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International expansion opportunities for multi-level marketing via personal networks: An ethnographic study from Colombia

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Although multi-level marketing (MLM) and direct sales companies have risen controversies and ethical concerns in recent years, MLM has rapidly expanded to developing and emerging markets in the last decades. Companies like Yanbal, Amway and Oriflame, are some of the multinationals that have internationalized in the Latin America and the Caribbean. Through a grounded theory approach, and using Colombia as a sample of a Latin American country, the internationalization of these companies was analyzed. A vast amount of the data collection for this study was gathered through an ethnographic immersion, and through participant observation, the activities and recruiting practices of these firms was analyzed to determine if they provided international income opportunities in the bottom of the pyramid (BOP) markets. The ethnographic research found that several multi-level and direct sales companies provide international income opportunities, but do not contribute to the increase of formal jobs creation. The results of this study contribute to the existing literature on multi-level marketing and direct retailing firms and the study provides insights about the internationalization of the MLM companies operating in countries with a predominant population at the BOP through personal networks.
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INTERNATIONAL EXPANSION OPPORTUNITIES FOR
MULTI-LEVEL MARKETING VIA PERSONAL NETWORKS:
AN ETHNOGRAPHIC STUDY FROM COLOMBIA
William Franco
Universidad EAFIT
Maria Alejandra Gonzalez-Perez
Universidad EAFIT
♣ Corresponding author: Department of Management, Business School, Universidad EAFIT Carrera 49 N° 7 Sur – 50, Bl. 26-416
Medellin, Colombia. Email: mgonza40@eat.edu.co
International Journal of Business and Society, Vol. 17 No. 1, 2016, 28 - 46
ABSTRACT
Although multi-level marketing (MLM) and direct sales companies have risen controversies
and ethical concerns in recent years, MLM has rapidly expanded to developing and emerging
markets in the last decades. Companies like Yanbal, Amway and Oriame, are some of the
multinationals that have internationalized in the Latin America and the Caribbean. Through a
grounded theory approach, and using Colombia as a sample of a Latin American country, the
internationalization of these companies was analyzed. A vast amount of the data collection
for this study was gathered through an ethnographic immersion, and through participant
observation, the activities and recruiting practices of these rms was analyzed to determine if
they provided international income opportunities in the bottom of the pyramid (BOP) markets.
The ethnographic research found that several multi-level and direct sales companies provide
international income opportunities, but do not contribute to the increase of formal jobs
creation. The results of this study contribute to the existing literature on multi-level marketing
and direct retailing rms and the study provides insights about the internationalization of the
MLM companies operating in countries with a predominant population at the BOP through
personal networks.
Keywords: Internationalization; Multi-level Marketing; Direct Sales; BOP; Latin America;
Business Networks.
“This business opportunity is for those who want to succeed as independent entrepreneurs
and not worry wondering if you are going to be employed or not in the future. Not having to
wonder what are you going to do to survive another month because your salary is not enough”
(Amway Host, 2014).
1. INTRODUCTION
Although, the business model of multi-level marketing (MLM) was created in 1945 (Bosley
& McKaege, 2015), MLM and direct sales companies have risen controversies in recent
times (Feinberg & Eastick, 1997; Peterson & Albaum, 2007); however, the sales of multi-
level marketing (MLM) and direct retailing companies in Latin American and the Caribbean
29
(LAC) countries has experienced signicant growth in past years (WFDSA, 2012, 2013), and
is expected to experience a 4% constant compound annual growth until 2018 (Euromonitor
International, 2014b). Amway and Avon are popular United States based multinationals in
the MLM industry that have grown and consolidated in the Latin American markets. Yanbal
(Peruvian) and Natura (Brazilian), both Latin American MLM companies in the cosmetics and
personal care industry, have also emerged and conquered markets in their own region. The latter
mentioned are major participants in their industry. According to Euromonitor International
(2014) Latin America has been a market revolution of expectations in beauty and cosmetics.
MLM companies, have no barriers to expand their selling network as they accept independent
and casual consultants regardless of education level, work availability, age, experience,
socio-economic status, or gender (Albaum & Peterson, 2011; Bloch, 1996; Choudhary &
Kamal, 2013; Croft & Woodruffe, 1996; Nga & Mun, 2011). Therefore, these companies
can provide an income opportunity to those who are currently outside the labor market, aim
for complementary income opportunities, or are seeking entrepreneurial freedom. According
to Gordan (2010), “Colombia mirrors solid beauty industry growth seen elsewhere in Latin
America”. The country has is reaching a ceiling of sales and penetration of the direct selling
business model, even at clients at the bottom of the pyramid, which has become more
aspirational with a better economic landscape (Euromonitor International, 2015b; Mason
et al, 2013). With this information in context, and using Colombia as model representing a
Latin American country, reason why this country was chosen as the context of the study, this
research aims to provide a deep analysis of the latent internationalization of the selling and
consuming system of multi-level marketing multinationals in LAC by targeting the bottom
of pyramid by providing promising income (and consumption) opportunities to its network.
Also, it intends to explore if the distributors (independent agents, associates, etc.) may obtain
an international income opportunity from these rms. Lastly, this research aims to explore if
the internationalization of MLM companies in Latin America might increase self-employment
in countries with a large proportion of citizens at the BOP.
