‘Gender inequality still stifles women’s unique potential’

Kristof Neirynck, Global Chief Marketing Officer at Avon, on breaking through empowerment fatigue and ditching unattainable beauty standards

Nicola Kemp

Editorial Director Creativebrief


“I don’t like the term female empowerment, it can sound condescending.” With trademark clarity Kristof Neirynck, Global Chief Marketing Officer at Avon, is explaining why it is important not to see ‘empowerment fatigue’ as a reason to dial down your principles and commitment to gender equality as a brand.

Before the industry even began talking about the creative firepower of side hustles, millions of women around the world were already opening new doors and selling products for Avon. Each woman, a business owner and franchise operator in her own right, earnt at least 20% of the price of every product that you buy.

It is clear that for Avon equality is more than an empty slogan. The brand invests over $100 million in training and rewards for representatives to help them to build their businesses and develop new skills. For an industry that has been guilty of selling women ‘hope in a jar’ for decades, Neirynck is passionate about the importance of not selling unattainable beauty standards.

I don’t like the term female empowerment. It can sound condescending.

Kristof Neirynck, Global Chief Marketing Officer at Avon

Purpose Works

When it comes to purpose fatigue Neirynck is clear about the importance of making serious financial commitments to back your brand positioning. Rather than relying on glib statements about empowerment, Neirynck speaks passionately about the importance of Avon embracing feminine power.

He explains: “It’s well proven that if more women would be in charge then society as a whole would be more empowered. For me it's more about celebrating feminine power. When you celebrate it you get inspired by it, rather than being patronising.”

He believes that having a north star and a clear purpose is vital to marketing leadership, yet it is not the only ingredient for success. He explains: “The only way for a brand to grow old is to marry purpose and commerce in a meaningful way. If you are here to stay for the long run you need that balance.”

It is a balance he believes some brands are lacking. As he explains: “Many brands spend more money on marketing the little things they do than making a genuine difference. The examples of greenwashing, rainbow washing or cause washing are numerous.”

Yet with a cost of living crisis dominating the headlines and consumers' everyday concerns, does he believe that shoppers are prepared to pay more for brands with an authentic purpose? The short answer is no, yet he believes the long-term payoff remains clear.

While he shares his view that a purpose-driven approach can not drive short-term sales like a promotion, it can contribute to something bigger. As he explains: “It can build that trust and loyalty in the long run to give something meaningful back to society.” This is why Avon is clear that the brand does not spend more time or money on investing in PR to shout about what it is doing to support female entrepreneurs.  The investment is in the women themselves, not flimsy messaging.

For a global business this can take many forms, when the tragic earthquakes occurred in Turkey and Syria the brand stepped up to support two NGOs in Turkey: Kamer and the Federation of Women’s Associations Turkey. Organisations which support women directly in the affected region with food, warm blankets, clothes and psychological support. There was no advertising campaign to promote its donation; a powerful reminder that a true commitment to purpose is what happens when no one is watching.

The only way for a brand to grow old is to marry purpose and commerce in a meaningful way.

Kristof Neirynck, Global Chief Marketing Officer at Avon

Redefining beauty standards

At a moment in history when a growing number of female consumers simply aren’t buying empty promises - be it about brand purpose or far-flung claims around eyelash lengths - beauty marketing has never been a more vibrant space. With billions of micro-influencers ready to put any given product claim to the test on social media, it is clear that business as usual simply isn’t an option.

Today’s beauty influencers for Avon are just as comfortable hosting parties for their friends to try and buy products, as they are posting affiliate links on the social media channels. In April this year Avon made a historic shift to sell its products outside of its sales representative programme for the very first time in the brand’s 136 year history. The move follows the launch of ‘Embrace Your Power’, a global rebrand created by Wunderman Thompson.

The 'Embrace Your Power' platform cuts through with a purity of intention rarely seen in global campaigns, which all too often lose their integrity in the thousand tiny paper cuts of multi-market buy-in. Celebrating women who are living out their full potential, the campaign includes a beatboxer, an art restorer and an astronomer. The first film follows the story of beatboxer Hamzaa, who showcases both her own unique talent and Avon’s hydramatic matte lipstick.

