Mary Kay Cosmetics is a direct sales company specializing in beauty products, especially skin care and makeup. The company, begun in Dallas, Texas in 1963 by Mary Kay Ash, is known for its conservative corporate culture and the pink Cadillacs that the company offers as rewards for top sellers. The company operates through a multilevel system of marketing. Salespeople (almost all are women) make the bulk of their profits not through their own sales, but by recruiting other independent beauty consultants to serve on their sales team, whom they oversee as independent sales directors. The company sells products to consultants and directors at wholesale prices (traditionally half the market price) and the salespeople market those products through skin care classes, usually hosted by their friends, neighbors, and family members. Most consultants work irregular and infrequent hours selling Mary Kay products, and the majority of consultants cannot rely on their direct sales income alone.
Critics have compared the company to a pyramid scheme. Because sales directors and the corporation itself depend on the purchase of products at wholesale prices from new consultants, the corporate focus is on continually enlisting new recruits and encouraging them to buy large quantities of product to start up their businesses. Detractors suggest that assisting consultants in selling that product, so that they, too, will profit, is a secondary priority.
As founder, Mary Kay Ash served as the charismatic leader of the company for nearly four decades. She died in 2001, but the company continues to rely heavily on Ash’s image and writings to motivate its sales force and recruit new consultants. Ash’s autobiography, Mary Kay, first published in 1981, was a mixture of Christianity, self-help literature, and business advice, and it is offered as a motivational guide to new consultants. Ash urged her consultants to share her priorities of “God first, family second, career third.” She promised that a well-managed career selling her cosmetics would make fulfillment of those priorities possible. According to company recruiting literature, Mary Kay Cosmetics offers a more supportive, flexible atmosphere for women than the traditional business world.
The company motto promises that the priority is “enriching women’s lives.” Ash encouraged consultants to sell products through parties, a sales strategy perfected by Brownie Wise at Tupperware in the 1950s and 1960s. Mary Kay describes the parties as facials or skin care classes to emphasize the education and personalized attention that a beauty consultant can offer her customers. By conducting these events in the home of the consultants’ friends or family members, the guests can encounter significant peer pressure to purchase products. The company has marketed its products as luxury items, priced higher than most drugstore cosmetics and skin care products. In 2007, the company boasted 2.4 billion dollars of wholesale sales.