Avon Products’ new CMO, Kristof Neirynck, explains how the company is trying to retreat from door-to-door selling without losing the personal touch that distinguishes the brand from its rivals
When he became Avon Products’ global marketing chief in March, the first thing that Kristof Neirynck did was scour the archives of the business, which started life as the California Perfume Company back in 1886. The main object of that exercise was to find out which factors had made the firm unique in its market.
He has concluded that there are about 5 million key differentiators, in the shape of the self-employed beauty advisers who work as Avon’s sales representatives.
“We have amazing products and a great R&D function, but there are other companies that have those too,” Neirynck says. “It’s our reps – and the personal relationships they build when selling – that give us our unique offering in this market. We need to stay true to that.”
In the 1950s, the firm’s 250,000 so-called Avon ladies represented the largest female direct sales force in the world. Their door-to-door methods were celebrated by the famous “Ding-dong – Avon calling!” advertising campaign. This brigade of micro-entrepreneurs is 20 times larger today, but it has become increasingly difficult for the company to stay true to its proud heritage.
Customers in many of its territories have been turning away from this traditional channel as buying goods online becomes ever more convenient. The Covid crisis has also been a key disruptive force – the idea of going door to door with paper brochures suddenly loses its appeal as a sales method when a pandemic strikes.
Avon’s ecommerce sales have soared as a result. In the first half of 2020, the value of its digital turnover was triple that of H1 2019.
Neirynck expects that this trend “will continue to evolve, so that’s why we need to reinvent ourselves. At a time when you can order everything from Amazon, trying to do everything door to door is probably not the right model.”
For many businesses, the answer would be obvious: go straight for where the market is growing and convert the business into a wholly etail concern. But, while he recognises that Avon’s approach to sales needs to be “modernised and digitised”, Neirynck is keen not to not throw the baby out with the bath water.
He explains: “The unique thing about Avon is the relationships. Our representatives build personal ties with their customers, meaning that they can advise them in a much more individualised way. That personal element is hard to replicate at scale by any other business selling consumer packaged goods. The moment you start forgetting that while pursuing some quick sales, you start losing the essence of the brand.”
Neirynck argues that a simple decision to sell more goods via the shelves of Boots or the web pages of Amazon, say, would end up destroying the brand’s image, which has been painstakingly built on the personal touch over the past 136 years.
Instead, the company must work out the best method of moving to multichannel sales while preserving the “Avon way”, he says, adding that “you need a unique value proposition to transform yourself as a brand”.
Avon is focusing its transformation efforts on three key areas. The first concerns making it more profitable for people to become Avon representatives. As part of the new strategy, reps will be able to earn more commission (which is typically about 25%), the more they sell. Avon is also planning to improve the signing-up process as part of a drive to enhance the whole rep experience.
The second area is the company’s branding, which requires a “revamp”, according to Neirynck. This exercise will involve updating Avon’s visual identity, packaging and communications.
The third area concerns improving the company’s digital capabilities. As Neirynck reports: “We’re transforming from a predominantly paper-based catalogue business into a much more digitised, omnichannel concern.”
All of these activities are being supported by work to reduce the complexity that has crept into the firm’s processes and systems over the years.
“When you’re trying to digitise your company and transform your brand, working to a simpler model is really helpful,” he explains. “It’s very difficult to do successfully if your products are not complementary and if your IT infrastructure is not consistent.”
The firm has recently introduced a mobile app for reps called Avon On. Neirynck claims that it “provides representatives with new ways to sell while still keeping the personal touch that Avon is known for”.
Through Avon On, reps can connect their own social media accounts to the firm’s digital asset management tool. This gives them access to template posts for products, beauty tips and offers or images that they can personalise and share with their customers.
The app also offers simple ecommerce features, making it easier for users to keep track of their stock levels, order new products and share digital brochures.
“Customers don’t always want the rep to come to their house with new products,” Neirynck says. “This is about providing more opportunities for consumers to shop the way they want.”
As part of its digital transformation, the company is exploring new channels through which to offer customers the personalised beauty advice they’ve come to expect. This has included a foray onto TikTok last year.
One recent social campaign targeting consumers in Brazil attracted 2.5 billion views, according to Neirynck. He adds that having so many reps on social networks has helped to amplify Avon’s messaging on these platforms greatly, helping the brand to achieve “a massive boom in views”.
Gaining the capacity to collect large amounts of data and crunch it into useful information is key to any successful digital transformation. Neirynck has several ideas for creating value for the business using such technology, many of which he developed during lengthy spells with Walgreens Boots Alliance and, before that, Procter & Gamble. These include personalising web pages and tracking customers’ preferences and purchase journeys through the site.
He suggests that such enhanced data-handling power could enable Avon to, say, send a reminder to a rep when one of their customers is likely to have run out of lipstick. But one tricky question in this respect is: who holds the data on that customer: the representative or the brand?
“There’s always a worry among representatives that you’re going to use the data to start selling directly and cut them out,” Neirynck says. “But that’s not the purpose of this company. We want to provide earnings opportunities to women.”
To provide reassurance, he plans to use data on the purchasing habits of its reps – many of whom act in a similar manner to its customers – to demonstrate the benefits of sharing such information. He hopes that this will show them why giving Avon this data “will help them run their businesses”.
“Once we get that right, the amount of data we will have access to is pretty much unlimited,” Neirynck says. “That will put us in a very strong position.”