IMAGE CONVERSION

Dogged by its ‘ladies’ unflattering image Avon has spent 20 months on a product and distribution makeover. If the company can get its appearance right then it is well primed to take advantage of the convenience of mail order.

Next week at London’s trendy Oxo Tower Brasserie Avon’s marketing team, and one or two of its trusted Avon ladies, will challenge the likes of Vogue, Cosmopolitan and Marie Claire to change their minds about products their readers would normally associate with their mothers.

The full frontal assault on the British beauty press is effectively the public rebirth of a company that has been dogged by its infamous “ding-dong” advertising and black and white photographs of women with beehive hairdos posing at front doors up and down the country since the Sixties. The rebirth will see new products, upmarket design, new distribution channels and possibly a 3/4 million ad campaign later this year.

Despite its tired image, Avon is the third largest cosmetics retailer in the UK after Boots and the Body Shop with a market share of 10.6 per cent and 3 million loyal customers buying from its reps every three weeks. It holds an overall customer base of 10 million in the UK and generates worldwide profits of 250m a year.

The woman who launched the Next directory, Gillian Wilmot, was hired 18 months ago as vice-president of marketing to do for mail order make-up what she had done for clothes. For a traditionally sales-led company her appointment signalled a new marketing strategy.

Avon has a strong sales performance in regions such as Latin America and Asia Pacific, but it wants to rejuvenate the sluggish performance in the more mature markets of Europe and the US.

In these markets Avon suffers from a downmarket profile and middle aged customer base. It wants to tap into a younger more dynamic market and emphasise the convenience of its distribution policy to the working woman.

Next week’s launch is the culmination of 20 months of new product development which is central to Wilmot’s efforts to turn around Avon’s tired image.

New skincare products, Brand Avon and Anew, which claims to have the most effective UVA block on the market, are exclusive to Avon. Complete with a glossy brochure advertising their availability all the products have been updated with smart new packaging and a logo.

Wilmot says the products are designed to compete against mass market brands such as Boots No.7 and L’Oréal’s Plénitude range, which see themselves as premium brands at competitive prices. She claims that if Avon gets its products right it can increase demand via the convenience of mail order – a system that many believe is the future for the sale of cosmetics.

“Before we start throwing money at an advertising campaign we must get the distribution right,” says Wilmot. “We want convenience to be a vital part of the brand and that means being accessible to everyone.”

Its 160,000 door-to-door reps will remain at the heart of Avon’s business. Indeed, more will be recruited. But its distribution network has always been a problem in big cities where door-to-door sales are not practical. As a result, it is launching a direct telephone service to make ordering easier.

Marie Claire’s beauty editor, Emma Bannister, an early convert to Avon’s products, believes mail order is the way forward for cosmetic retailing. “It is great that there are different ways to access products,” she says. “Without knowing it Avon is ahead of its time. It won’t be long before people are ordering cosmetics over the Internet.

“Increasingly people are choosing not to shop in the high street and they like the personal contact they get from the representatives.” Ironically, Bannister says because Avon has had an unflattering image, it has the potential to be trendy.

In other parts of the globe – including Latin America and Spain – Avon has its own branded beauty stores. This has been considered in the UK but Wilmot says if Avon began retailing through chemists it would not be able to maintain its price position – premium products at competitive prices.

She also predicts that once Avon’s revamped brand image filters down to the public there will be more demand from people wanting to become Avon ladies in the UK.

“Employees are attracted to brands in the same way as customers. We have always been about giving women a sense of self esteem, both in our products and our recruitment policies. Hopefully this message will filter through our new strategy.”

Wilmot has had a lot to do with that strategy. Since her arrival, the marketing department has been restructured and now employs 120 staff. It has eight clearly defined tiers including creative, campaigns, research and product development.

Wilmot has opened talks with advertising agencies for a UK campaign in August 1997. A campaign broke in the US last month featuring a very young fashionable woman with the endline daring people to try Avon. Deliberately provocative, it is demanding that consumers shed their preconceptions and take a fresh look at Avon. A similar approach is expected in the UK

But for a campaign like that to ring true the changes will have to be more than cosmetic. There will have to be a fundamental change in the company and its product range – not just a different way of selling door-to-door.

Its last UK ad campaign in 1994 was developed by HHCL & Partners. The TV and press work was an attempt to challenge the beauty myth by using “real women”, including actresses Caroline Folan and Serena Gordon who are attractive women but older and not models.

HHCL account director Ian Stephens was in charge of the campaign: “The ad was a useful experiment for a company which is built on a sales distribution network but it wasn’t based on any new product developments. Avon has a downmarket and dowdy image in the UK, but is one of the those strangely powerful brands. It is much more desirable in other parts of the world.”

Yardley, another aspirational product everywhere in the world except the UK, last year signed supermodel Linda Evangelista as its face in a desperate attempt to shake off its “granny” image. Like Avon, Yardley has become something of an institution but wants to extend its audience and attract younger, trendier women.

Wilmot says image is essential to cosmetics and she is confident that the new product range, combined with Avon’s history and reliability factor, will give the company the confidence it needs. “WhileYardley has a granny image we are associated with mums – at least then we only have one generation to jump,” she says hopefully.

The Avon lady is as familiar an image of the Sixties as the district nurse or the milk man. In the past 20 years, they have virtually bitten the dust but Wilmot’s ambitious plans could revitalise this particular Sixties icon.

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