Headquarters: Addison, Texas
Top Executive: President and CEO David Holl
2015 Revenue: $3.70 billion
Products: Cosmetics, personal care
Like the pink Cadillacs it awards to top sellers, today’s Mary Kay retains a classic feel while embracing innovative thinking and design. The 53-year-old beauty company has built a widely recognized and respected brand by staying in tune with the evolving needs of its customers and consultants. On the product side, Mary Kay has expanded its portfolio to serve women at all stages of life. The company’s marketing strategies introduce clients to the cosmetics and the business opportunity in fresh ways, such as sponsorships of the reality television show Project Runway and the Academy of Country Music Awards. And of course, no entity can remain cutting edge without engaging the ever-changing world of technology.
The latest phase in the beauty company’s technology evolution is the myCustomers+ app, described as a “virtual assistant” for the Mary Kay Independent Beauty Consultant. With such capabilities as creating sales tickets and managing inventory, myCustomers+ helps consultants streamline their businesses in an increasingly mobile and connected world. Recent research by digital advertising firm Criteo found that in the fourth quarter of 2015, mobile devices accounted for 30 percent of all e-commerce transactions, edging up from 27 percent a year earlier. The trend toward mobile is not surprising considering that, back in 2013, United Nations research found that more people on Earth had access to cellphones than to toilets.
Direct selling is by nature a mobile business, and uniquely positioned to leverage mobile technology, because the channel itself is made up of people rather than a brick-and-mortar store or a web page. Nevertheless, the oldest and largest companies find themselves facing the greatest barriers to entry when it comes to rolling out new technologies. Take an established company like Mary Kay, which has operated since 1963, the year the cassette tape and the push-button telephone were making their debut. At this institution, paper is integrated into nearly every aspect of operations, including the paper sales tickets consultants fill out with each order. It’s “the way it’s always been,” and when a new way is introduced, it disrupts not a sales team of 35 or even 350, but 3.5 million consultants worldwide.
A Mobile-First Mentality
Timing, then, is key to launching any new tool or process, and in the case of myCustomers+ the stage has been set for Mary Kay. Widespread use of mobile tools means the company is not pushing its sellers to a new platform but meeting them where they already are, as high early adoption rates of the app confirm. “We’re looking at everything with a mobile-first mentality, because that’s where our salesforce is today. Our consultants are very adaptable, and I think anyone in today’s world knows digital is where it’s happening in the future,” says Jill Wedding, Director of U.S. Consultant Marketing, Mary Kay.
While mobile technology is increasingly appealing to today’s consumer, it is virtually nonnegotiable for Gen Y—the largest segment of the American workforce, according to U.S. Census Bureau data, and the fastest-growing segment of Mary Kay’s salesforce. Women ages 18-34 accounted for 47 percent of new U.S. Mary Kay consultants in 2015. “These young women are tech-savvy and digitally connected. They’re looking for flexibility and not a 9-to-5, one-size-fits-all position,” says Mary Kay’s Vice President of U.S. Marketing, Sara Friedman. “A Mary Kay business can be customized to each person’s individual goals, and our company’s established social media presence and leading-edge digital technology have also proven to be attractive business-building tools.”
Mary Kay has actively courted Gen Y, sponsoring programs with a younger-skewing audience and even opening a skincare class to late night TV host Conan O’Brien. The company also has partnered with young faces to advance its philanthropic initiatives. Disney star Debby Ryan lent her voice to Mary Kay’s dating abuse prevention campaign, and Kelsea Ballerini, a rising country music artist, joined the company’s 2016 Global Day of Beauty initiative. The brand’s digital tools and targeted outreach have built a growing base of Gen Y consultants, and they are not a group to keep their enthusiasm to themselves. According to a 2015 Brand Passion Report by social analytics firm NetBase, Mary Kay was one of the top 30 brands talked about in beauty and skincare conversations on social media.
Expanding its digital toolbox to include a range of apps also has been part of Mary Kay’s Gen Y approach. Prior to launching myCustomers+, the company already offered a handful of apps to help consultants share the products and business opportunity. Mary Kay’s Virtual Makeover allows users to upload a photo and try out any combination of Mary Kay eye makeup and lip color, along with a variety of hairstyles and accessories. Through the eCatalog, users can browse all Mary Kay products and stay abreast of beauty trends and special offers. Another app, Mary Kay’s Digital Showcase, is tailored to consultants and features a library of mobile presentation tools.
Faster than Paper
With its newest digital offering, the company wanted to create a custom sales tool that would enable the consultant to run a business from the palm of her hand. A cross-departmental team of six was tasked with driving the project, which spanned three and a half years from ideation to launch. The team understood, says Wedding, that the Mary Kay business will always center on personal relationships, but efficiencies in other areas could free up the consultant to focus on those relationships. That meant identifying specific functions the app could carry out “faster than paper”—that mainstay of traditional direct selling businesses. According to Hope Elston, Manager of U.S. Consultant Marketing at Mary Kay, “When we started working with that motto and going out to our salesforce and talking to them, we narrowed down some key areas we felt could affect their business.”
