When a company’s independent sales force outnumbers employed staff 180 to 1, keeping the disparate minions motivated is crucial. You can tempt them with silver and gold, but as Bruce Springsteen and anyone at Mary Kay would agree, nothing gets them like that pink Cadillac.
When a company’s independent sales force outnumbers employed staff
180 to 1, keeping the disparate minions motivated is crucial. You can
tempt them with silver and gold, but as Bruce Springsteen and anyone at
Mary Kay would agree, nothing gets them like that pink Cadillac.
The privately held company doesn’t care what stock analysts think, and
even consumers aren’t its most important audience. Although the company
eschews the word ’wholesale,’ its direct customers - and driving force -
are the 600,000 beauty consultants who peddle cosmetics in dens and
break rooms all over the world.
Mary Kay the company is built around the legendary Mary Kay Ash, who
founded her empire in 1963 on the premise that women deserve recognition
and economic independence. Her motivation went beyond the material as
she encouraged followers to put God first, family second and business
third. Devotion to Ash’s legacy remains a cornerstone of the company’s
brand while it endeavors to shed its big-hair image.
Pink Caddies aren’t the only thing moving the sales force. The company
prints five publications for consultants and sends sales directors
videos, ’Power Hour’ audiotapes and broadcast voice mails. Mary Kay’s
e-commerce site links buyers with local consultants. The company
provides Web page templates for consultants, 80% of whom are online,
according to sales force communications VP Sandra Nottestad.
One department plans year round for conferences and meetings, especially
the July seminar in Dallas, which is closed to the public and press.
’It’s the highlight of the Mary Kay year,’ explains Russell Mack, EVP of
global communications and public affairs. The event accommodates more
than 45,000 women in color-coordinated blazers who cheer on emotional
motivational speakers and learn about the latest products and sales
Mary Kay’s sales force success has garnered many accolades, but some say
the corporate culture can go too far. ’Some individuals at Mary Kay have
made Mary Kay their own cult,’ claims Dr. Dave Arnott, a Dallas Baptist
University professor and author of Corporate Cults: The Insidious Lure
of the All-Consuming Organization. A cult, by definition, requires
devotion, charismatic leadership and separation from community, Arnott
says. Critics could easily find those elements at Mary Kay, although
many consultants use the company’s model as a healthy path to economic
Sales force before consumers
Sales force communication efforts overshadow traditional PR in Mary
Kay’s decentralized communications structure. ’Many corporate PR offices
do things that don’t make a lot of sense for us,’ Mack says. ’Our style
is not really to go out and ring a bell.’ Those who serve the sales
force don’t report to Mack. The eight who do (there are 35 full timers
overall) instead oversee media relations, government relations, product
PR, marketing and corporate communication, speech writing and special
Mary Kay garners far less press than publicly traded retail giants, but
reporters who do call say they receive prompt, perky service.
Its global presence also requires the company to seek help from outside
government relations consultants, especially in China. The Asian giant
banned direct sales in 1998 over concerns about pyramid schemes. Mary
Kay’s ’sales promoters’ in China now must work from fixed locations.
Fleishman-Hillard, Mary Kay’s agency of record, reaches out to beauty
and fashion writers in New York. SVP Heidi Hovland says Fleishman’s PR
strategy hinges on liberally distributing samples: ’We find that
resistance breaks down when the editors get a chance to try the
products.’ Mary Kay also has a decade-long relationship with Montemayor
Y Asociados in San Antonio, TX, which handles Hispanic media relations,
advertising and sales force support.
To overcome journalists’ aversion to writing about commercial products,
Mack says Mary Kay relies more on steak than sizzle. For example, the
recent launch of its Timewise anti-aging skin care line featured Mary
Kay’s chief scientific officer. ’We could have done a stunt in New York
that could have generated a lot of cynicism,’ Mack observes.
Mary Kay officials won’t discuss their reasons for switching from
Manning Selvage & Lee to Fleishman in early 1999. Hovland served the
account at both firms but claims her job change had nothing to do with
And Diana Gold, Mary Kay’s new media relations manager, claims those
responsible for selecting Fleishman are no longer with the company.
A high turnover rate has plagued Mary Kay’s internal PR operations, and
a lack of institutional memory is evident. Mack himself has been on
board less than three years and recently filled a trio of vacancies, but
he dismisses the staff changes as normal turnover.
An aversion to change?
One short-time employee, however, who couches her perspective as that of
an outsider, says that a deep-seated aversion to change may drive away
new hires. After Ash suffered a stroke a few years back and withdrew
from active participation, management felt the need to make changes.
’They made a lot of new hires of people outside the Mary Kay world, and
none of them survived,’ the source says. Outsiders accustomed to a
faster pace and quick decision-making might have been turned off.
Yet another former employee of longer tenure says that course changes
must be gradual when a company’s fortune hinges on an independent sales
force. ’You didn’t move so fast that they didn’t know what company they
were with anymore,’ she says.
Attempts to upgrade the company’s image began as far back as the
mid-1980s when Ash’s family bought back public stock. The buyout
untethered the company’s value from other stocks, like rival Avon’s, and
allowed it to move the focus away from investors. That’s when the
company ramped up its PR efforts and started courting the New York
industry press. ’Mary Kay sort of grew up,’ explains the long-term
Recent evidence of this maturation include the 1998 addition of white
GMC Jimmys to its sales incentive fleet (use of the pearlized pink Caddy
is still the ultimate reward). And the company went from sinner to saint
in the eyes of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).
Although it hasn’t tested products on animals for years, Mary Kay balked
at signing PETA’s compassion agreement until last year. ’They are the
largest company to sign,’ says Ann Marie Giunti, coordinator for PETA’s
caring consumer project.
’I think the biggest misconception of Mary Kay is that it is not
contemporary,’ says Mack, boasting that the company’s Internet
technology and product lines are among the most advanced in the world.
Flexibility is the true key to relevance, Mack says. ’Today, the appeal
of the Mary Kay opportunity is about choice.’
While the company strives to modernize, it does so with an eye to the
past. Mary Kay established a museum in 1993 and is archiving the stories
of its sales force leaders. The monthly magazine often includes quotes
from the matriarch herself. But Mack feels the company is well prepared
to survive its charismatic founder. As Mary Kay Ash often said, ’This
company carries my name, but it has a life of its own.’
PR chief: Russell Mack, EVP of global communications and public
Key PR staff: Sandra Nottestad, VP of sales force communications; Ron
Trammel, VP of special events
Internal staff: About 35 full-time and 20 part-time staffers
External agencies: Fleishman-Hillard, agency of record since early 1999;
Montemayor Y Asociados (San Antonio), Hispanic PR and marketing support
for the past decade.