Avon Calling: Could Beauty Be a Path Out of Poverty?
Thursday, March 26, 2009
“No! No! No!” Oxford business professor Linda Scott does not use Avon products. In fact, she says with a smile, “One of the worst things that ever happened to me is that a friend of mine started selling Avon.” But she believes her research in South Africa could prove a fascinating hypothesis: that becoming an Avon lady could help poor women in developing nations knock on prosperity’s door.
Scott is a cultural historian-turned-marketing professor who first got interested in studying Avon as she mused about the rise of the American beauty industry and how it affected feminism at the turn of the 20th century. Avon saleswomen “went into factories and rural environments, and they sold through social networks of mostly poor, mostly young women,” she told me on the sidelines of the Skoll World Forum of Social Entrepreneurship in Oxford. “It worked very well for Avon–and very well for the women.”
One hundred years on, “the infrastructure you have in the developing world as well as the position of women in society is not that different,” Scott says. “So I wondered whether Avon would work for these women. Can women make money consistently, sustainably, and significantly? What if this were a legitimate avenue for poverty alleviation?”
In Scott’s own telling, that was a big if. Two years ago, she contacted Avon CEO Andrea Jung with her query, and Jung gave the greenlight for Avon’s Johannesburg-based staff to cooperate with Scott’s research. (The company provides access to its sales force, and the U.K.’s Department for International Development and the European Social Research Centre provide funding.)
Her preliminary findings, gleaned from hundreds of hours of interviews, surveys, and focus groups, suggest that becoming an Avon lady might work. It could even be better than microfinance–“much more accessible,” Scott says, in part because of Avon’s venerable distribution model and how it suits the ways that members of a community interact in South Africa.