To understand how network marketing works, it may be helpful to think of a business model that most consumers are familiar with, franchising. In a franchise, an owner pays a company for the right to do business using that company’s products, services, and name. The parent company agrees to provide the owner with training, development, advertising and marketing support. While the name on the outside of the building is that of the parent company, the actual location is privately owned by an independent business owner.
During the Obama administration, the Federal Trade Commission made its biggest-ever effort to curb this industry when last summer it slapped nutritional supplement–seller Herbalife with a $200 million fine and, as part of a settlement with Herbalife, demanded it restructure its business so that it would “start operating legitimately,” as FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez put it. The FTC alleged Herbalife had engaged in “unfair and deceptive practices,” and put it under a federal monitor for seven years, demanding onerous changes to its compensation plan and requiring extensive documentation of customer sales. Ramirez then set down an ambitious posture for the FTC: In the future, she said at an MLM industry conference in October, these companies should adopt the new Herbalife rules when structuring their businesses, as the FTC would be watching.
The Internet has made it so easy now. In the old days you had to actually visit people, or at least call them, to pitch your fabulous new opportunity. Face-to-face marketing is still practiced, but it is not so common these days. Besides, no one really loves the idea of having someone over, so they go online where everyone can be as safe as they want. They create sites with videos, testimonials, and pictures.
Take Rodan+Fields, a skincare line developed by the dermatologists who created Proactive. It’s supposed be top-notch stuff. When they initially launched the product, they went the traditional retail route. Estee Lauder then bought the company for an undisclosed amount and continued to sell it through traditional retail. Sales of Rodan+Fields were surprisingly lackluster, however, so its former owners bought the company back and implemented the MLM model. Sales of the product skyrocketed to over a billion dollars. They’d claim it was thanks to the word-of-mouth marketing MLMs facilitate. I’d venture to guess it had more to do with the fact they have a captive customer base amongst the hundreds of thousands of distributors who are required to make minimum purchase amounts each month and recruit other distributors who will have to make minimum purchase amounts each month too.
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