Though Avon in some ways the great-grandfather of every direct-to-consumer brand out there today, when the company got its start in 1836 the original goal wasn’t even to sell cosmetics or beauty products at all. Avon founder David McConnell was an itinerant book salesman who gave away free perfume samples with his wares to attract female customers. According to Avon’s official history, McConnell quickly realized that the perfume had a following independent of the books and that his female clients were natural networkers who could be recruited into a sales force.
By 1886 the California Perfume Company had been incorporated and hired its first female sales representative. In 1929 the firm officially switched its name and branding to Avon — and the rest, as they say, is history. The Avon Lady, with her big case of cosmetic and beauty product samples, was enshrined as a cultural institution.
But that cultural institution has in recent years weathered some tough times, as direct-to-consumer beauty has gone online and digital. Between 2007 and 2014 the brand’s sales plummeted, falling by nearly half. In 2015 Avon sold 80.1 percent of its U.S. business of private equity firm Cerberus for $170 million to focus on its more promising-looking overseas businesses.
In the intervening few years, however, Avon has made a push to digitally reinvent itself, and its brand, for a new era of commerce.
“Over the last number of years we lost our way,” Avon Chief Executive Jan Zijderveld told the Financial Times. “But the beauty market is growing, the direct selling market is growing — the core and essence of what Avon has to offer is still absolutely relevant.”
But that space for Avon, he noted, isn’t simply sitting there waiting for them — it is a new experience the brand has been focused on building, and something it intends to continue pushing as 2019 unfolds.
The expansion means investments in eCommerce technology, cost-cutting to the tune of $400 million by 2021 and a recalibration of Avon’s entire product line to put it more closely in line with consumer demand. The goal is to remove the products that are selling minimally and “cluttering up the catalog.”
And offering a streamlined catalog of goods, Zijderveld said, is particularly important as Avon is looking to both maintain and transform its relationship with its sales force — the Avon Ladies with which the brand is universally associated. Avon has suffered a mass exodus of reps over the last few years as sales have stalled and plummeted — and the goal now is to develop a workforce that is ready to go door-to-digital-door through a variety of channels including Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.
“Friends selling to friends … You trust your friends, the lady you may know … We’re willing to question everything and do things in a new way,” Zijderveld said. “But the strategy is one thing — in the end it’s about execution.”
The challenges are myriad — and Avon is well behind in a beauty field dominated by newer players. Even the top tier of Avon’s executive team seems well aware of that.
“If I were to say we need to play catch-up in e-commerce, that would be a good example of British understatement. What we need to do is actually trigger a revolution inside Avon,” Avon COO Jonathan Myers told The Financial Times.
But whether that revolution is triggered soon or not, even as Avon is working to build back, it still brings unique strength with it into the market: The brand is “iconic” and known almost universally among beauty customers.
Moreover, he noted, the Avon Ladies worldwide are a sales channel and force unto themselves — and are ready to create entire new bridges to their customer base. There are at present six million Avon Representatives, each one a beauty entrepreneur Avon is hoping to unlock. The goal is build out an army of micro-influencers and drive entire online beauty communities.
From Avon’s point of view, then, its role is simple — deliver the tools and service it needs to build and grow digital businesses.