Solar Sister Learns from Avon: Synopsis of “Avon in Africa” by Linda Scott, Said School of Business, University of Oxford
What’s common between a lipstick and a solar light? The answer lies in the way two companies choose to sell their products – one being the largest beauty player in the developing world - Avon; and the other a start-up social enterprise selling life transforming clean energy to rural Africa – Solar Sister. The answer is the power of women’s perseverance and ingenuity to succeed against all odds. The answer is light, hope and opportunity.
Professor Linda Scott from the Said Business School has written an excellent case study “Avon in Africa”.The study traces Avon’s origins in America, subsequent growth as a global consumer brand and success in South Africa. Avon has played a key role in proving a vital opportunity to open new doors of economic well being for millions of women around the world. The lessons, especially from the South African example, are key for anyone concerned with women’s empowerment in Africa (and beyond)– both in microcosm of a woman’s personal economic freedom and in the macro picture of what women’s enterprise can do for poverty alleviation.
Women’s economic empowerment is at the heart of Solar Sister’s mission, albeit with a twist that while Avon ladies are lipstick evangelists of sorts, Solar Sisters are clean energy evangelists, quite literally bringing light to their families and communities. Learning from Avon’s ups and downs is thus priceless education for our growth. The following summarizes key lessons that emerge from Prof. Scott’s case study:
Lesson # 1: Core Values and Mission are larger than the “Product” line (the former drives the latter and not vice versa) – Avon’s corporate mission is empowerment of women, rather than being tied to the benefits of a product line as it more common amongst consumer sector manufacturers. Avon is a “Company for the Women”. (At heart of Solar Sister’s own mission is the commitment to reduce the gender - technology gap to build a bottom up green economy that includes women. Clean technology is an important means to an equally important end – helping women as both consumers and sellers of clean energy access related products and services.)
Lesson # 2: Help Your Sales Team Visualize What The Opportunity Means – An Avon group leader shares how she would motivate her team by telling them that one body lotion was equal to a loaf of bread, so if they sold five of them, their kids would have bread for the whole week, and if they sold 10 they could even buy sugar. (In this recent film by Ripple Effects Images, Solar Sister Chatal from Rwanda tells her children that now they can have sugar thanks to her income from Solar Sister.)
Lesson # 3 Have Local Brand Ambassadors (vs. Hollywood celebrities)– Avon learnt this firsthand in South Africa. The case study notes that Avon’s global brand ambassador Salma Hayek failed to leave a mark on the South African target demographic – women of color who simply did not recognize/ associate with Salma Hayek. Likewise, Reese Witherspoon went unnoticed. It was not until Avon brought Connie Ferguson, a local soap opera star, that Avon brand really received wide local recognition.
Lesson # 4: Minimize the Start-up Risk for Low Income Women – There are many direct selling companies with great products to offer, albeit with a daunting start up capital. In contrast, Avon’s start up fees brings down the start up capital (at about $12) to open to business opportunity to a larger group of women. Sometimes, when the women can’t afford even that, the recruiting “upline” loans the start up fees. If a candidate can’t afford credit. Avon lets her start on a cash basis and build up credit, many reps have built their way into the system this way. (Solar Sister uses micro-consignment to reduce start-up business risk for rural African women that it equips with a “business in a bag”)
Lesson # 5: Persistence is a Valued Skill For Developing New Markets despite the market failures – It took Avon 5 years to become profitable in South Africa, as is the norm when the company enters a new country. This is despite the multitude of challenges like extreme poverty, lack of formal credit checks for new recruits and customers, lack of access to banks In some cases and the need to come up with innovative methods to collect payments (like working with Post Offices and major retailers), dealing with gender based violence, both inside and outside the Avon ladies’ houses.
Lesson # 6 Offer a Variety of Products, Combined With A Creative Marketing Strategy – Customers ( especially in emerging economies) value a variety of products at a variety of price points. Avon agents in South Africa focused on selling deodorants and body lotions to relatively lower income customers who considered these products as “necessary”. The more wealthy customers bought nail care and colored make up items like lipsticks and eye shadows. Avon’s key marketing tool is its brochure ( one of the largest publications in the world, according to the case study!), which is at heart of its sales “campaigns” with variety of price points and “specials” to choose from.
Lesson # 7 Pay Attention to training, recognition and support – Avon recognizes that at the heart of any successful business is its people. It is thus vital to spend time and resources in training and rewarding both financially and in terms of career advancements opportunities. Avon reps compete for prizes and trips, along with bonuses and commissions (note that the original Avon model allowed reps to earn commission only on their own sales). A survey of Avon reps found that they felt they learnt skills that could be used in other employment opportunities as well. Avon emphasized that its reps learn banking skills. The survey found that 92% of Avon reps had their own bank account, a much higher number than an average of 32% for the women of color in the country.
These are invaluable lessons for Solar Sister team as we grow from the vision of our founder Katherine Lucey to a shared vision of our growing staff, Solar Sister entrepreneurs and multitude of partners that support our mission. Patty Berg one of the first 10 women pro golfers said that the best beauty secret is “Always keep learning. It keeps you young”. So the education continues..
Learn more about Prof. Linda Scott’s research on globalization and women’s empowerment at: http://www.doublexeconomy.com/