In order to design and to conduct this study, an academic literature was conducted on the
relationship between multi-level, direct selling (due to its ties with MLM companies) and self-
initiated expatriation took place. Then, a grounded theory approached process for both data
collection and data analysis was carried out through an ethnographic immersion, and it was
complemented with data collected and systematized from secondary sources, such as corporate
reports and specialized business media. The study was developed in Colombia due to the
proximity of the researchers to the country. Additionally, Colombia is an emerging economy
country (Bremmer, 2015) which can serve as a representation for other Latin American and
Caribbean countries (Gonzalez-Perez & Velez-Ocampo, 2014). Most importantly, Colombia
holds the twelfth position worldwide in MLM revenue and is on the top 10 worldwide list of
MLM highest percent growth (Tortora, 2014). The chosen companies for the study are Yanbal
(Peru), Amway (United States) and Oriame (Sweden). These companies were selected on
the basis of their popularity at the time in Colombia and that all three were on the top 15 best
MLM’s in Latin America, with Amway holding the rst place (Castrejon, 2014). Lastly, results
and limitations from this research are presented and it is made evident a signicant contribution
to the International Business eld by expanding the under rigorously researched understanding
of MLM, and also by providing lights in their process of international expansion.
International Expansion Opportunities for Multi-Level Marketing via Personal
Networks: An Ethnographic Study from Colombia
30
The remainder of paper is structured as follows:
Section 2 discusses the previous literature related to international expansion of MLM based on
personal networks. The adopted methodological approach is offered on section 3. In this section,
a description of the studied sector and the sample characteristics is presented; furthermore,
the methodological considerations for this paper based on ground theory approach. Section
4, summarizes the main ndings of the present study, and discusses the results, and nally
section 5 provides nal conclusions of this study offering a contribution to the understanding
of international expansion of MLM.
2. LITERATURE REVIEW
This literature review presents and discusses previous works in multi-level marketing (MLM)
and their international expansion through personal networks.
MLM is a type of compensation structure, and it can be dened as a form of direct selling
and a distribution method where distributors are non-salaried, can earn income from their
sales of a product or service and can also generate a percentage of the sales executed by
the people they recruit for the company (Peterson & Albaum, 2007; Vander & Keep, 2002).
Furthermore, the distributors are commonly independent contractors that distribute their
products and recruit new members through non-traditional channels, such as door-to-door
sales, sales appointments and product parties (idem). Hence, this type of activities reduces
the involvement of the retail store, reducing distribution costs for the multi-level rms. The
distribution and growth of these networks also heavily rely on peer relationships (Albaum &
Peterson, 2011; Bloch, 1996; Choudhary & Kamal, 2013; Croft & Woodruffe, 1996; Lahiri &
Das, 2012; Nga & Mun, 2011). There are different studies describing the importance of peer
inuence in the international growth of a rm (Henkel & Block, 2013). Given that this industry
heavily relies on recruiting, their business activities constantly comes under questioning as
they are blamed of conducting pyramid schemes (Feinberg & Eastick, 1997). Some studies
(Koehn, 2001; Peterson & Albaum, 2007) have differentiated and discuss the ethical issues
between pyramid schemes and MLM. In pyramid schemes, a member makes an investment to
receive authorization to recruit others and collect a commission when those recruit others to
join the scheme. While legitimate MLMs must monitor their independent distributors to make
sure that they are conducting retail sales and charge low entry fees to market their products
(Koehn, 2001).
Considering that MLM, or network marketing as it is also known, the growth of these companies
usually depend on family ties (Croft & Woodruffe, 1999; Dai et al, 2011; Hill et al, 2006; Pratt
& Rosa, 2003; and Volinsky, 2006). Pratt and Rosa (2003) found in their analysis of 3 network
marketing companies, including Amway, that these companies placed a high importance in the
non-work lives of its members. Also, these companies encourage their distributors to recruit
others from their social and family networks. Thus, they encourage members to bring their
family into the business physically or psychologically. In the same manner, the companies
build a system of family by developing family like bonds between current distributors and
new members (Pratt and Rosa, 2003). When companies like Amway reach markets, one of
William Franco and Maria Alejandra Gonzalez-Perez
31
their methods of expansion is their effective recruiting and retention techniques. Pratt (2000)
conducted an ethnographic interview of Amway distributors and he found that members
were instilled an identication with the company through “sensebraking” and “sensegiving”
practices. Members rst went through a face where the organization changed their perspective
of them, then proceeded to create an identity within the company (Pratt, 2000). Additionally,
MLM’s usually require their new members to become their rst customers, building a
customer base before creating a distribution channel. Hill, Foster and Volinsky (2006)
explained that network marketing can be very benecial to rms as they can help pick up
the potential customers that fell through the cracks. Through the use of statistical data, Hill
et. al. (2006) analyzes network marketing and how consumers contribute to the adaption of
a service. This literature helps the internationalization case of many MLM companies by
showing that customer-to-customer relations can be very efcient at expansion because the
consumers at some point become the sellers of the same products they are consuming. These
consumers may become independent sellers for these companies because of their attractive
compensation plans and prots. Prots are made through the sales made by the seller or by the
sales generated by those whom they recruited. All the companies have different compensation
plans and “compensation plan structure can have a profound effect on how distributors’
time is spent, and therefore plays a critical role in the company’s overall growth and success
through time” (Coughlan & Grayson, 1998). Also, Croft and Woodruffe (1996) studied the
international network of MLM between the United States and Japan, and found than in certain
specic cases (when there are strong social or family bounds) network marketing channel
could be more effective. Furthermore, Dai et al (2011) found that many Chinese immigrant
in western countries began entrepreneurial activities by joining major MLM networks at their
host countries.
