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Avon global marketing boss on how it's rebranding for the Instagram generation

In the midst of a beauty boom Avon’s newly-appointed head of brand has been tasked with mapping out a plan to modernise the 130-year-old cosmetics giant for customers who are more inclined to get eyeshadow tips on YouTube or Instagram than answer the doorbell to a representative.

Just weeks after the appointment of a new global chief brand and beauty officer in the form of ex-Diaego marketer James Thompson, Avon is mapping out a plan to “modernise” for the Instagram generation amid sluggish sales. Its secret weapon? A six-million strong army of sales representatives.

“It’s an almost once in a career opportunity to be part of a business which is completely focused and dedicated to rejuvenating what is a well-known and iconic brand in its own right. We all know we want to do a makeover of it,” Thompson told The Drum, less than a week into the new job.

Social selling; e-commerce; investment in its personalised beauty app; refreshing advertising and advancing into APAC will ll be key in reformulating the brand for the 21st century, according to the marketer.

“Our representatives are a source of competitive advantage for us, and we don’t plan to change that. What we want to do is give them – and the whole organisation – tools to be faster, more agile, quicker to market and [products] that are easier to sell.”

Founded in 1886, Avon is older than the UK and US women’s right to vote. It preceded suf with a proposition that was revolutionary for its time; a business that gave women the chance to earn an independent income by becoming a door-to-door sales reps. ‘Perfume, toilet waters, powder and rogue compacts’ were among the first products sold in the glossy brochures, under what was initially called The Californian Perfume Company.

However, over 130 years on and in the midst of a beauty boom its faced with mounting opportunities, and challenges. Tempting as it may for Thompson and his team to extol the virtue of its “amazing foundations”, the exec is instead focused on building Avon’s future through investment in tech and training.

“I’m not thinking about nostalgia, but how do we make enduring values appeal to today’s representatives, consumers and customers,” he explained.

A brand that's 'lost its way'

Avon is now operating with a slew of FMCG and retail titans at its helm as it invests in innovation to compete with the likes of Sephora, Coty and L’Oréal.

In February it appointed a new chief executive in Zijderveld, Unilever’s former European president. Ahead of Thompson’s appointment in October, Zijderveld enlisted former Ikea marketer Benedetto Conversano its first ever chief digital officer to and overhaul its tech proposition.

Zijderveld himself has admitted that Avon has “lost its way” over the last number of years, caveating: “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.”

Buoyed by e-commerce, influencers and innovation, the global cosmetic market is currently worth $508bn and forecast to reach $758bn by 2025 – a growth trajectory of 5.9%.

Avon isn’t quite riding the same wave though. At the start of November, it revealed that its global revenues had inched up just 0.5% year-on-year to $1.4bn. However, excluding a favourable tax adjustment in Brazil (one of its key markets) the brand’s total revenues declined by 11% on a like-for-like basis and total units sold declined by 6% over the same time period.

The 'Avon lady' goes digital

One of Conversano’s first moves has been to launch Avon's Personalised Beauty App, which delivers skin diagnostics that take the guesswork out of choosing a new moisturiser or picking the right shade of foundation. The app links customers to representatives using nothing more than a phone camera and a unique calibration card, echoing similar plays from Coty and The Body Shop.

With Facebook claiming that 53% of UK makeup consumers use its platform for ‘beauty-related activities’ and 38% doing the same on Instagram, Thompson has also spotted an opportunity in turning its sales reps into influencers.

It’s already been reported that up to 1 million of its members are to receive training in using these types of platforms to sell and promote their products before the year is out and Thompson said it’s something that has come quite naturally anyway.

"They've been doing it despite us," he said. "We now want to help them do it better within broad guidelines and with the tools that we provide more effectively.

"So we're coming at it from behind the curve. We get we're getting up speed very quickly."

Thompson said there’s also “an enormous amount of headroom” to grow out Avon's own e-commerce platform (which lets customers buy direct online but still loops them up with a representative based on their postcode).

“And of course, there’s data we can work to leverage and grow our sales from on an online basis,” he added.

Avon's hallmark brouchure, with its peel-and-sniff perfume pages and exclusive deals, has also gone digital but Thompson assures the print version (which is published every three weeks and distributed to sellers) is here to stay.

"We just have to expand and improve how we deliver it," mulled Thompson, hinting that local, tailored online content could have a bigger part to play in Avon's strategy moving forward.

Eyeing up APAC

Somewhere that will also become a bigger factor in Avon's strategy will be APAC, a region in which Thompson has an "aggressive" growth plan mapped out.

APAC outperformed Avon's most recent global year-on-year growth with revenues growing 2% to $120.5m; owing to an 8% increase in average orders and a 6% rise in units sold. However, Thompson wants to see more consistent growth across the geography.

"APAC is one of the most amazing beauty markets in the world and it's fair to say we are interpenetrated," he mused. "We have to have good business in parts of Southeast Asia, particularly the Philipines where we are a strong market, but we would like to be bigger in India and in China and we've got strong plans to do that."

As for the brand itself, Avon’s recent advertising has been purpose-driven, focused on empowering women and inclusivity, with a fresh anti-violence campaign called ‘Embrace the Change’ having just launched in tandem with its charity the Avon Foundation.

Still wet behind the ears, Thompson is coy on what exactly any future brand campaigns might look like, but he is clear that the message will be pinned around “innovative democratsed skincare with a purpose underneath it.”

“Avon has always been at the forefront,” he asserted. “It's always been modern but somehow over time it's become a brand that people have forgotten about and despite incredible resilience, coupled with very high awareness and even affection. It’s a brand that just needs to say why it’s relevant today."

For now, it's clear this relevance is being driven by smart digital investments, rather than big-ticket creative.