The campaign reflects an important challenge for beauty brands, which must attempt to walk a tightrope of being aspirational without alienating consumers by selling women unobtainable, suffocating standards.

It may well be almost a decade since Protein World urged women to be ‘beach body ready’ but in the era of TikTok filters like Bold Glamour, brands are still guilty of perpetuating toxic standards.

It is clear this evolution of beauty culture is driven by marketers such as Neiryck who understand the responsibility of their reach. As he explains: “It’s the responsibility of a beauty brand to not market unattainable beauty standards.”

He shares that when he talks to friends who don’t work in the beauty industry there is a growing understanding that beauty brands should not be pressuring women into looking a certain way.

For Neirynck this means the brand is focused on embracing diversity in terms such as age range, ethnicity and body type. “We look at inclusivity in the very broadest sense,” he explains. Sharing the need to audit every single element of the brand’s marketing mix. “The question for marketers is is the diversity you intended being portrayed to consumers. The prevailing aesthetic is what you are spending the money on.”

As he explains: “The devil is in the detail, we avoid excessive retouching and we work to really strong standards.”

He believes that this focus on inclusivity drives aspiration. “When you talk to many marketers they will say that beauty has to be aspirational. For me, that aspiration comes from the person and how amazing she is, not from unrealistic images,” he explains. In short, you do not need an unrealistic aesthetic to sell best in class beauty products.  

The question for marketers is is the diversity you intended being portrayed to consumers. The prevailing aesthetic is what you are spending the money on.

Kristof Neirynck, Global Chief Marketing Officer at Avon

Extreme convenience

Avon’s beauty revolution is happening in real time on social media. Avon representatives themselves are becoming beauty influencers in their own right. 

Yet while Neirynck believes that omnichannel growth does not mean that face-to-face relationships are running out of steam. He points to the resilience of retail post-pandemic as an important trend for marketers to recognise and respond to. In Turkey, Avon has 50 retail stores and franchises open in person stores. He points to the decline of the direct to consumer brands that rose so rapidly as consumers stayed at home in the midst of the pandemic, yet have struggled to build long-term loyalty amongst consumers.

The rise and rise of extreme convenience is a trend no brand can afford to ignore. As Neirynck explains: “Avon is now catching up to what has been a clear dynamic in customer expectations. You have to put your customer in the centre of everything you are doing. If you are a customer who wants to explore and find new things then Amazon offers that one stop shop.”

The brand is also making significant investments in its own online platform, with a relaunch expected over the next 6 to 9 months.

The future of social commerce

Avon’s shifting digital strategy is a reflection of the evolution of  what direct sales means for brands more broadly. Neirynck explains that the experience is shifting from the era in which every Avon representative went door to door to sell their products. He points to the example of a recent tinted lipstick generating huge sales from a single TikTok review from a single post from an Avon representative.

Each Avon representative has access to their own digital ecosystem; each sharing their own links on social media to sell. A version of the affiliate link model that has driven social commerce.

In many ways, the affiliate model is simply a digital execution of the diffused model of influence the Avon brand has been built on historically. Just as brands are waking up to the power of ‘micro-influencers’ (individuals consumers trust and relate to on their social media channels) Avon has long built it's brand value on the relationships and trust women place in each other. In this way the brand's digital evolution is an evolution of the simple truth: people buy things from people they trust.

“Social commerce is the model of the future, but we had an analogue model of that diffused model of influence. Our representatives are all role models. They are micro-influencers in their own way and that’s a key strategy for us,” explains Neirynck.

He believes that social commerce takes many forms and the brand is applying learnings from the APAC region, which he believes is a step ahead of the curve, globally. Sharing a story of an Avon representative's honest review of a body lotion generating 6,000 orders it is clear that social platforms are opening new doors for the brand’s female entrepreneurs.

He explains: “In Asia social culture is very well embedded. I do think that over time we will see more digital experiences, that authentic influence is really key to growth.” However, he warns that inauthentic celebrity and influencer collaborations simply don’t work.

“Where influencer marketing does not work is when it is just a one off thing,” he says pointing to the fact that their biggest sales spikes have been from organic reviews. “We work with people who are already using and talking about our products. mid-size and micro influencers can really build a brand,” he adds.