Business analysts have noticed that contrary to regular businesses, multi-level marketing
companies’ success run counter to economic cycles. These rms usually have their success
in countries that had just experienced an economic crisis (Cahn, 2008). In a study conducted
in Mexico, during the economic changes of the 1980s towards a more capitalistic market,
multi-level marketing companies entered the market experiencing success as the citizens were
looking to live under the new neoliberal model instead of the old social welfare system (Cahn,
2008). Masi de Casanova (2011b), conducts an ethnographic study like Cahn (2008) and
analyzes direct selling and multi-level marketing in Latin America, focusing hers in Ecuador.
Her research involved several interviews and experiencing the lives of women involved in
direct sales working for Yanbal, a leading cosmetics multi-level marketing rm from Peru.
The economic turn that Cahn (2008) discussed in his research in Mexico that led to the growth
of multi-level marketing companies, was also witnessed in Thailand by Wilson (1999). In her
study, she makes a connection between these types of companies and the informal economy
without mentioning the informal sector per se. Cahn (2008) states that after the 1997 nancial
crisis in Thailand, Thai newspapers were promoting direct sales and multi-level marketing
companies as an alternative to complement their salaries and in some cases people used it
as a source of income to avoid being unemployed. The highlight of this business is that it
provides income opportunities to low-skilled workers making it attractive to working and
low-middle class members (Wilson, 1999). Nga and Mun (2011), witnessed the growth of
International Expansion Opportunities for Multi-Level Marketing via Personal
Networks: An Ethnographic Study from Colombia
32
multi-level marketing companies in Malaysia, another emerging market country. Like Vander
et al. (2002), the authors begin by differentiating MLM with pyramid schemes. Since wages
are decreasing and unemployment is rising in the country, the authors conducted a study to
analyze perception of MLM in Malaysia by the young future university graduates and on their
willingness to take up MLM as a career. The study found that the youth in Malaysia were
willing to take MLM as a permanent career option or to supplement their income (Nga et al.,
2011).
Companies like Amway and Avon have found signicant success in internationalizing in
emerging and developing economies. It is important to understand the internationalization
strategies that rms may use to expand to foreign markets. Cuervo-Cazurra (2011) analyzed the
selection process as to which country a starts their internationalization process. In the article he
describes sequential internationalization as where companies choose countries with a psychic
distance close to the rm’s country of origin to internationalize. Furthermore, Cuervo-Cazurra
(2011) mentioned that rms required three types of knowledge to internationalize: knowledge
of complex operations for the overall foreign expansion; knowledge about foreign operations
and customers; and knowledge about norms and values in foreign countries. This may have
been the case for these companies to internationalize in the beginning stages; however, they
probably gained signicant experience in their international operations to expand to other
countries not based on psychic distance but based on other opportunities to capture new
markets. The Uppsala internationalization model also contemplated a pattern where the rm
would frequently start international operations in a market that was close, in psychic distance,
to the one of the home market to later enter markets more distant (Johanson & Vahlne, 2009).
Notwithstanding, Johanson & Vahlne (2009) revisited the model because they saw the need to
consider business networks in their model. These networks, if established beforehand, are key
to the internationalization process (Coviello, 2006). One of MLMs most crucial components
is their network of future sales staff (independent consultants), with whom the company
will hold a close tie to. This is important as it is key to have a corresponding relationship
between both parties to experience a successful internationalization (Johanson & Vahlne,
2009). The business network and level of commitment between both parties determines the
level relationship protability as a result; hence, a high level of trust is needed in order to
successfully rely on each other (Holm, Eriksson & Johanson, 1996). Holm et. al. (1999)
would later stress the need of these business networks at an international level to add value to
business operations. The business network and relationship is crucial between the MLM and
its independent distributor, but given that relationships are socially constructed, Vasilchenko &
Morrish (2011) state that these networks may later develop into greater business collaborations
and exploitation of opportunities to enter foreign markets. Liesch, Welch & Buckley (2011),
identied in their research that risk can be higher in the presence of international exposure;
hence, these networks may be useful in the process of expanding the MLM business operations
in the international arena.
This study focuses on how MLM companies internationalize in emerging. Many people
of the informal economy cannot nd formal employment due to barriers to entry. Many of
the members found at MLM events are older people, which in a country like Colombia, are
not commonly considered for formal employment. Stereotypes due to age, disabilities, and
William Franco and Maria Alejandra Gonzalez-Perez
33
disadvantages in relevant work skills, especially when competing for jobs with the young,
are barriers to generate income for the aging workforce (Anderson, Fields, Harootyan &
Richardson, 2013). Women have also faced barriers to employment, and in nations who have
progressed and strived to provide better opportunities, they have faced disadvantages in the
work place. In many cases women are not treated equally and are not compensated equally
to their male counterparts (Markovic, 2009). Draper (1985) discussed women’s work in the
process of development in Latin America and she discusses the fact that two major types
of labor activities for women are domestic work and informal labor. Many women take on
informal jobs to make a living while in the process of transitioning to the formal sector (Draper,
1985). In a study conducted in South Africa, Avon experience signicant success by providing
opportunities to impoverished women and giving them an opportunity to earn a better living
(Scott, Dolan, Johnstone-Louis, Sugden, & Wu, 2012). For this reason, multi-level marketing
companies can internationalize through networks in the informal economy in Latin America,
by providing income opportunities.
Based on the reviewed literature, it was noticed that research has been conducted in regards
to multi-level marketing and companies that run their distribution through this method of
expansion. However, there is a gap in literature in regards as to how MLM and opportunities
to work abroad via MLM and personal networks. For this reason, this paper could be a
contribution to the current business literature on how the MLM companies internationally
expand and if the distributors can obtain an international income opportunity from these rms.
