Holland & Barrett’s Ask Our Owls: a PR Success?

Most readers will already know that Holland & Barrett are currently running a promotion called ‘Ask our owls’, inviting customers to ask their specially trained staff about any of their products. If the staff member can’t answer, the customer gets a 20% discount. The month-long promo was launched on 9 June complete with one of these Twitter things #askourowls, thus providing, as this blogger put it, an open goal.

It was a sweet opportunity for the well-organised and gobby skeptics, who are waging a war on homeopathy ‘just because they don’t understand how it works’, to launch a…ahem..’spontaneous’ attack. (I imagine all you conspiraloon quacks reading this nodding sagely at this point.) The @Holland_Barrett twitter account was inundated with tweets and retweets by those seriously questioning their ethics, by those taking the piss and by those just gloating at how the H&B twitter account had been inundated with skeptics questioning their ethics and taking the piss.

Of course, the wisdom of H&Bs invitation to customers to engage with them via social media is being challenged. A lot of people are calling it a ‘PR fail’, even a “monumental clusterf*** of a campaign which will surely be referred to in the future as a case study in how not to use social media”. Perhaps.

On the other hand, H&B may be getting pwned on Twitter but the promotion only applies to in-store purchases. H&B sells a load of overpriced crap to a lot of simple-minded and self-obsessed people aka ‘the worried well’. Why, I’m a customer myself and I like a good discount as much as the next ageing hippy. I don’t follow H&B and wouldn’t have known about the promo, had it not been for all those skeptics I follow tweeting about it.

What do I lose by taking up what sounds like an attractively easy challenge? All I have to do is go to my local H&B during this month which, I’m guessing, happens to be a quiet time for sales, ask them something within the rules of the promo and – best case scenario – I’ll get 20% off the price of what I might as well purchase anyway now that I’m there but which would have sat unsold for weeks if I hadn’t gone.

So H&B can’t answer questions about evidence and defend selling products on the grounds that customers want them. So what’s new? H&B don’t market themselves as anything more than a company trying to make a profit. I’m not sure this ‘PR fail’, if that’s what it is, will have done them any harm.

H&B tweet

Anyway, a few people have asked me what response I got to my tweeted question about how many molecules of active ingredient were in their 30c homeopathic products. The answer to my question should, of course, be ‘none’. This is what H&B said instead of ‘none’:

We provide 5,000+ lines in-store, including many traditional and alternative therapies and specialist products like homeopathy

(Gosh, yes! I’d almost forgotten that I’ve tried some of their herbal products and they didn’t work for me either.)

Our customers ask us to stock alternative products, because many find benefits in using them for a range of conditions. We know homeopathy has hundreds of years of traditional use behind it, and while we also know its effectiveness is much debated in scientific circules, there are also NHS homeopathic hospitals in the UK. Because Holland & Barrett doesn’t manufacture of produce these heomeopathic rememdies ourselves, we suggest you visit Nelsons or BHA (links to websites included).

Obviously this is a hastily written standard reply intended to address questions of the ‘how the hell do you justify peddling identical sugar pills under different labels as if they had any kind of effect on anything’ sort.  Slipp Digby, who asked a different question, got an identical response, as did Martin Cleaver and, no doubt, countless others. They probably got a kid on work experience to draft it, which is why it contains the fallacious appeal to tradition and the way-to-miss-the-point-spectacularly comment about NHS homeopathic hospitals.

But my main gripe is that I only asked them about the ingredients of a homeopathic product and I anticipated an evasive reply like their last sentence alone. I didn’t ask for – and don’t certainly don’t need – another moronic defence of homeopathy, so stuff your 20% discount, H&B, I’ll get my molasses somewhere else from now on.

7 thoughts on “Holland & Barrett’s Ask Our Owls: a PR Success?”

  1. For your more conspiracy-minded readers I heard about H&B’s campaign via a tweet from one skeptic I follow to another skeptic I follow with the hashtag, which I then clicked on and the whole misfortune unfurled itself in the search timeline. There were repeated opportunities for me to have learned of it later had I missed that particular tweet. No need to organise anything, other than be following a few likeminded folk 🙂

  2. You’re right about the impact on the stores and their core market – probably virtually none! But hopefully the kicking H&B got on twitter will make them think very carefully about how they use social media or when trying to market beyond their established customer base in future. They can expect to get challenged.

    “H&B don’t market themselves as anything more than a company trying to make a profit”

    I respectfully disagree with you on this completely! I think the very reason so many people gleefully jumped onto the askourowls twitter hashtag was precisely because of the way Holland & Barrett do market themselves.

    As a reminder the aim of the campaign was

    “…to demonstrate Holland & Barrett’s USP of considerable staff expertise, endorsing the fact that every Holland & Barrett store within the UK has had an officially qualified associate to give advice on all own label supplements, vitamins, healthy foods and weight management products”

    which ties in with their core business values

    “Our commitment to training means our customers can confidently have access to clear concise information to help them make informed choices about the products they may want to include in their nutritional supplement regime.”

