CLIENT PROFILE: God, woman and pink Caddies at Mary Kay - Some call it a cult, others say it’s a ticket to financial independence. Opinions vary on Mary Kay, but its 600,000-strong sales force and pink Cadillacs have become American icons. Sherri

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.

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

the decision.

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.

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