3. RESEARCH METHODOLOGY
This study is based on a modied ground theory approach (Strauss & Corbin, 1994; Strauss
& Corbin, 1998) involved a systematic process of data collection and data analysis, and
furthermore a permanent comparative analysis. The original Strauss & Corbin (1994) approach
was modied in the sense that this study was designed and structured based on preconceived
theoretical approaches on MLM international expansion (as it was presented at the literature
review section).
As mentioned, the research method of this study is a modied ground theory approach. It
included exploratory qualitative research that involved collection and analysis of primary
and secondary sources, and most importantly, an ethnographic study that involved participant
observation. Doz (2011) discussed the fact that most research international business has
been through the use quantitative methods and why qualitative methods have been scarce.
In an effort to understand the involvement of ethnographic studies in qualitative research
methods, Iacono, Brown and Holtham (2009) provided insights in regards to the benets,
limitations and how to handle the challenges that arise from participant observation. Iacono
et al. (2009) rst discussed the origins of ethnographic research that derived from social
sciences, more specically in anthropological studies. In these cases, researchers would
travel to foreign lands to integrate themselves in their societies and immerge themselves in
their culture to record at rsthand what was being observed (Iacono et al., 2009). Hence,
based on this, it was determined that for this study a grounded theory approached with an
emphasis on ethnographic methods was appropriate as it would allow penetrating the culture
International Expansion Opportunities for Multi-Level Marketing via Personal
Networks: An Ethnographic Study from Colombia
34
of the companies (and individual sellers) to see rsthand its practices and values and witness
from a participant standpoint. Furthermore, this method was found necessary since there is
limited reliable information available about the activities of these companies. Observing as a
participant provided reliable information about the company’s practices and the opportunity to
record participant experiences. That is the important point of ethnographic studies, “practice
places researchers in the midst of whatever it is they study. From this vantage, researchers
can examine various phenomena as perceived by participants and represent these observation
accounts” (Berg, 2001:134).
Understanding grounded theory approaches was imperative to this research. However, it was
also critical to comprehend the ethical issues that may arise from this type of methodologies.
Paoletti (2013) identied some of the ethical issues that are involved when collecting data that
involves social interaction, such as interaction data that includes interviewing and observation.
Paoletti (2013) states that when conducting ethnographic research, it is difcult to take into
account all ethical issues that may arise during the study. Although not an easy task, it is
important to inform the participants about the intentions of your study. Depending on the task
being conducted, it is important to inform and to obtain consent from the participants in order
make them aware of how the data is going to be used (idem).
To conduct this research, three key multi-level marketing companies that have internationalized
in Colombia companies from the cosmetics and personal care industry were selected. The
three companies are Yanbal (Peru), Amway (United States) and Oriame (Sweeden). These
companies were chosen as they are all in the beauty and personal care industry, MLM
multinationals which have had signicant sales growth over the last 5 years as it can be
observed in Figure 1, and table 2 below.
Table 1: Sales in Retailing by Store-based vs Non-Store: % Value Growth 2009-2014 in
Colombia
William Franco and Maria Alejandra Gonzalez-Perez42
study. From this vantage, researchers can examine various phenomena as perceived by
participants and represent these observation accounts” (Berg, 2001:134).
Understanding grounded theory approaches was imperative to this research. However, it
was also critical to comprehend the ethical issues that may arise from this type of
methodologies. Paoletti (2013) identified some of the ethical issues that are involved
when collecting data that involves social interaction, such as interaction data that
includes interviewing and observation. Paoletti (2013) states that when conducting
ethnographic research, it is difficult to take into account all ethical issues that may arise
during the study. Although not an easy task, it is important to inform the participants
about the intentions of your study. Depending on the task being conducted, it is
important to inform and to obtain consent from the participants in order make them
aware of how the data is going to be used (idem).
To conduct this research, three key multi-level marketing companies that have
internationalized in Colombia companies from the cosmetics and personal care industry
were selected. The three companies are Yanbal (Peru), Amway (United States) and
Oriflame (Sweeden). These companies were chosen as they are all in the beauty and
personal care industry, MLM multinationals which have had significant sales growth
over the last 5 years as it can be observed in Figure 1, and table 2 below.
Table 1: Sales in Retailing by Store-based vs Non-Store: % Value Growth 2009-2014
in Colombia
% current value growth, retail value rsp excl sales tax
2013/14
2009-14
CAGR
2009/14
Total
Store-based Retailing
7.8
5.7
32.0
Non-Store Retailing
16.1
13.7
89.7
Retailing
8.1
6.0
33.8
Source: Euromonitor International (2015a).
William Franco and Maria Alejandra Gonzalez-Perez
35
Figure 1: Companies’ earnings from 2009 to 2013
Table 2: Non-Store Retailing Brand Shares in Colombia: % Value 2011-2014
These are the reason for choosing these three particular companies for the present study (see
table 1 below for details on their market share in Colombia).
Source: BRP Benchmark
43 International Expansion Opportunities for Multi-Level Marketing via Personal
Networks: An Ethnographic Study from Colombia
Figure 1: Companies’ earnings from 2009 to 2013
Source: BRP Benchmark
These are the reason for choosing these three particular companies for the present study
(see table 1 below for details on their market share in Colombia).
