Avon calling for a radical makeover

Cosmetics veteran Avon is launching itself into the 21st century with a glossy magazine and a radical rethink of its sales strategy. Could this lead to the demise of the Avon lady we know and love?

It was during the Sixties that the “Ding-dong, Avon calling” advertising campaign helped to build an abiding, almost universal awareness for the direct-sell brand.

But all campaigns, even highly successful ones, have a sell-by date. After more than 100 years of selling make-up through an army of “Avon ladies”, the company is now planning a makeover for itself.

Avon claims to be the world’s leading direct seller of beauty and related goods, with an annual turnover of $5.3bn (£3.65m) and sales exceeding £200m in the UK.

Last week, Avon announced the launch of a quarterly women’s lifestyle magazine, entitled “A”, which will be sold exclusively through its salesforce in the UK (MW last week).

The move follows Avon’s decision to sell its products through the retail sector in the US. The company plans to set up its own in-store concessions in two of the biggest stores in the US – Sears Roebuck and JC Penney – although it says it has no plans at the moment for a similar strategy in the UK.

But Andrew Marsh, an analyst at Charterhouse Securities, says: “I am not surprised it is having to use other avenues, such as retail chains – especially at a time when door-to-door selling is not very popular with cash-rich, time-poor consumers. Avon is trying to reinvigorate its brand – the magazine launch is an attempt to move it upmarket.”

The title will have an immediate circulation of 160,000 – the total number of Avon reps in the UK – but each rep will be trying to sell copies to their clients. It will also open Avon’s customer base to third-party advertisers for the first time and promote non-Avon products to its customers.

The launch issue of the 100-page glossy, priced £2, will include features on Julia Carling, Jamie Oliver and Ground Force’s Tommy Walsh. The subsequent issues will be published in March, June, August and November next year.

A company spokeswoman says: “We are transforming the home-shopping sector. The magazine will reinforce Avon’s image as the beauty company for women in the 21st century.”

Avon holds less than a 17.5 per cent share of the UK colour cosmetics sector by value, according to research conducted by the Superpanel division of Taylor Nelson Sofres.

Fiona MacDonald, senior account executive at Taylor Nelson Sofres, says: “Avon is generally an older and more downmarket brand than its rivals in colour cosmetics.”

The study, conducted over the past 18 months, also says that within colour cosmetics, Avon’s strength lies in the eye- and nail-care market; it also sells lingerie, jewellery, accessories, toiletries, apparel, gifts and collectibles.

But the magazine is part of a wider strategy, launched last February, with the company’s first global advertising campaign, under the banner “Let’s Talk”. The ads, which were produced in-house, focused on Avon’s relationship with women and its latest beauty innovations.

Most observers believe Avon retail concessions will be launched in the UK if the US strategy is a success. And this, coupled with the fact that more women are now going out to work, is likely to force the company to move into the high street.

MacDonald says: “Avon will need to go through retailers to reach a broader base of customers. It will have to look at revamping its image, although our study also shows evidence of teenagers buying Avon products.”

One City analyst agrees: “Most financial services companies abandoned their door-to-door salesforce years ago. The days of door-stepping are over – the only companies that use it now are those with a complex offer, such as utilities trying to get consumers to switch.”

So has the Avon lady finally had her day? The Taylor Nelson Sofres research shows that in the past year, one-fifth of the UK female population bought a colour cosmetic product from Avon, spending an estimated average of £18 a year each.

While most beauty analysts put Avon’s target market as 35- to 55-year-olds, the company claims 39 per cent of its products are bought by under 35s, and that 25- to 44-year-olds account for 45 per cent of its market.

Victor Beaudet, senior director of media relations in the US, says: “Our representatives continue to be the primary sales channels, and will remain so. In the US, we are launching a different brand in stores, which will not be available through brochures.” Avon will unveil the global marketing strategy for the new line – dubbed Avon Gold – next week at its investor conference.

The image revamp has stretched to the UK website, which is being rebuilt for the first time in three years. Avon is also trying to increase its routes to market by offering a telephone ordering scheme.

The company spokeswoman says: “We have moved with the market. And the launch of new product lines and now the magazine shows how contemporary the company is. Today, Avon is not only about make-up, but much more.

“The US strategy will enable the company to reach new customers – door-to-door selling is still very strong in the UK.”

But with more and more women going out to work, the move into UK retail outlets seems inevitable. After all, if Avon really wants to open up its business, it can’t rely on the doorstep forever. Whether it will be able to gain a foothold in beauty departments – and challenge the top brands – remains to be seen.

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