Venus and Serena become Avon's new leading ladies

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Venus and Serena Williams are not your typical Avon ladies, but the sisters will pitch the company's family values in its next campaign, breaking next week.

The two are featured, posing and playing, in corporate branding TV spots which begin airing Jan. 29. They are also featured in print ads, which will follow in April magazines. The print ads show a black and white picture of the two, urging readers to "dream big." The new ads, created in-house by Avon Creative Agency, continue Avon's year-old tagline, "Let's Talk."

Besides the corporate ads, as part of their three-year contract, the sisters also will endorse Avon Wellness, a line of vitamins and nutritional supplements that will launch in the second half of this year as a joint venture with Swiss pharmaceutical company Roche Holding AG. The tennis champs will be the first athletes to endorse Avon since runner Jackie Joyner-Kersee appeared in Avon ads during the 1996 Olympics.

Avon was initially approached by IMG, the sisters' agent, said Janice Spector, Avon's senior director, global advertising. Initially, execs were cautious about how the signing of two well-known celebrities would affect Avon's everywoman image, but the sisters matched Avon's corporate values, including a focus on women's educational and charitable causes, Ms. Spector said. Venus Williams recently signed a $40 million endorsement deal with sportswear giant Reebok. The value of the Avon contract wasn't disclosed.

"These were two very young women who were all about empowerment and caring and sharing," said Ms. Spector. "Their appeal goes very far and wide." Additionally, the Williams sisters are both fashionistas who attend design school-another plus for Avon, which has been trying to create a more fashionable image for itself.

Avon has struggled to deliver strong financial results in the face of competition from retailers such as Sephora and e-tailers such as the expected relaunch of by Estee Lauder Cos. It's tinkered with its direct marketing model, looking for ways to supplement the Avon Ladies via mall kiosks and the Internet.

Last fall, the company announced it will introduce a new retail brand, called Becoming, which will be available through in-store shops within Sears, Roebuck & Co. and J.C. Penney Co. stores starting in the second quarter. That concept will be backed by an ad campaign from J. Walter Thompson, New York.

Avon's earnings have met the Street's expectations, but several analysts remain concerned about slow sales growth.

Earlier this month, CEO Andrea Jung told an industry group Avon management is confident the company will deliver improved results. She said Avon expects fourth-quarter earnings will be in line with the Street's estimates of 65 cents per share and 2000 earnings will meet the expected $1.87 per share, a 14% increase over 1999 earnings. At a household products conference sponsored by Goldman Sachs, she said Avon will continue to increase spending on its brands, likely to exceed the $100 million investment in marketing and promotions in 2000.

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