Table 1: Non-Store Retailing Brand Shares in Colombia: % Value 2011-2014
Company
2011
2012
2013
2014
Avon Colombia Ltda
23.3
19.7
15.8
13.7
Yanbal de Colombia SA
7.7
8.7
9.0
8.7
Belstar SA
12.5
11.1
9.0
7.9
Amway Colombia SA
2.9
2.9
2.9
3.0
Oriflame de Colombia SA
1.6
1.4
1.3
1.3
52
56,2
62
65,4
100.0
100.0
100.0
100.0
Source: Euromonitor International (2015b)
First, the data was collected through primary (direct observation, unstructured open-
ended interviews, structured face-to-face survey, and telephone interview) and
secondary sources (corporate websites, and specialized business media).
Second, a 30-day immersion ethnographic study was conducted. This involved
participant-observations at meetings, conferences and events organized by MLM leaders
to consolidate their network, and recruiting new distributors. The aim of the data
collection face was to gain an inside understanding on how do these companies attract
and maintain their independent consultants; how are their methods possibly target to the
distributors in the marginal labor market; and if international business opportunities are
0
100000
200000
300000
400000
Yanbal Amway Oriflame
Thousands (USD)
2009
2010
2011
2012
2013
43 International Expansion Opportunities for Multi-Level Marketing via Personal
Networks: An Ethnographic Study from Colombia
Figure 1: Companies’ earnings from 2009 to 2013
Source: BRP Benchmark
These are the reason for choosing these three particular companies for the present study
(see table 1 below for details on their market share in Colombia).
Table 1: Non-Store Retailing Brand Shares in Colombia: % Value 2011-2014
% retail value rsp excl sales tax
Company
2011
2012
2013
2014
Avon
Avon Colombia Ltda
23.3
19.7
15.8
13.7
Yanbal
Yanbal de Colombia SA
7.7
8.7
9.0
8.7
Esika
Belstar SA
12.5
11.1
9.0
7.9
Amway
Amway Colombia SA
2.9
2.9
2.9
3.0
Oriflame
Oriflame de Colombia SA
1.6
1.4
1.3
1.3
Other companies
52
56,2
62
65,4
Total
100.0
100.0
100.0
100.0
Source: Euromonitor International (2015b)
First, the data was collected through primary (direct observation, unstructured open-
ended interviews, structured face-to-face survey, and telephone interview) and
secondary sources (corporate websites, and specialized business media).
Second, a 30-day immersion ethnographic study was conducted. This involved
participant-observations at meetings, conferences and events organized by MLM leaders
to consolidate their network, and recruiting new distributors. The aim of the data
collection face was to gain an inside understanding on how do these companies attract
and maintain their independent consultants; how are their methods possibly target to the
distributors in the marginal labor market; and if international business opportunities are
0
100000
200000
300000
400000
Yanbal Amway Oriflame
Thousands (USD)
2009
2010
2011
2012
2013
First, the data was collected through primary (direct observation, unstructured open-ended
interviews, structured face-to-face survey, and telephone interview) and secondary sources
(corporate websites, and specialized business media).
Second, a 30-day immersion ethnographic study was conducted. This involved participant-
observations at meetings, conferences and events organized by MLM leaders to consolidate
their network, and recruiting new distributors. The aim of the data collection face was to gain
an inside understanding on how do these companies attract and maintain their independent
consultants; how are their methods possibly target to the distributors in the marginal labor
market; and if international business opportunities are promoted or encourage. The data was
intentionally collected aiming to answer if the MLM companies can offered work opportunities
for distributors in the targeted country internationalization.
International Expansion Opportunities for Multi-Level Marketing via Personal
Networks: An Ethnographic Study from Colombia
36
Some of the questions which guided the interactions with MLM leaders and current distributors
were
What are the requirements to become an independent consultant of your company?
What is the initial investment or sign-up fees?
I live in Colombia, but if I decide to move to another country, can I continue working for
the company as an independent consultant to the country I move to?
Given that this is a cosmetics / personal care company; can both men and women work in
your company?
Does my compensation come from my merchandise sales, from sales by the members I
recruited, or both?
What additional benets do you offer in addition to your compensation plan?
How do you handle the reporting of income for tax purposes?
Does the company offer or requires health insurance or contributions to pensions?
The gathered data from was memo written, systematically compared with ongoing reections,
and it was coded, classied, cross-referenced and analyzed. This systematic and thorough
approach aimed to develop and test theory from patterns emerging from the obtained data.
4. FINDINGS AND DISCUSSION
The information gathered through primary and secondary sources provided signicant
information about the expansion of Yanbal, Amway and Oriame to Colombia. The companies’
websites and newspaper articles provided information about the year of entry to Colombia.
This information was match against other articles describing the economic conditions at the
time of entry to the country. The information gathered in the ethnographic study provided the
evidence as to if MLM companies provided international income opportunities.
(a) 1979: Yanbal
Fernando and Eduardo Belmont founded Yanbal in 1967. The brothers came from a family
with a tradition in the cosmetics and pharmaceuticals industries in Peru (Pricewaterhouse
Coopers, 2004). In 1988, the brothers parted ways and Fernando kept Yanbal while Eduardo
went to create what today is Yanbal’s competition, Belcorp (Castano, 2012). However, Yanbal
started their internationalization process while the brothers were still in the partnership. The
internationalization begins with the start of operations in Ecuador in 1977. Then, in 1979,
Yanbal entered the Colombian market (Yanbal International, 2015).
