When does a promotion feel less like a promotion, and more like the ultimate uphill battle? That’s what it feels like when you’re given the top job at direct-sales giant Avon, which has been passed around like an acquisition hot potato for the last decade, seemingly never really finding a secure home.
Ask Kristof Neirynck what drew him to Avon after seven years as CMO for Walgreens Boots, where he was tasked with building global awareness for such born-and-bred British brands as No7 and Liz Earle, and he’s quick to cite the direct-selling behemoth’s “purposeful business model” and rock-solid commitment to improving the financial lives of some five million female reps around the world.
Passing the Avon Baton
On New Year’s Day, Kristof Neirynck, Avon’s CMO and Managing Director for Western Europe, will assume the title of CEO of the 137-year-old brand. And after a quarter-century with Avon, outgoing CEO Angela Cretu will segue to advisor status.
According to an official press release, Neirynck excels at turning businesses around and driving something called “step-change growth.” Translation? He’s a CPG marketing rock star, balancing crystal-ball vision with solid operating chops, whether it’s shepherding feminine care and laundry detergent at P&G, as he did early in his career, or throwing a global spotlight on a disparate roster of niche beauty brands at Walgreens Boots Alliance.
In under two years at Avon, he has not only engineered substantial gross margin improvement, but he has also commissioned a comprehensive brand refresh addressing each and every one of the nearly $4B brand’s visual and verbal touchpoints, from the logo and packaging to the website and social media assets.
Neirynck’s mission for Avon? Relevancy. His goal is nothing short of thoroughly modernizing an iconic brand that many people mentally put out to pasture ages ago.
But the question is whether Natura & Co., which scooped up every chunk of Avon except North America from Cerberus in 2019 for $2B in an all-stock deal, will hang on to the direct-sales giant long enough for Neirynck to work his CEO magic. After offloading Aesop to L’Oréal following a fierce bidding war earlier this year, and The Body Shop just months later, rumor has it Avon may also be heading for the chopping block. More on that later…
Shifting From Direct Sales to Omnichannel
On Cretu’s watch, Avon began the Sisyphean task of moving from an anachronistic door-to-door direct-selling model to an omnichannel operation. This has included a strategic leap forward toward frictionless digitalization, such as the Avon ON app that allows reps to conduct a good chunk of their business via mobile, as well as fully clickable digital product brochures that can be texted to customers via WhatsApp.
And in a 2023 one-two punch that could definitely move the relevancy needle and get Avon into more – and younger – hands, the brand began selling a whopping 300 SKUs on Amazon earlier this year and recently aligned with UK-based Superdrug, lining the shelves at 100 of the popular high street pharmacy’s doors. Although Superdrug only carries half the amount of Avon products Amazon is offering, that’s probably 150 more Avon products than most of the retailer’s customers have ever encountered IRL, particularly younger ones. And to top it off, it’s all available on Superdrug.com, too.
Attracted to the Brand’s Unimpeachable Core Values
Given that Neirynck joined Avon in 2022 as head of marketing, he can also be credited with implementing these Amazon and Superdrug pushes – at least making them happen after the plans were put in place. And without question, he’s there to implement massive change and steer the brand into the future.
But ask Neirynck what drew him to Avon after seven years as CMO for Walgreens Boots, where he was tasked with building global awareness for such born-and-bred British brands as No7 and Liz Earle, he’s quick to cite the direct-selling behemoth’s “purposeful business model” and rock-solid commitment to improving the financial lives of some five million female reps around the world. And then there’s the $1B Avon has donated to causes related to breast cancer and gender-based violence, not to mention the immense strides it’s made in sustainability since being acquired by the intensely planet-friendly Natura & Co.
As Neirynck said in this compelling 2022 podcast interview when he was being recruited by Avon and doing his due diligence, he was struck by all the personal stories people shared with him — including one person who disclosed that his mother was able to leave an abusive marriage because of the financial security she gained as an Avon rep. That’s all part of a century-plus legacy that predates even women’s right to vote, and, per Neirynck, exactly what values-centric younger consumers really need to know about Avon.
But Back to Those Rumblings About a Potential Sale
When Brazil-based Natura & Co bought Avon following its acquisition of Aesop in 2012 and The Body Shop five years later, it loudly trumpeted the fact that it would become the fourth-largest pure-play global beauty conglomerate, following L’Oréal, Lauder, and Shiseido.
As a direct-seller itself, and the third-largest cosmetics company in Brazil, Natura seriously shored up its door-to-door base with the Avon purchase, a sector of the business Neirynck still firmly believes in. Note: because of the emotional bonds reps theoretically make with their customers, both Neirynck and Avon refer to the brand’s core business as “relationship selling” rather than direct selling.
Neirynck says Avon is attracting younger and younger reps every day, but the fact remains that it will take years of growth to recover the losses of the past decade’s downward spiral. And with the success cash-strapped Natura has had this year alone in divesting huge brands, it’s pretty clear they’ve grown to like a balance sheet filled with a lot blacker ink than red.
Still, Avon sells incredibly quality-rich products at an extremely reasonable price, and there isn’t a brand on the planet that can touch its record in supporting women. It’s just that more, and younger, people need to know all that. And they need to feel like it’s cool, and values-driven, to buy from this brand.
I think that if anyone can pull all that off, it’s Kristof Neirynck.