    To be clear I have no issue with H&B making money (I run an SME myself, profit is great!) but is there not a fundamental conflict in marketing yourself on trust, knowledge and the notion of ‘informed choice’ and offering products like Noctura while telling consumers essentially to do their own research?

    A minor point, rant over!

  3. Your question as to ‘how many molecules of active ingredients’ are present in the 30c remedy, was, as we would say in my part of the world, ‘taking the piss.’ I am sure you knew, even as you asked, that they did not have that answer and cannot have that answer because that is not what Homeopathy is about.

    However, just because modern science at this point in time does not have the knowledge or expertise to understand how Homeopathy works and because the knowledge is limited by the materialistic and mechanist mindset of modern science, so they are not able to even approach it objectively, really has no impact on Homeopathy as a healing methodology.

    Homeopathy, much to the chagrin of the nay-sayers, is the fastest growing medical methodology in the world. And there is a very simple reason for that: apart from the scientific fundamentalists, most human beings actually don’t care about how something works – they only care that it does work. And Homeopathy demonstrably works.

    Combine that with it being vastly cheaper to produce and administer, it is little wonder that it has taken hold in a country like China and is growing even more quickly in the Third World than the First.

    The strident ‘chatter’ from those who seem to have a visceral response to a medical methodology which heals and does no harm, unlike Allopathy, or modern medicine,is really just background noise in a world where there is much suffering to be alleviated and ready acceptance of healing methodologies which work.

    In the best of worlds anyone who seeks to be treated for dis-ease, major or minor, should have access to any and every healing methodology and I have no doubt, given the growing area of Integrative Medicine, that they will. This is an area which is growing particularly strong in the US although the resistance to non-Allopathic medicine has been greater there in the past 100 years. Prior to that, all American Homeopaths were doctors, and Traditional Medicine was utilised just as easily as it still is in Europe.

    The Europeans have always been more open-minded to Traditional Medicine and have resorted just as easily to Homeopathy, Herbal, Nutritional and some, TCM, as they have to Allopathy. The British used to be but for some reason the fanatics have gained greater power in recent years and acceptance has diminished. However, it is easy enough for the British to travel to more enlightened cultures like Ireland, Scotland and Europe to get the treatments they desire.

    The Asians, Africans and Indians have always been more open to Traditional Medicine and remain so. And for what it is worth, many of the earliest missionaries working in Africa took and use Homeopathics – and still do. Australia and New Zealand have never been as controlled by corporate medicine as the US was and as the UK now appears to be and so Traditional Medicine, including Homeopathy, has been and remains popular. In Australia Homeopathy, Acupuncture, Naturopathy and other Traditional methodologies are covered by private health insurance.

    So it is all fine actually and no amount of words or ranting will change the growing strength of what is called CAM, but is really just other fields of Medicine – all of them older and actually in terms of how they see the human body and illness – wiser.

  4. Thanks for your comment, SD. I was reminded of it when I read this interesting blog. http://www.skeptical.gb.net/blog/?p=4148 which makes a similar point.

    I don’t see how claiming staff have the expertise to advise on the products they sell, undermines my point that they aren’t pretending to be anything more than a profit-making company.

  5. Actually, you the “20% off your purchase if we can’t give you an answer” only applies to H&B branded products. Asking a question about Nelsons 30c homeopathic products wouldn’t qualify you to earn a 20% discount if the staff couldn’t answer you.
    Also staff are allowed to refer to in-store reference materials, or to contact other stores; e.g, their store may not stock the product in question, especially if it’s a smaller branch. If the information cannot be found in store, such as information about the source of ingredients or the manufacturing process, your question will be passed over to customer services who will ask for your contact details and will either get in touch at a later date with the answer, or will retro-fund the 20% discount for you to have taken off of a future purchase if they cannot provide one.

    Also Holland and Barrett staff have the right to refuse to give a 20% discount if they feel the offer is being abused, i.e, asking an awkward question when showing no actual interest in the product or coming in repeatedly asking questions etc.

    It is also worth pointing out the extensive training staff receive at H&Bs. Full time staff have to study for a year earning the equivalent of an A-level at the end of it. This involves three workbooks, three one-day courses at Holland and Barrett training academy’s and three online examinations fully accredited by EDI to OFQUAL standards (part time staff may only do two depending on the number of hours they work). Also staff have to fill out training updates every fortnight to revise a specific topic each time such as colds and flu, or weight-loss to keep their knowledge topped up.

    Of course, not everyone retains this knowledge and so the knowledge levels of staff vary greatly. However monthly performance reviews and mystery shopper visits weed out those that don’t perform as well.

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