Yanbal’s focus since its beginnings was to only employ women. This is because the founders
wanted to provide employment opportunities to Latin American women who did not have
the same employment opportunities as men (conversation with Yanbal representative on
October 2, 2014) and who were looking to become economically independent (El Tiempo,
1997). Latin America was experiencing a change in the labor force since the 1950’s. Many
of the rural employees were moving to the cities looking for better income opportunities.
Hence, by the 1970s, there was a surplus of employees in the cities, causing many to perform
William Franco and Maria Alejandra Gonzalez-Perez
37
paid activities in the informal economy, especially for women (Portes & Schaufer, 1993
and De Suremain, 1989); and, it is important to note that women are more susceptible to lack
opportunities of formal work and resort to the informal economy (Wilson, 1998 and Rodina
et al., 2012). Additionally, key participants of the informal economy are low skilled workers
and uneducated women (Losby et al. 2012) and as noted during the participation process (see
table 2), Yanbal has no barriers of entry with the exception of legal age requirements and sex.
In Ecuador, Yanbal is the leader in its eld and their direct sales model has helped its growth
through women in the informal economy, allowing them to dictate their work schedules and
allowed ease of entry into these companies (Masi di Casanova, 2011a).
Table 3: Companies Earnings from 2009 to 2013
45 International Expansion Opportunities for Multi-Level Marketing via Personal
Networks: An Ethnographic Study from Colombia
Fernando and Eduardo Belmont founded Yanbal in 1967. The brothers came from a
family with a tradition in the cosmetics and pharmaceuticals industries in Peru
(Pricewaterhouse Coopers, 2004). In 1988, the brothers parted ways and Fernando kept
Yanbal while Eduardo went to create what today is Yanbal’s competition, Belcorp
(Castano, 2012). However, Yanbal started their internationalization process while the
brothers were still in the partnership. The internationalization begins with the start of
operations in Ecuador in 1977. Then, in 1979, Yanbal entered the Colombian market
(Yanbal International, 2015).
Yanbal’s focus since its beginnings was to only employ women. This is because the
founders wanted to provide employment opportunities to Latin American women who
did not have the same employment opportunities as men (conversation with Yanbal
representative on October 2, 2014) and who were looking to become economically
independent (El Tiempo, 1997). Latin America was experiencing a change in the labor
force since the 1950’s. Many of the rural employees were moving to the cities looking
for better income opportunities. Hence, by the 1970s, there was a surplus of employees
in the cities, causing many to perform paid activities in the informal economy,
especially for women (Portes & Schauffler, 1993 and De Suremain, 1989); and, it is
important to note that women are more susceptible to lack opportunities of formal work
and resort to the informal economy (Wilson, 1998 and Rodina et al., 2012).
Additionally, key participants of the informal economy are low skilled workers and
uneducated women (Losby et al. 2012) and as noted during the participation process
(see table 2), Yanbal has no barriers of entry with the exception of legal age
requirements and sex. In Ecuador, Yanbal is the leader in its field and their direct sales
model has helped its growth through women in the informal economy, allowing them to
dictate their work schedules and allowed ease of entry into these companies (Masi di
Casanova, 2011a).
Table 2: Companies Earnings from 2009 to 2013
Yanbal
Amway
Oriflame
Requirements to
join
Be over 18 of age,
copy of Colombian
Identification Card
(Cedula) and credit
check.
Be over 18 years of
age and copy of
Colombian
Identification Card
(Cedula).
Be over 18 years of
age, copy of
Colombian
Identification Card
(Cedula) and provide
utilities invoice as
proof of residence.
Initial investment /
Sign-up fees
$30,000 COP (about
$15 USD) purchase
$30 USD $19,000 COP (about
$10 USD).
William Franco and Maria Alejandra Gonzalez-Perez46
in Yanbal products.
Opportunity to
work in another
country
No, only in
Colombia (or
country where
subscription is
done).
Yes, with the same
membership from
Colombia you can
work in 12
countries in
Central and South
America.
With the same
membership from
Colombia, you can sell
and recruit new
members for your
network in all the
countries where the
company operates.
Gender biased
Yes, only females
can work for the
company. Husbands
and sons of women
who have reached
level of director can
apply to join under
Director’s network.
No, both men and
women can join.
No, both men and
women can join.
Compensation
come from
payment plan or
sales from
members recruited
Both
Both
Both
Additional benefits
to compensation
plan
International trips
and vehicle for
higher bracket
members. Free
products and prizes.
Training seminars
ranging from
financial topics to
leadership. Annual
international trips
for top members.
Product gifts from the
company, international
trips and 25% discount
in all company product
purchases.
Tax reporting
The company
withholds taxes:
however, members
are responsible for
filing taxes if they
need to under
Colombia law.
The company
withholds taxes:
however, members
are responsible for
filing taxes if they
need to under
Colombia law.
The company
withholds taxes:
however, members are
responsible for filing
taxes if they need to
under Colombia law.
Company offers or
requires health
insurance or
contributions to
pensions
Neither
Neither
Neither
Source: Information gathered through participant observation.
International Expansion Opportunities for Multi-Level Marketing via Personal
Networks: An Ethnographic Study from Colombia
38
(b) 1996-Amwayand1997-Oriame
Amway was founded in 1959 by Rich DeVos and Jay Van Andel. Soon after the founding of the
company, the partners internationalized the company by expanding their operations to Canada
in 1962. It is possible that the company internationalized to Canada rst using a sequential
model (Cuervo-Cazurra, 2011). Then, as they gathered experience at home and in markets
similar to theirs, the following decade they expanded to 8 additional international markets. This
step consolidated Amway’s international presence as today they are one of the leading MLM
companies in the world, operating in over 80 countries and territories worldwide (Amway,
2013). In 1967, while Amway was developing their operations internationally, Oriame was
starting their operations in Sweden. The company, founded by two brothers and a friend,
rapidly expanded their international operations by starting business in neighboring countries
in 1968. It took almost two decades to leave the European continent by internationalizing to
Indonesia in 1986 and nally opening their business in Colombia in 1997. Today, they operate
in over 60 countries worldwide (Oriame, 2012).
