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Selling beauty in times of COVID-19

135-year-old brand finds ways to stay connected to its market despite quarantine restrictions
/ 04:30 AM September 27, 2020

The world has greatly changed in the last 135 years since Avon founder David McConnell, a traveling salesman, turned from selling books to selling personal grooming products in New York, creating what would eventually become an iconic beauty brand.

But even as new platforms have emerged, direct selling remains at the core of Avon, enabling five million women around the world to become entrepreneurs.

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Random knocking on people’s doors, like how the Avon lady met Edward Scissorhands two decades ago, may be a thing of the past, but relationship-building is both an art and a science that has withstood the test of time.

Admittedly, the COVID-19 pandemic made it more challenging for the company in the beginning of this global crisis to foster relationships as people could not meet face to face, says Avon global CEO Angela Cretu, noting that the group had to first protect its people and rely just on online selling platforms.

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The portfolio mix also had to be adjusted overnight to meet demand for essential goods and toiletries, like antibacterial gel. As people were locked down and dealt with economic distress, nondiscretionary goods across the globe took a hit.

But it is also during dire times that relationship plays a major role, Cretu says.

In a Zoom interview with Inquirer from her office in London, she says Avon’s beauty representatives still found ways to stay connected. In the last month or so, Cretu proudly notes that Avon’s portfolio mix has almost returned to pre-COVID-19 norms, with clients now willing to spend more on beauty, fragrance and intimate apparel products.

Confidence

Avon Global CEO Angela Cretu

This shows that in good times or bad, “there’s need for women to make sure that they feel confident in their own skin and use the beauty products that they have always used,” she says.

Lipstick and foundation products that stay on even if women had to wear masks, for instance, are selling well during this pandemic.

“People started to use their social media. People found new ways to deliver their product to the door without bypassing the barriers. This is a clear commitment from our beauty representatives to continue serving their customers, even if they had to learn new ways [to do so], especially through the internet,” she says.

Now that the pandemic has bludgeoned many industries and resulted in massive job losses, Avon has seen a surge in its network of beauty representatives in the last quarter. Beyond just embracing this as their bread and butter, there has been a shift in how people see their affiliation with Avon.

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“What we’ve seen is people want to be part of the purpose that we share together, really create a tangible change in women empowerment, in creating access to democratize access to beauty and learning opportunity, as well as we’ve taken our role to offer a tangible support to the communities we are part of,” Cretu says.

Unlike other direct sellers, Cretu explains that Avon’s business model differs in such as way that much of its earnings are channeled to causes relevant to women, from breast cancer awareness to campaigning to stop domestic violence against women, which has escalated especially during this pandemic.

Cretu herself issued an open letter to all governments early this year, calling for a “safe exit” for battered women during the lockdown. The company has helped fund a program to provide shelter, education and counselling for women victimized by domestic violence.

Globally, Avon is also a major contributor in the crusade against breast cancer, having collected and donated $1.1 billion so far to causes that support women and their families to lead safe and healthy lives.

“I think this COVID crisis is really opening new expectations. They (consumers) are not expecting just the best price for the best product or the best promotion. They also want a personalized high-touch relationship with the brand and are also [considering whether] that brand is sharing profits with the community,” she says.

In the Philippines, Avon’s crown jewel in Asia, a significant portion of women in Avon’s sales force are there full time, although there are those who also sell as a hobby. A hybrid model that combines physical and digital channels, not just in selling but also in accessing training programs, is in place.

“Going forward, we are going for an omnichannel presence: one that will be at the choice of customer and choice of the representative, so they can work either in hybrid mode or digital with physical presence,” she says.

The task is to nurture authentic relationships, she adds. “We want to celebrate all women. Not the catwalk women. Not the posh filtered profiles. Not the mega-influencers. We want to celebrate everyone who takes up the role to be a microinfluencer in her own community and is really changing the social norms for more equality.”

Democratization

As heightened concern for hygiene during this pandemic has eliminated the possibility of putting out there samples, like for makeup, Avon instead offers a 100-percent guarantee.

“Usually, over-the-counter players, if you took my lipstick, you bought it, went back home and tried it on and realized after one week that that color is not suiting you well or maybe is not as nourishing or hydrating as you want it, you can’t return it,” Cretu says.

“In Avon, we keep up the promise that it’s 100-percent guaranteed, which means, you didn’t like it the quality, we will give your money back. That’s also showing the confidence we have on our products and as well as our respect for consumers. This is part of our mission to create affordable access, while still promising outstanding quality and guaranteeing for that.”

Cretu notes that the brand has also continuously invested in research and development (R&D) to meet the demands of the times. Whether it’s lipstick that will stay even with the face mask on, or proprietary antiaging facial products that dramatically restore collagen, Avon has strived to adjust its innovations to the global trend of consumers seeking the convergence of beauty, health and wellness products.

“And consumers are saying don’t treat me like a segment any longer. I want a personalized relationship,” she says.

Secondly, consumers now detest brands that act like an autocratic beauty player. They don’t want brands telling them what beautiful is. They want to celebrate their own beauty. They want to be themselves.

“And with these new trends, we really try to reposition ourselves even at 135 years of beauty that truly celebrates this overcoming of barriers and social norms and beauty standards, and economical hurdles that all women feel,even more so now in the pandemic,” Cretu says.

“They feel the pressure of motherhood, economical hurdles, unemployment, the need to keep their families, as much as possible protect them from this mayhem, the crisis and the uncertainty and anxiety. So we try to play that role and we thought, as a company, we should get away from being just a beauty range choice and play a more active role and support the community, support women overcoming these barriers and redefine expectations,” she says.

Democratizing access to beauty means Avon is not favoring any specific market segment, instead trying to make sure it caters to anyone from a 15-year-old teenager learning about personal grooming to 64-year-olds or members of the “silver” generation who also have their own needs.

“From a product perspective, we no longer believe in the kind of luxurious inaccessible brands that we know their ingredients and formulas are basic, but through positioning they create access only for the selective few,” she says.

And while Avon has been focused on women over the century, it understands that men are also part of the family and now has a growing portfolio of products dedicated to men’s grooming.

Global but local

These days, Avon is competing not just with a number of legacy western brands but a number of rising beauty brands in Asia as well, especially those produced in high per capita-country Asian countries like South Korea and Japan where makeup is essential.

Part of Avon’s strategy is thus to bring in some locally manufactured goods to its portfolio. In the Philippines, the majority of its beauty products, as well as those in intimate apparel, are locally manufactured, Cretu says. It spends on R&D to come up with formulations relevant to the local market. As such, she notes that the brand has been a leading player in makeup, fragrance and lotions in Philippines.

The company currently operates an R&D hub in Shanghai that is developing specific brands catering to consumer needs for Asia, not just in terms of formulation and local ingredients, but also in packaging.

With over 200 patents worldwide, Avon is at the same time bringing global innovations to the local pipeline. In October, it is set to launch Protinol, a unique formula for antiaging that pitches to restore seven years of collagen in just seven days.

“That’s an example of global innovation that will follow the latest discoveries in the antiaging research and being deployed in the market at an accessible and affordable price,” she says.

Since entering the Philippine market 42 years ago, this market has proven to be fertile ground for Avon, possibly due to strong historical and cultural ties with the United States, but also because of how family values and how people connect to one another are evident in this nation.

“The way people develop trust, it’s really very nurturing for our commercial model,” she says.

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