less at Boots. With more disposable income in my pocket, I started to shop at the department store, John Lewis, as it stocked the more premium brands I liked such as Molton Brown, Liz Earle, Clarins and Jo Malone.
When I did shop at Boots, I didn’t enjoy the experience as much. My memories were of a beauty haven with helpful, well-trained counter staff. Instead I encountered aisle after aisle stuffed full of products, and I found the experience overwhelming. These changes coincided with the £11bn takeover of the Alliance Boots group by private equity group Kohlberg Kravis Roberts and Boots deputy chairman Stefano Pessina.
When Boots ‘Went Rogue’
With a high percentage of its revenues from health services largely paid for by UK tax payers, the company was now loaded with debt – which paradoxically allowed it to shift profits out of the UK, and reduce its UK taxable income by an estimated £4.2 billion over a six year period. A firm that delivered an essential social service was now private, making it almost impossible for outsiders to see how it was changing. Meanwhile the profits made by Boots UK were used to repay lenders faster and ultimately leave more profit for its investors.
In April 2016, the Guardian journalist Aditya Chakrabortty wrote a detailed expose of how a business once dedicated to serving society’s industrial poor went rogue.
A Proud Heritage
Boots has a proud history, starting life as a tiny herbalist’s shop in 1849, catering for the city’s industrial poor at Nottingham’s Lace Market. Because traditional drugs were beyond the reach of most ordinary people, agricultural worker John Boot started making and selling herbal remedies.
After John’s death, his son Jesse assumed sole control of the business. Between 1883 and 1920, he turned it into a chain of more than 660 shops, employing more than 14,000 people. As Jesse got richer, he and his tough-minded wife Florence became increasingly interested in the welfare of their staff and society. When Florence discovered some poorer employees came to work without having any breakfast, she ordered hot cocoa to start the working day at Boots. Welfare workers were recruited to improve the health of employees, and Jesse took staff on day trips and set up sports clubs offering athletics, football, cricket, boxing, and gymnastics.
His rivals said Jesse would soon go bankrupt. But instead he embarked on a major advertising campaign in the local press, doubling sales within a month. He often worked 16 hours a day and each store reflected his brilliant style of salesmanship. Though not a pharmacist himself, he raised the professional standing of his stores by employing qualified chemists.
Over the course of its long history, Boots established a responsible brand reputation with deep customer loyalty, making it a health and beauty destination for customers focused on differentiated brands such as No.7 skincare and trusted private-label products as well as dependable pharmaceutical advice.
A Trusted Brand Reputation Lost
Fast forward to 2017, and last week Boots was on the cusp of a nationwide boycott following its comments to the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) about not wanting to lower its price for the morning-after pill, because, according to the chief pharmacist, it didn’t want to be accused of “incentivising inappropriate use.”
This led to a storm of criticism, including a Labour party letter, signed by Jess Phillips, Yvette Cooper, and Harriet Harman and 32 other female Labour MPs. Last year, an investigation by the European Consortium for Emergency Contraception found that British women pay almost five times more for the pill than their European counterparts. In France, it is sold for as little as £5.50; whereas in the UK, it can sell for up to £31.60.
In a letter responding to the BPAS campaign to cut the cost of emergency contraception, Boots stated:
We receive frequent contact from individuals who voice their disapproval of the fact that the company chooses to provide this service. We would not want to be accused of incentivising inappropriate use, and provoking complaints, by significantly reducing the price of this product.”
In other words, because some people disapprove of the idea of a morning after pill, all women should pay a lot more for it. The by-product of this pathetic excuse is of course that Boots are also making a giant profit off the sales of emergency contraception. If Boots is that bothered, why sell the product at all?
Boots’ ill-judged decision to make itself the moral arbiter of the nation would not be quite so galling if it hadn’t recently hired the writer and feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie to be the face of its own brand cosmetics. Perhaps Boots should take a look at her seminal essay ‘We Should All Be Feminists’ in which Adichie writes:
We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are… But of course, when the time is right, we expect those girls to bring back the perfect man to be their husbands. We police girls. We praise girls for virginity, but we don’t praise boys for virginity”.
This is what happens when a brand becomes removed from its heritage and doesn’t have a coherent and consistent set of brand values.
Here Come The Girls!
“Here come the girls, girls, girls, girls-girls,” was the anthem of Boots 2016 Christmas campaign. Good luck with that in 2017 because this girl won’t be shopping there any time soon. And I suspect a number of others won’t too.
Join The Conversation
Question: Have you boycotted a brand after being a loyal customer? What tipped you over? I love reading your feedback so please do take a moment to share how you’re going to use this in the comments box below.
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I’m Denyse Whillier, a Sussex and London based business coach and consultant. I work with responsible business leaders to build profitable and successful brands that do good, make money and help to change the world. I draw on Built To Succeed™, my proven success system, developed during my 8 years in the trenches as a CEO, to help my clients to achieve their goals.
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