When Amway entered the Colombia in 1996 (Gaviria, 1996), the country was entering the
worst recession in decades (Rowland, 2005). This recession spiked unemployment levels up
to 20% in the late 1990s. The rise of unemployment has a direct impact on the rise of informal
jobs. Mondragón, Peña & Wills (2010) support this patterns by determining that in Colombia
the levels of informality are positively correlated with unemployment. Given the conditions
of the Colombian economy starting 1996, it is unlikely to believe that a foreign multinational
would enter the Colombian market. Addionally, Oriame followed suit in 1997.
William Franco and Maria Alejandra Gonzalez-Perez46
in Yanbal products.
Opportunity to
work in another
country
No, only in
Colombia (or
country where
subscription is
done).
Yes, with the same
membership from
Colombia you can
work in 12
countries in
Central and South
America.
With the same
membership from
Colombia, you can sell
and recruit new
members for your
network in all the
countries where the
company operates.
Gender biased
Yes, only females
can work for the
company. Husbands
and sons of women
who have reached
level of director can
apply to join under
Director’s network.
No, both men and
women can join.
No, both men and
women can join.
Compensation
come from
payment plan or
sales from
members recruited
Both
Both
Both
Additional benefits
to compensation
plan
International trips
and vehicle for
higher bracket
members. Free
products and prizes.
Training seminars
ranging from
financial topics to
leadership. Annual
international trips
for top members.
Product gifts from the
company, international
trips and 25% discount
in all company product
purchases.
Tax reporting
The company
withholds taxes:
however, members
are responsible for
filing taxes if they
need to under
Colombia law.
The company
withholds taxes:
however, members
are responsible for
filing taxes if they
need to under
Colombia law.
The company
withholds taxes:
however, members are
responsible for filing
taxes if they need to
under Colombia law.
Company offers or
requires health
insurance or
contributions to
pensions
Neither
Neither
Neither
Source: Information gathered through participant observation.
William Franco and Maria Alejandra Gonzalez-Perez
39
However, given their business models of expansion through MLM, and almost no requirements
to join their ranks (see table 2), Colombia could have been the perfect setting at the time. This
was even acknowledged by the local newspapers as it stated that 1996, the year that Amway
entered the Colombian market could be the year of the direct sales boom due to the rise of the
“rebusque”, which a Colombian slang word for exible arrangement and informal work in
Colombia (Gaviria, 1996)
(c) International Income Opportunity for MLM sales representatives
In today’s globalization, conducting business in other countries is more possible than ever.
MLMs are starting to understand this by providing international working opportunities to their
members. During the ethnographic study, part of it was to participate as a Colombian citizen
looking to join a MLM company and see if the same membership obtained in Colombia would
allow working in other countries. It was determined that 2 out of 3 of the companies analyzed,
Amway and Oriame, provided this international opportunity (see table 2). Yanbal, according
to its representative, was in the process of implementing this international model. While
gathering information about joining Oriame, the consultant stated that this was very important
because there is a lot of work placed into building a successful network. If a representative
decides to move to another country it is important to continue receiving an income from the
network left behind and the new members recruited in the new country of residence.
One of the most evident keys to success in the MLM industry is the use of the independent
distributor’s business network. During the events, the members of the company’s would spend
signicant time to developing the network and in the meetings, top members would encourage
members to tap into their work and family relationships to increase the possibility of income
generation. Furthermore, in monthly conferences the guest speakers and special guest would
be from other places, such as the United States or countries in the Caribbean. Many took
advantage of these settings to establish social relationships and support groups with these
members to increase value in their network, as stated by Holm, Eriksson & Johanson (1999),
and can possibly use this network contact to possibly expand their work to international
regions, if they so desire, in a successful manner (Vasilchenko & Morrish, 2011).
(d) MLM and size of the in informal sector Latin America
It was found that the studied MLM companies or sales representatives of these do not make
contributions to the tax system or social security for their distributors (health insurance or
mandatory pensions). It was found in this study that when companies’ representatives are
asked about tax reporting, they claimed that they paid taxes from their revenue; however, it
is up to the independent representative to report earnings to the tax reporting agencies (see
table 2). Furthermore, many of the independent consultants have increased domestic economic
informality the sector further by having other people, usually family and friends non-afliated
to the company, selling on their behalf for a smaller share of the earnings. As it was claimed
by a Yanbal consultant, this helps the afliated representative focus on network growth while
maintaining the required quota of sales.
International Expansion Opportunities for Multi-Level Marketing via Personal
Networks: An Ethnographic Study from Colombia
40
The foreign entry mode of the studied to Colombia, coincides with periods of formal labour
market contraction. This might indicate MLMs target the unemployed and income deprived
population, both domestically and internationally. As noticed, Amway and Oriame entered
the Colombian market during a strong recession. Many of these rms may use business cycles
and unemployment to enter international markets. Given the employment needs at a time
of economic crises and the correlation between unemployment and the size of the informal
economy, these companies provide employment opportunities to people who do not have easy
access to formal employment. As Cahn (2008: 430) states, “becoming a direct seller requires no
previous experience, no formal education, and little startup capital, so it is particularly attractive
when other forms of employment are scarce”. During the attended Amway motivational
seminars there was a direct and strong message from the top leadership about pushing for the
recruitment of those in nancial need. Many of the characteristics mentioned about the people
to pursue were targeted to members in the informal economy: people working from home,
those who currently supplement their day job income through resells of merchandise and those
who are currently unemployed and looking for an employment opportunity.
