Makeup Giant Mary Kay Ramps Up Social, Mobile Efforts

Direct Seller Is in Talks With Shops to Pitch Social-Media Biz; Plans Rollout of Customizable Web Tools Next Year

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After nearly 50 years of building its brand by knocking on doors, Texas-based cosmetics company Mary Kay is plotting a major marketing shift, with plans to funnel a chunk of its budget into social-media promotion and mobile commerce.

According to people familiar with the matter, the company is in talks with a variety of agencies to pitch for its social-media business.

Given rising competition in the space from retailers who have wield both bricks-and-mortar stores and online shopping channels -- such as Sephora or Ulta, or online sellers such as Avon and Mark -- you could say Mary Kay is arriving late to the online party. But, if all goes according to plan, it might wind up catching lost ground in the mobile space. Starting in 2012, the company plans to roll out customizable web tools onto the iPhone, iPad and Droid platforms, according to a person close to the matter.

It's a major change of direction for a brand that relies on seller recruitment and has historically shuns traditional advertising in favor of word-of -mouth. The company spent just $6.8 million on measured media in 2010, according to Kantar, relying instead on its salesforce of nearly 2 million individuals selling in 35 markets. Much of its growth is coming from outside the U.S.; its newest markets are Singapore, Armenia and Asia.

A company spokesman told Ad Age that Mary Kay is not ready to announce its plans heading into its annual leadership conference in January.

But the social-media search isn't expected to affect its public relations agency of record, Coyne PR.

Mary Kay says it has more than $2.5 billion in annual wholesale sales worldwide. In the first half of 2011, it saw a 9.5% increase in independent sales force members in the United States, compared to the same period in 2010, and March 2011 represented the highest sales month in company history.

Today, the private company has more than 600,000 Facebook fans, a YouTube channel, an e-catalog that connects consumers with "beauty consultants" online, a Virtual Makeover platform and a shareable Personal Beauty Profiler. These platforms serve as promotional tools for sellers, who also use their own Facebook and Twitter accounts, as they attempt to generate revenue and recruit individuals.

In 2009, Amy Robinson, now senior VP-communications for the Direct Selling Association, told Ad Age that historically during a recession, GDP has gone up on average just 0.8%, while direct sales increased 4.5%. In 2008, when the economy cast a dark cloud over most traditional retailers, Mary Kay took advantage of its opportunity to attract new sellers. At the time, Ad Age reported that it launched its first TV recruiting campaign and revamped its online site and rep promotions, resulting in a 108% increase in visits to the "Sell Mary Kay" section of its website in the first three days.