CMO of the Week: Mary Kay's Sheryl Adkins-Green

With ubiquitous mask use part of Americans’ daily lives for nearly a full year now, one would think the beauty trends from pre-pandemic times would have pivoted dramatically. But based on data from the independent salesforce at Mary Kay, Inc., the pioneering direct marketing beauty company founded by Mary Kay Ash in 1963, a few mainstays have yet to take a hiatus. 

With ubiquitous mask use part of Americans’ daily lives for nearly a full year now, one would think the beauty trends from pre-pandemic times would have pivoted dramatically. But based on data from the independent salesforce at Mary Kay, Inc., the pioneering direct marketing beauty company founded by Mary Kay Ash in 1963, a few mainstays have yet to take a hiatus. 

“Some people would say you probably aren’t selling as much lipstick with people wearing masks,” says Sheryl Adkins-Green, chief marketing officer at Mary Kay, Inc. since 2009. “Actually, among our independent salesforce, we’re seeing that our color cosmetics are selling well. Because when people are on those Zoom calls, they still want to make sure they put their best face forward, if you will. Makeup is fun, and for many women they just felt like it was one of the few parts of their daily routine that they could maintain. It’s a ritual that makes them feel like things are just a little normal.”

What has changed for Mary Kay, however, is how its salesforce of independent representatives sells its products. Prior to lockdown, Mary Kay relied primarily on in-person events, conferences and parties to let prospective customers experience its makeup and beauty products. But with all of those experiences on hold for the better part of the last year and counting, Mary Kay’s sales model has shifted to online events and increased use of its apps for virtual product try-ons. “We needed to transition from what used to be high-energy, in-person recognition events into virtual platforms to create that same sense of excitement and sense of community that makes the independent salesforce feel so special and recognized for their hard work,” Adkins-Green says.

Enter country superstar Keith Urban, who played a live, virtual concert at Mary Kay’s leadership conference in early February to entertain the company’s salesforce with music and a message of female empowerment. “I’m not sure we would have been able to pull together or afford as big of a live event in-person, to be honest, but it was something we were thrilled to pull off,” Adkins-Green says.

Brand Innovators caught up with Adkins-Green from her home in Dallas (where she was in the midst of the recent Texas winter-weather blackouts) to learn more about the company’s pivots from the past year, the new product trends that are driving Mary Kay’s business in the current beauty marketplace and why equality continues to play a foundational role in her marketing efforts. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

What are some ways the COVID-19 pandemic initially impacted your business when shelter-in-place first went into effect nationwide, and what are some pivots you made to your business to address the new market conditions?

There were a lot of new capabilities we collectively discovered where were able to do a lot with what we have. Most immediately, one of the biggest pivots was really supporting frontline workers with hand sanitizers. This goes back to March when everyone was realizing how serious the pandemic was, and one of the things that we identified was that there was a shortage of hand sanitizer. We were able to quickly get cleared as a manufacturer and turn it around in about 10 days, delivering hundreds of thousands of cases of hand sanitizers to all 50 states.  We worked with the Baylor Scott & White Dallas Foundation to distribute it where it was most needed. And that exercise was important because it immediately gave us the confidence that we could as an organization move very quickly. 

And on the salesforce side, we saw our app downloads basically doubled within the first month or two. Things like our Mirror Me makeup app, where you can digitally try on products, or our Skin Analyzer app, we can definitely see just from the analytics that the salesforce very quickly took advantage of the digital tools we had in place. And from a marketing standpoint, what we prioritized was making sure the independent salesforce has a constant stream of content so that when they were conducting sales, whether it was a digital party or a one-on-one consultation with their client, that they had product education, the tools and the images they needed to conduct their business digitally.

How have changing beauty trends shown up in your business, and what new trends have cropped up as a result? What products were most popular among your consumer pre-pandemic, and which have become more popular this past year?

We’ve definitely seen a surge in skincare product sales as well as hand care. These are categories that were always strong for Mary Kay, but we’ve definitely seen big increases as women and men wanted to take care of themselves a little more. They had more time to spend on their skincare routines, and more time to learn about what their skin needs. 