In a conversation with a Yanbal female representative (October 2, 2014), she mentioned that
when she entered the business over 10 years ago, she became unemployed and was selling
food from her home while looking for a new job. A friend approached her to sell Yanbal as
an alternative to her home food selling and suggested that instead to use that time towards
building her network. It is apparent that she was given a pitch based on her informal work;
however, this situation sparks interest as she decided to join Yanbal more out of a sense of
belonging to a company. As time progressed, she decided to make a career as an independent
consultant because Yanbal made her feel as an integral part of the growth of the rm. She
enjoyed the meetings with her peers and working with the members she recruited. Stewart,
Courtright, & Barrick (2012) found that for people that care about the people they work with,
sense of belonging motivates them more to work than money. Additionally, the researchers
found that peer pressure plays a role in this and workers do not want to disappoint their peers;
hence, the motivation of pleasing the other is more powerful than the earnings. When the
Yanbal representative was asked about her decision to stay as an independent representative,
she stated that it was because she found a family in the company and did not want to disappoint
her “Director” (title given to Yanbal’s top earners) as she had dedicated a lot of time supporting
her growth in the company.
Developing and emerging countries can experience unstable employment due to unstable
economies. Unemployment, especially for the low-skilled and uneducated workers, and low
salaries for skilled workers cause labor migration (Dayton, Pfeiffer, Schuettler, & Schwinn,
2009). In the presented study, it was presented that MLM companies can provide an opportunity
to develop opportunities for international business. During an Amway seminar (May, 2014),
the guest speaker was a Colombia medical doctor who was practicing medicine, but getting
paid low wages for his work. After being presented with an opportunity to move to Canada
to practice medicine in this country, he joined Amway in Colombia to work as independent
consultant in Canada while he legally validated his qualications to practice medicine in his
new country. His pitch was to promote the development of networks outside of the home
country, while continuing to earn money from the home network. This international expansion
William Franco and Maria Alejandra Gonzalez-Perez
41
of individuals working as independent consultants in MLMs, helps the internationalization of
the companies tremendously as they use their networks to expand the name of the business in
international markets. Gomez (2014) stated that there is a consensus in regards to the importance
of networks in the internationalization of rm. For this reason, MLMs impendent consultants
who expand their networks to foreign countries can take advantage of the international business
opportunities and become the key network that further the MLM internationalization.
5. CONCLUSION & LIMITATIONS
It is possible that multi-level and direct sales companies internationalize using their social
and family networks in Latin America and the Caribbean. From the empirical research,
using Colombia as the setting for the study, it was observed that Yanbal internationalized
by targeting women who lacked employment opportunities the chance to work and be
independent. Additionally, Amway and Oriame entered the Colombian market when the
domestic economy was going through a recession. It seems unlikely that a company would
enter a country during economic instability; however, recessions raise unemployment and it
was witnessed that as unemployment rises, the size of the informal economy increases. For
this reason, it is possible that these MLM increased their international presence in Colombia
in that specic timeframe to expand and consolidate their network through those who lack or
lost their formal employment.
Several MLM companies provide international employment opportunities by allowing
their independent consultants to work in other countries where they operate, without losing
income from their home network and being able to earn from new afliates in the foreign host
country. Yet, MLM companies do not provide formal employment opportunities, as MLM
do not provide social security benets and although they withhold taxes from independent
consultants, if earnings are over the required amount to le taxes (as in the case of Colombia),
their total earnings can go unreported to the required reporting agencies. Additionally, many
of their representatives contribute to the expansion of the informal economy by hiring others
(not afliated to the company) to conduct direct sales for them while they focus on both the
domestic and international expansion of their network. An interesting point is that considering
that many of the sales pitches given by the MLM representatives seem to be targeted to those
in the informal sector, most of the people encountered in these events are people who work in
MLM to compliment the earnings from their formal employment. This may be because people
usually build their work around those closest to them: family, friends and co-workers. This
constant task and necessity of increasing their business network to generate more income may
contribute to business network theory as it evidence shows the need of this socially constructed
business relationships to have a successful MLM program.
This study presented some limitations. The ethnographic study involving participant
observation was signicantly short to retrieve signicant data to compile and analyze. In
many cases, ethnographic studies take years and this study consisted of 30 day immersion.
Additionally, the short amount of time also presented difculties in establishing trust between
the researcher and participants of the MLM companies. Many were skeptical in engaging
in conversations when they were informed of the purpose of the discussions. Lastly, only
one country was used in the study and it may not be a representative sample for all Latin
International Expansion Opportunities for Multi-Level Marketing via Personal
Networks: An Ethnographic Study from Colombia
42
American countries. Nevertheless, this research also provides a theoretical contribution
to the internationalization theory, specically the business network theory, as it offers an
understanding on business can take advantages to expand to countries with a large bottom
of the pyramid (BOP). A process of international market expansion in a specic country can
also be successfully focused on the BOP, as it develops both income and consumption. This
dual role of been income and consumption provider enhances brand appreciation; and could
accelerate the internationalization of company via direct sales representatives.
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