Breathing new life into Avon through social selling

Written by
Tom Ritchie

28 Mar 2019

28 Mar 2019 • by Tom Ritchie

Inconic brand Avon has been selling its products house to house and woman to woman for 130 years. We spoke to new CEO Jan Zijderveld, who is overseeing the company's digital makeover to create a business fit for the 21st century.

How and why did you come to join Avon?

I was born in the Netherlands, went to University in New Zealand, and started with Unilever in Wellington. I had a 30-year career with the company, the past seven as its president for Europe. However, this time last year, the opportunity with Avon came along: an iconic brand, with an iconic business model, but a company that wasn’t doing too well. The challenge for me was to try something new and see whether I could help bring this great business back to life.

How have you approached being a man at the helm of a company that calls itself “the company for women”?

It’s not about being male or female, it’s about representing what the company stands for. Avon has products for women, sold by women. I strongly believe in that. This company stands for women’s values. We have given almost a billion dollars over our lifetime to awareness and action plans around breast cancer. I feel really proud about that. I happen to be male, but I strongly believe in what we do.

In 2018, you launched a new strategy for the business, introducing an ebrochure. Could you explain your reasoning?

We’ve been selling woman to woman via brochures for a long time. With technology, we realised that, we could create a business where we maintain that direct connection: not only a physical brochure, but one that can be distributed via WhatsApp or Facebook, that people can look at whenever and wherever they want to. It’s now in 50 countries, and 10% of all of our brochure views are via the electronic version; we only launched six months ago. We’ve reached a whole new generation of people.

How did you communicate these changes to your sales representatives and employees?

We have invested in training and development. We have six million beauty entrepreneurs out there. Some don’t want to change, but a big percentage see this is as an opportunity to grow their business. We’ve identified those who are really keen to grow and trained them.

Internally, we started by confronting reality. We had a nice business, but one that needed modernising. We came up with a strategy called ‘Open Up’ – we wanted to welcome new opportunities, new people, new representatives, new technology. Then it was about injecting fresh talent: people with new thinking. We’ve got a legacy business with legacy talent, and we wanted to modernise.

The first question to ask is: “do we have the systems to cope with this?” If the answer’s “no”, you need to develop the tools and technologies. We didn’t have the engineers to do this so we’re partnering with many different companies to help. We don’t have to do everything ourselves anymore.

How do you manage six million independent sales representatives around the world?

You ‘eat the elephant in pieces’. We know you cannot talk to six million people in one sweep. One of the big things in our strategy has been segmentation; one-on-one marketing.

We weren’t doing that very well. We were treating all our customers the same way, but we have different types of people; some just want to buy a few products and in the old-fashioned way. It’s about segmenting the representatives we have in different countries to create support and training mechanisms that help them become more successful. One of my big words is ‘de-average’. Average is awful.

What can a large, established business such as Avon learn from small organisations and vice versa?

People are saying “small brands are more successful than big brands”. I don’t agree. It’s about relevant brands and irrelevant brands. Some big businesses have become irrelevant because they’ve lost touch with their consumer base.

We’ve adopted a small-company mindset in that we’ve become obsessed with solving consumer and customer problems. One of the things I hope you would find at Avon is that there’s a new boss – and that isn’t me. It’s our six million beauty consultants and the 100 million people who use the products.

The second point is the different ways of operating. Big companies are linear; small companies are iterative. They work in multifunctional teams at a higher speed, develop quick prototypes, test them and refine them. However, a big company can scale those ideas. We have the infrastructure, the network and the funds. You can create the ‘hallelujah moment’ if you have a large organisation with the mindset of a start-up.

What would your advice be to other CEOs leading through a period of digital transformation?

You have to be really conscious and aware of what’s going on in the world. You have a real responsibility to try to keep up, which means reading, learning, sensing what’s going on. Leaders need to be curious.

You will get bombarded with ideas. You really need to understand your business. So the trick is to understand what’s going on, what makes your business unique, and what technology is out there that can help unlock your potential.

To hear more from Jan, listen to episode 43 of the Future Talent Podcast