To bring the concept to life, Mary Kay turned to another company based in the Dallas area, app development firm Bottle Rocket, whose clientele list includes such brands as Coca-Cola, Starwood Hotels & Resorts, and NBCUniversal. Bottle Rocket’s approach to development is a blend of collaboration and rapid iteration, using the Lean user experience development cycle: think, make, check. Each project begins with a discovery session, consisting of one to two days face to face with the client, getting to know the company, the customer and the competition. Coming out of this session, the team crafts a mission statement and roadmap, and then dives into the development process, rapidly experimenting with design ideas, validating them with real users, and continually making adjustments based on the results.
One of the most significant challenges the team faced was the sheer scope of myCustomers+. The app was in development for three years, in comparison to Bottle Rocket’s average timeline of four to six months. Nearly 400 feature requests were floated; 187 were incorporated into the design. “There are a lot of tools, utility and great stuff packed into this app, and it takes a lot of effort to find that simplicity on the other side of complexity,” says Renee McKeon, Bottle Rocket’s Senior Director of Strategy and Creative Director.
One of the app’s primary features is the point of sale, where the consultant can pull up the customer’s profile, place a new order and email a receipt. Using a scanning tool, the consultant can scan any product to automatically add it to the order. The scanning feature also assists in managing inventory, another focus of the app. Historically, as a consultant’s business grew, inventory management became an increasingly time-consuming process. She might enlist the help of an assistant or spouse, or purchase software to expedite the process. Now, when the consultant receives a new shipment, she can scan the Mary Kay shipping label to instantly update her inventory. The app also notifies her when product levels fall below set minimums.
Additional features support the daily activities of building a business. Consultants who have been with Mary Kay for any amount of time will recognize “My 6 Things,” a task list appearing on the screen in interactive bubbles, which pop when the task is marked complete. The list is based on a practice taught by Mary Kay Ash, the company’s founder, who trained consultants to start each day with a “6 Most Important Things to Do” list. Another feature allows the consultant to tag specific groups of customers for targeted messages or promotions. She also receives a notification when a customer places an order on her personal Mary Kay website or has an anniversary or birthday.
Despite the app’s numerous capabilities, the goal was to provide a tool that anyone—tech savvy or not—could navigate with ease. One example of usability is what the team calls the “magic button,” a fixed button at the bottom of the screen. On any page of the app, a press of the button pulls up the functionality most commonly associated with that page. “We wanted an app so easy to use that no matter who you are, when you open it up, it is intuitive and you can figure out where to find things and how to do things,” says Elston.
Since the technology went live in July, the response from consultants has exceeded expectations. On launch day, the beauty company sent text notifications to consultants at the National Sales Director and Sales Director levels, alerting them to the availability of the app. Within the first week, Mary Kay was halfway to its Oct. 1 goal for subscribers, who pay $4.99 a month to use myCustomers+. The official launch took place between July 24 and Aug. 6, when 30,000 Mary Kay consultants traveled to Dallas for Seminar, the company’s annual salesforce training and recognition event. Mary Kay promoted myCustomers+ throughout the event with special expo areas, social media promotions and giveaways, and giant iTab touchscreens featuring the technology. When the final wave of Seminar came to a close, subscriptions had surpassed 8,600.
At Bottle Rocket, the desks are on wheels, and each client is assigned a cross-disciplinary team that literally comes together by relocating workspaces and carrying the project to completion.
The Age of the Customer
All those subscribers represent an unprecedented opportunity for Mary Kay to glean insights into its business. According to Brian Hopkins, a Vice President and Principal Analyst covering data management for Forrester Research, the goal of such technology is not simply to collect sales and inventory data, but to deliver it in a way that helps consultants develop and maintain the personal relationships that ultimately drive sales. “What Mary Kay and every direct selling business has to do is adapt the uniqueness of the way they do business to that idea of humans and algorithms working together to support and drive those loyal customer relationships,” Hopkins says.
The ability to collect data and extract insights, which are then used to personalize the customer experience, has given rise to what Forrester calls “The Age of the Customer.” In this new paradigm, customers—and in Mary Kay’s case, consultants—are looking not just to one platform or another, but how they work together to provide a seamless experience. As a result, the companies successfully leveraging customer data are those that have shifted their focus from cold hard sales to digital relationships software. “The result of that software-enhanced relationship is the fact that you’re moving product,” says Hopkins.
As in any good relationship, Mary Kay is paying close attention to the needs of the consultant, who inspired the creation of myCustomers+ and will determine its next phase. “We were looking for a customized solution for our salesforce,” says Wedding. “They do so much every day in the field, and we wanted to make it something that allowed them to easily track their inventory in real time and simplify how they run a Mary Kay business.” In September, the company will introduce a suggested wholesale order based on recent business activity; however, the next big feature will be based on feedback from built-in surveys. Whatever may appear in future iterations, myCustomers+ is already mobilizing the Mary Kay salesforce, and to quote one top consultant who tested the app, “This is a game changer.”
That focus on the consultant will drive not just new iterations of myCustomers+ but Mary Kay’s overall business strategy. In this way, the company can continue to reinvent itself to appeal to new generations through innovative technology and fresh marketing and sales strategies. As Forrester’s Hopkins says: “The best analytics and insight engine that we have is what’s in between the sales consultant’s ears.”