It might sound unconventional, but beauty and books make business sense. That’s the thinking from Matt Fairhall, as he tells Julie Vuong how the retailer’s ambitions as a publisher and book club are taking shape
Anyone with a passing interest in the cosmetics retailer Lush may think of heavily scented soaps for young millennials. But the company, founded in Dorset in 1995, operating 930 shops in 49 countries, has got more than beauty and bath bombs on its mind.
Books are a key part of its strategy. Charged as publisher, Matt Fairhall is the man taking Lush into the literary world, leading its independent publishing arm and monthly book clubs. It’s at the company’s new London offices in Beak Street that we meet, soon after its inaugural sell-out book club featuring Katherine Arden and her debut fantasy novel The Bear and the Nightingale.
For all its corporate credentials (last year Lush featured in the Sunday Times 25 Best Big Companies to Work For and was named as the World's Most Ethical Retailer at the 2016 World Retail Congress), Fairhall is far from suited and booted. Laid back in style - dressed in Hawaiian shirt and jeans - he’s not programmed to talk stats and sales; rather he seems more at home discussing his favourite recent reads (The Muse by Jessie Burton - "I was transported to Andalusia") and what he’s eager to pick up ("Golden Hill by Francis Spufford!").
It’s this enthusiasm for the written word that has filtered into Lush’s overall strategy, originating from the release of its first title back in 2006 and taking off in earnest over the past four years since Fairhall’s arrival. Books and beauty may sound like an odd pairing, but he believes otherwise. "Books have inspired many aspects of Lush," he says. "Our founder Mark Constantine regularly quotes poetry to motivate staff, and some of our bestselling products have been inspired by our favourite reads - for example, the Starlight Bath Melt was named after Neil Gaiman’s novel. For us, it’s a natural fit." As in everything Lush does, it means business. A company that saw pre-tax profits rise 76% to £43.2million last year is angling for a significant slice of the publishing pie.
Fairhall is spearheading an offshoot of Lush that takes in two strands: publishing its own books, and bringing commercial bestsellers into the heart of its operations. As a top ethical retailer, it commissions titles that support its social campaigns. These include Danger! Cosmetics to Go by Mira Manga, detailing the rise of Lush, and The Sound Approach to Birding by Mark Constantine, a detailed guide to birdsong.
Fairhall concedes that not every company has the capability or desire to own its own publishing department, but believes the pros of going it alone outweigh the cons. "The reason? It gave us full control," he confirms. "I didn't want to see our books being flogged at discount prices; I would find it really upsetting to see all that work we put in reduced to a fiver." However, Fairhall has had to learn everything on the job - and fast. "Honestly, I think I was completely naïve," he admits. "I had no idea about distribution. Two weeks after finishing university, Mark hired me. I thought I could simply call up my local Waterstones store and ask if they would like to stock our titles. It was a real learning curve."
Buying into books - and a lifestyle
Big ambitions have been set for the Lush Book Club, the other side of the brand’s bookish arm. Held at its London headquarters with the author in attendance, it’s a showcase for Lush’s influence and ability to turn customers into readers. For the uninitiated: Lush has a fervent fan base, or "Lushies" as they are commonly known. They are ready to embrace any new aspect of the Lush experience - bathroom toiletries and beyond. The key demographic are tweens and millennials already tuned into social media, digital natives for whom brands sell more than just soulless products, but lifestyle choices they can buy into.
For Lush itself, the meet-ups serve as a way to connect with customers and to broaden its profile. "The first was held here at our London offices and hosted by books journalist Anna James," Fairhall says. "It was live streamed on Facebook and received 7,000 views. And that’s just the start; we’re considering other ways we can maximise our reach for future events."
A book club with global clout
Talking to Fairhall, it would be easy to think his publishing ambitions are purely altruistic, giving customers a space to meet like-minded people. But Lush is a savvy brand, one that clearly understands its position in the marketplace. Valued for its fun, creative stacks of bodycare bars, it’s also renowned for its ethics. A staunch opponent of animal testing, it donates to anti-fracking campaigns and pays its employees in emerging economies a fair wage.
The book club is curated in keeping with this philosophy: Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun, Chris Packham’s memoir Fingers in the Sparkle Jar and Yossi Ghinsberg’s Jungle come with the Lush seal of approval. "Social issues are important to us and this bears out in the choice of titles we promote internally within our office libraries and externally via our book club," Fairhall says.
"In truth though, I don't believe we need a connection in an obvious way. I think as long as it can inspire I'm happy with that. Neil Gaiman, Nina Stibbe and Matt Haig are popular among our staff and will translate well to our club."
Being an influential brand is not lost on Fairhall, and he is certainly aware that Lush’s ability to tap into a huge audience is appealing to publishers. "There is a great level of exposure the author receives, and it’s an opportunity for them to reach a new audience or target a particular crowd," he says. "Some people have asked me if our book club is just an easy way for publishers to rent out space; I never want it to be that way. This is a collaboration with the author and we don't just hook up with any book."
Social reading on the rise
Lush is not alone when it comes to brands broadening to book clubs, and this trend yields increasing opportunities for publishers. Traditional flagbearers including Richard & Judy are still going strong, while digital is allowing new formats to emerge. Titles selected for online groups like the WH Smith & Zoella Book Club, fronted by the popular YouTuber, or Oprah’s Book Club 2.0, which plays out on Twitter and Goodreads, are shoo-ins for explosive sales.
Instagram-led clubs are fuelling readerships, too: Belletrist (91,000 followers), curated by actress Emma Roberts and her friend Karah Preiss, and Our Shared Shelf by actress Emma Watson (175,000 followers) are filling timelines with the latest page-turners, and giving a significant publicity push to their chosen reads with every post.
Back to Fairhall: he is keen for publishers to get involved in his book club. "I'd love to talk to more companies about how we could work together," he confirms. "I’m looking at ideas for upcoming clubs, and attending book fairs and author events for inspiration." He is encouraged by the interest generated so far. "I’ve had Faber and other publishing houses get in touch, and now I'm getting sent proof copies; I feel like I've made it!"
The next Lush Book Club is on 3 August, featuring Matt Haig and his new novel How To Stop Time.