arbonne and the crackers
What do crackers tell us about how effective skin care is?

LinkedIn, which if you don’t know it is a sort of sensible version of Facebook that you can get away with using at work, is a great place to get into interesting and informative discussions. You can join groups on there relating to particular business areas and as most of the people in the group are in the trade, so to speak, you can get quite a high level of debate going.  People rarely abuse this to plug their own products.

But it does happen sometimes.   For instance, in a group devoted to Cosmetics and Beauty a woman who I will call Debi (because that is her name) started a thread with the rather astonishing premise that the passage of time was not the major cause of aging.  It turned out she had a product to sell that was supposed to make you look 13 years younger.

Another woman called Grace instantly chipped in agreeing with the suggestion that aging was reversible and plugging, in a rather incoherent way, the products of a Swiss company called Arbonne.  She was it turned out, one of their large army of home based self employed sales representatives.  Amongst other things, she said that materials that enhance the skin’s barrier function were a bad idea.  She singled out mineral oil, beeswax and lanolin as examples.

She justified this by saying she had kept some crackers in mineral oil for 5 years and they were still crunchy.  The significance of this wasn’t immediately obvious to me, but she must have been quite pleased with this evidence because she said she used the crackers in demonstrations to clients.

I should probably have moved on there and then, but I was so intrigued by this cracker experiment I couldn’t resist asking what putting a cracker in oil proved.  By the time I got around to posting the thread had already turned into a war zone.  The crackers were just one element and arguments were raging about a whole range of issues raised by the two women’s various claims.  It got so bad that some grown ups had arrived in the form of a spokesman for Arbonne and some seriously senior industry scientists.  This, needless to say, just stoked up the row.  But I did eventually get an answer, sort of.

This is what the big cheese from Arbonne said.

“I believe the cracker is to symbolize a porous material. When a cracker is placed in water or soup(!) it ABSORBS the liquid. When placed in mineral oil, it is COATED (providing a barrier) and remains crisp.”

So that cleared that one up.

What I hadn’t realised was that it wasn’t just something that this one Arbonne rep had done, it had at one stage been part of the standard issue pack provided for promoting their products.  I have no idea what impression it made on potential punters, but they have dropped the idea now so I imagine it mystified them as much as it did me.

I suppose that the idea was to use the cracker as a model.   Models are used a lot in science to aid understanding.  But choosing the right model can be tricky.  Arbonne aren’t the only people to come to renounce their choice of model.  Years ago a well known dermatologist, Albert Kligman developed the rabbit ear model.   Cosmetic products and raw materials were applied to the skin on the backs of rabbits ears which was supposed to indicate how human skin would react, in particular with respect to how likely it was to cause comedons (or blackheads if you prefer plain english).  If you ever read that a product is comedogenic then the chances are it was tested on rabbits ears.  It was a rubbish model and nobody who knew anything about it took the slightest notice of the data.  Even the proposer later wrote a paper criticising his own work, an admirable willingness to put honesty above ego.

So how does Arbonne’s model stand up?   Can a cracker match the behaviour of the skin?  The barrier properties of the skin arise from the structure of the stratum corneum, which comprises corneocytes composed of highly cross-linked impermeable protein embedded in a lamellar lipid matrix.  A cracker is a savoury biscuit.

I don’t think I need to say any more.  But it drew my attention to the Arbonne range, so I suppose it has had some marketing value.

As a formulator what do I make of the Arbonne range?   I was at a charity pamper evening a couple of years ago and had a chance to look at them in some detail.  A rep had taken a stand and had samples of a lot of the range out to look at.  The products are fine. The person or team who have come up with them have done a good job.  I cannot say there is anything particularly special about them.  They are certainly no more natural than most brands.  But Grace’s post had said that they avoid mineral oil because it blocks the skin.   Arbonne do avoid mineral oil in their formulations.  Is this their unique selling point, and does it justify the high price tag?

Mineral oil is fairly cheap, but the alternatives aren’t very expensive either.   There is no need to pay a premium for avoiding mineral oil.   And a great many products on the market don’t use mineral oil.  If you don’t want to use mineral oil for whatever reason, Arbonne’s products are one option.  But there are plenty of others.

I assume the reason the products are expensive is the high cost of running the direct selling operation rather than the intrinsic cost of the goods.  A lot of people don’t like direct selling, and many of us have had a bad experience with overenthusiastic direct sellers (often water softeners in my experience).

But it doesn’t have to be that way.  Personal service can be worth paying for.  And having access to a well trained expert to guide your purchases might well be worthwhile, even if this is paid for by high cost products.  Avon ladies generally do a good job, and here in the UK Ann Summers reps have a good reputation for selling products that are not always easy to purchase without assistance.

But I remain to be convinced that Arbonne have got their sales approach right yet.  I watched in amazement as the Arbonne sales representative talked utter gibberish at the pamper evening I mentioned earlier.  It would have been obvious to anyone that she had not a clue about her products.  She also heavily criticised other products and indulged in plenty of fear based marketing about the supposed risks of products that were no different to the ones she was selling.  She made not one sale.  And that was without deploying ancient biscuits soaked in oil.

Substantial numbers of consumers are now, thanks to the web, remarkably well informed.  I am afraid sales pitches that make no sense simply don’t cut it.  I should say I am basing my opinion of Arbonne on one live experience and this one LinkedIn thread.  These might not be representative.  Let’s hope not.  I think a company like Arbonne would do best if it trained it sales people to identify their customers needs and give them real solutions to their problems.

Offer people genuine value and they will come back.   Knock the opposition, make unbelievable claims and talk up non-existent health issues and your ex-customers will run a mile next time they see you.

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