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Be Honest, Now

March 15, 2016

alba-1.jpgMy first problem was with the name. The Honest Company? Really? As if they’re the first enterprise, ever, to consider being open and transparent in their business dealings? What irked me was not just the smug self-satisfaction inherent in the moniker, it was the implied sense of superiority over the rest of the business world that the name communicates. What does this sanctimonious outfit sell, anyway? Baby supplies? Really? We’re getting holier-than-thou over baby supplies? OK. I get it. New mother and professional celebrity Jessica Alba can’t find products she’s willing to let touch her baby’s skin so she just had to start her own company. But were the products she did find so horribly mislabeled she had to name her business The Honest Company? Couldn’t it have been Jessica’s Choice or something? The problem with The Honest Company, as a name, is it sets up a brand promise that’s almost impossible to keep.

Any other company in the world – a company like Jessica’s Choice, for instance – could make a claim to use only non-toxic, hypoallergenic materials and easily survive if something were to go wrong. Should one product or another be revealed to contain an unwanted substance, it can be explained away as an oversight, a mistake, a misunderstanding, a quality control issue, whatever. There are plenty of scenarios that would demonstrate the company’s well-meaning innocence. Once the problem was corrected, the company would emerge relatively unscathed and could get on with its brand building.

But if you’re named The Honest Company and you have the same sort of issue, right away, your very brand promise is called into question. It’s not just that you promised non-toxic materials. You promised them honestly. So, if the products are toxic, you must have lied about them. And, if you lied about them, what does that say about the whole business model of a company called The Honest Company? How are we to trust you about anything ever again?

alba-2.jpgRight now there are two class action lawsuits claiming that The Honest Company’s laundry detergent contains sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), a substance that is on its published list of banned ingredients. There are other class actions pending, accusing the company of improperly claiming some of its products to be “natural” or plant-based. These latter suits are unlikely to succeed because there is still no legal definition of what “natural” means in product claims. And, to be fair, the company is defending its detergent, saying that the plaintiffs got the science wrong and the product is actually free of SLS. So The Honest Company, which is growing rapidly and planning an imminent IPO, feels it can weather its legal storms. But at what cost to their brand?

A business called The Honest Company can’t be satisfied with just winning its lawsuits. A business with that name can’t tell its customers they’re too dumb to understand the science. To save their brand, Honest will first have to apologize for its miscues. Chalk them up to growing too fast resulting in a slip in quality control. Then they’ll have to settle down and grow a little slower. They’ll have to make a big deal out of redoubling their quality control efforts. From here on out, they must always err on the side of caution, eschewing any ingredient with even a hint of controversy, not just those that everybody knows are toxic.

They really set themselves up for trouble when they chose that name. Now they have to do whatever it takes to live up to it, even if it means they have to grow a little slower, invest a little more in quality control and make a little less money. But, at least they’ll make that money honestly. See related article on this page.

Best Branding Reads – Week of March 14, 2016

Jessica Alba’s The Honest Company in Hot Water Over Ingredient in Detergent
Honest learns that a brand emergency is like quicksand – struggling just makes it worse.

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