The power of active listening

It is clear that Avon is a brand that is in tune with beauty culture. At a time when it is so easy for brands to become disconnected with their audience's lives, Neirynck displays a detailed understanding of what is driving the brand forward on the ground. It is that understanding of how and where Avon’s products show up in consumers' lives beyond the above-the-line marketing campaign which make Neirynck such an effective global operator. The ability to get under the skin of product sales bursts in individual markets, while also driving the broader strategic purpose of the brand.

As a marketer, Neirynck ensures the brand is evolving at the speed of culture. This means that staying creative, curious and outward-looking is vital. As he explains: “For every trend that you thought was going to come, from the Metaverse to social selling, there was a belief that everything would be delivered quickly through the big influencers.” However, as he explains these shifts are taking more time and not always being delivered at scale. Just because the concept of the ‘metaverse’ has run out of steam in the press, it does not render digital experiences useless for every business. Patience, it seems, is the modem marketer's secret weapon.

Keeping creative also means taking the time to look up. As Neirynck explains: “Often you can get so bogged down in the short term in a new product launch. It is really important to set a budget aside for long-term foundational or cultural research.” This long-term investment is particularly vital for a global brand. As Neirynck explains: “The markets are very different in Brazil or Mexico than in the Philippines, it is important to set aside time and budget to really understand culture.”

Social listening and learning

He is equally eloquent of the power of arguably the most underutilised tool in marketing: social listening. Which is not just a case of outsourcing to an agency and gaining your understanding of social culture through yet another agency deck. As he explains: “Make sure you and your teams spend time on TikTok to understand what Is happening there.”

For brands riding the social commerce wave it's important to get in and test the water. For Avon, this means understanding why there has been a spike in sales of a particular shade of lip oil.

Avon’s London head office opens next July and Neirynck has predominantly been remote working for the past year and a half. His expertise effortlessly cuts a swathe through the accepted narrative that working from home kills creativity. 

Yet he is equally clear that it is important to immerse yourself in the learning experience and connect with your teams. He explains:  “I do reverse mentoring with younger people in my team and I really believe it's important to go to events like CES and be there to really look at what is going on.”

He also warns marketing leaders to avoid thinking in silos. His message is simple yet easy to miss in an industry fixated on what their direct competitors are up to. “Look beyond your category,” he says.

For Avon that ability to look up and out is powered by the brands 5 million representatives, which he believes are a huge advantage. The brand has now formalised its insights through the ‘beauty insiders’ programme which enables representatives to co-develop products and communication platforms.

When you talk to many marketers they will say that beauty has to be aspirational. For me, that aspiration comes from the person and how amazing she is, not from an unrealistic image

Kristof Neirynck, Global Chief Marketing Officer at Avon

Looking outwards to raise the bar

At a time when marketers and creative alike are waging a daily war with the diaries to carve out the time for thinking space, Neirynck offers a key insight into keeping creative. Namely, companies and individuals alike must guard against becoming too internally focused. In essence, if you want to be creative, to understand and reflect culture, you must exist within it.

This is an important insight when it comes to the rise of in-house agencies. As Neirynck shares: “During the pandemic, we did a lot of our creative in-house and that creative organisation was very internally focused.” Now, with the Embrace Your Power platform, the brand has experienced a ‘real reset’ creatively.

It was a reset which was also driven by external agencies; Wunderman Thompson and Free the Birds. Both bring with them energy, people, ideas and that all-important desire to challenge and question. As Neirynck explains, their expertise both helped raise the bar and ensured that internal creative teams had access to their talent. 

As a global brand built on the sweat and steps of female entrepreneurs, Avon is a brand that many consumers are comfortable with. It is to Neirynck’s credit that his passion and drive has ensured the brand doesn’t sit still within the comfort of being such a well-recognised trusted global brand.  The future of marketing depends on marketers who have both the passion and drive to look outwards. As well as the courage to embrace the inherent discomfort of cultural change, digital acceleration and embracing a true commitment to redefining what aspiration means for the modern female consumer. A model of aspiration built upon celebrating women for who they are, not what some outdated beauty ideal says they should be.