That worked very well with our business model, because people want to make sure they’re using the right products for their skin. And because the independent salesforce has the knowledge and product portfolio, they’re well-equipped to provide that kind of customized advice as well as customized service to their customer because they had to have the opportunity to deliver products locally, through contactless delivery. They also have an option to leverage Mary Kay to fulfill an order on their behalf, so I think the combination of our service model as well as that personalized advice has been a big positive for Mary Kay. 

We were also seeing more demand for skincare products like our Hydrogel eye patches. With more people spending more time onscreen, they're conscientious about their image but also just the eyestrain and fatigue from being onscreen all day, so those products have done well.

How has the global discourse around racial justice impacted you as a personal level, and what are some actions you've been able to take as a marketer to further improve the diversity efforts within Mary Kay and its communications? 

Certainly on a personal level, the events over last summer were extremely painful to watch — particularly as a mother of two young men, seeing the stories unfold. And this wasn’t new, but when it’s on your TV, on your phone 24/7, it’s very painful. And we often talk about the events of the summer, but these events didn’t start in the summer nor have they ended in terms of social injustice. Yes it was front and center on TV this summer, but the situation and the concerns remain.

Coming back to my perspective and my role as CMO, Mary Kay has been dedicated to equality from day one. It was really one of the things that inspired Mary Kay Ash to create this business, because she wanted women to have an equal opportunity to pursue a financial and earning priority and balance life’s priorities. Importantly, this opportunity was available to all women, so really from day one that company's values have always appreciated and respected diversity. 

One of Mary Kay Ash’s favorite teachings was, “Picture an invisible sign around each person’s neck that says, ‘Make me feel important.’” Because she really did value each person’s unique gifts. So whether it’s in our marketing materials or how we think about the product offering, there’s always been an appreciation of the importance of meeting the needs of all people, of all women, and certainly as a global brand in more than 35 countries. That’s something my team and I are always tuning into, whether it’s local preferences, color preferences, shade preferences, et cetera. 

What I’ve been doing more recently is leveraging my platform to really help others better understand what diversity and inclusion really involves. You may have heard this definition, but diversity is being invited to the dance, and inclusion is being asked to dance. And that’s the same whether it’s a workplace organization or a social organization. Certainly I've been asked to speak, to share, to be more vulnerable and transparent about some of my experiences and sentiments, and I feel very fortunate that I am a part of the Mary Kay organization and an executive team that does stand up for social justice. We are a voice, and hopefully a positive role model about the power of inclusion.

You've been with Mary Kay for 12 years. What are some brand pillars you've identified for the company, and how have you activated against them this past year?

Certainly coming into this role and a brand with amazing DNA that goes back to Mary Kay Ash, it truly is a gift and not something you come in and rewrite. But at the same time my focus has been to ensure that the tenets of the brand and our values are always conveyed in a relevant way so that the brand’s story does stay fresh and meaningful to every generation of beauty lovers. So while empowerment has always been the cornerstone of the brand, I’ve focused on two important dimensions of empowerment – confidence and community. The work that the team and I do on a regular basis focused on that message of confidence, Mary Kay always encouraging people saying you can do it – and one of the things we do to complement that message is to bring that voice of confidence and the imagery of confidence and make sure that that's captured and reflected in all elements of marketing. 

What new initiatives are you excited about for 2021?

As I mentioned before, skincare has been a very important category, and one of the things that we saw an opportunity for was a more advanced level of skincare — something that would be along the lines of what you might seek to get from a dermatologist. 

The big news is that in the United States we are launching a brand new line of products under the new brand Clinical Solutions, and the first products we’re launching under this new brand is a retinol product. It not only delivers great results — and we have clinical claims to support that — but importantly we are launching this with a soothing milk product along with a retianization protocol. Basically, it’s a process that an independent beauty consultant can guide her customer base through in terms of starting with retinol, perhaps every couple of days, and then gradually increasing the usage so that the experience is comfortable for that customer. 

Andrew Hampp is an entertainment marketing consultant for Brand Innovators and the founder of consultancy 1803 LLC, based in Berkeley, California.

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