Multi level marketing (MLM)
Multi level marketing (MLM), also called pyramid selling, network marketing, and referral marketing, is a marketing strategy for the sale of products or services where the revenue of the MLM company is derived from a non-salaried workforce selling the company’s products/services, while the earnings of the participants are derived from a pyramid-shaped or binary compensation commission system.
Although each MLM company dictates its own specific financial compensation plan for the payout of any earnings to their respective participants, the common feature that is found across all MLMs is that the compensation plans theoretically pay out to participants only from two potential revenue streams. The first is paid out from commissions of sales made by the participants directly to their own retail customers. The second is paid out from commissions based upon the wholesale purchases made by other distributors below the participant who have recruited those other participants into the MLM; in the organizational hierarchy of MLMs, these participants are referred to as one’s down line distributors.
MLM salespeople are, therefore, expected to sell products directly to end-user retail consumers by means of relationship referrals and word of mouth marketing, but most importantly they are incentivized to recruit others to join the company’s distribution chain as fellow salespeople so that these can become down line distributors. According to a report that studied the business models of 350 MLMs, published on the Federal Trade Commission’s website, at least 99% of people who join MLM companies lose money. Nonetheless, MLMs function because downline participants are encouraged to hold onto the belief that they can achieve large returns, while the statistical improbability of this is de-emphasized. MLMs have been made illegal or otherwise strictly regulated in some jurisdictions as a mere variation of the traditional pyramid scheme, including in mainland China.
Participant profits and losses
The overwhelming majority of MLM participants (most sources estimated to be over 99.25% of all MLM distributors) participate at either an insignificant or nil net profit. Indeed, the largest proportion of participants must operate at a net loss (after expenses are deducted) so that the few individuals in the uppermost level of the MLM pyramid can derive their significant earnings. Said earnings are then emphasized by the MLM company to all other participants to encourage their continued participation at a continuing financial loss.
Participant financial loss, company financial gain
The end result of the MLM business model is, therefore, one of a company (the MLM company) selling its products and services through a non-salaried workforce (“partners”) working for the MLM company on a commission-only basis while the partners simultaneously constitute the overwhelming majority of the very consumers of the MLM company’s products and services that they, as participants of the MLM, are selling to each other in the hope of one day themselves being at the top of the pyramid. This creates great profit for the MLM company’s actual owners and shareholders.
Many MLM companies do generate billions of dollars in annual revenue and hundreds of millions of dollars in annual profit. However, the profits of the MLM company are accrued at the detriment to the majority of the company’s constituent workforce (the MLM participants). Only some of said profit is then significantly shared with individual participants at the top of the MLM distributorship pyramid. The earnings of those top few participants is emphasized and championed at company seminars and conferences, thus creating an illusion of how one can potentially become financially successful if they become a participant in the MLM. This is then advertised by the MLM company to recruit more distributors to participate in the MLM with a false anticipation of earning margins which are in reality merely theoretical and statistically improbable.
Although an MLM company holds out those few top individual participants as evidence of how participation in the MLM could lead to success, the reality is that the MLM business model depends on the failure of the overwhelming majority of all other participants, through the injecting of money from their own pockets, so that it can become the revenue and profit of the MLM company, of which the MLM company shares only a small proportion of it to a few individuals at the very top of the MLM participant pyramid. Participants, other than the few individuals at the top, provide nothing more than their own financial loss for the company’s own profit and the profit of the top few individual participants.
The main sales pitch of MLM companies to their participants and prospective participants is not the MLM company’s products or services. The products/services are largely peripheral to the MLM model. Rather, the true sales pitch and emphasis is on a confidence given to participants of potential financial independence through participation in the MLM, luring with phrases like “the lifestyle you deserve” or “independent distributor.” Erik German’s memoir My Father’s Dream documents the real life failures of German’s father as he is lured into “get-rich-quick” schemes such as Amway. The memoir illustrates the multi-level marketing sales principle known as “selling the dream”.
Although emphasis is always made on the potential of success and the positive life change that “might” or “could” (not “will” or “can”) result, it is only in otherwise difficult to find disclosure statements (or at the very least, difficult to read and interpret disclosure statements), that MLM participants are given fine print disclaimers that they as participants should not rely on the earning results of other participants in the highest levels of the MLM participant pyramid as an indication of what they should expect to earn. MLMs very rarely emphasize the extreme likelihood of failure, or the extreme likelihood of financial loss, from participation in MLM. MLMs are also seldom forthcoming about the fact that any significant success of the few individuals at the top of the MLM participant pyramid is in fact dependent on the continued financial loss and failure of all other participants below them in the MLM pyramid.
Comparisons to pyramid schemes
MLMs have been made illegal in some jurisdictions as a mere variation of the traditional pyramid scheme, including in China. In jurisdictions where MLMs have not been made illegal, many illegal pyramid schemes attempt to present themselves as MLM businesses. Given that the overwhelming majority of MLM participants cannot realistically make a net profit, let alone a significant net profit, but instead overwhelmingly operate at net losses, some sources have defined all MLMs as a type of pyramid scheme, even if they have not been made illegal like traditional pyramid schemes through legislative statutes.
MLMs are designed to make profit for the owners/shareholders of the company, and a few individual participants at the top levels of the MLM pyramid of participants. According to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC), some MLM companies already constitute illegal pyramid schemes even by the narrower existing legislation, exploiting members of the organization. There have been calls in various countries to broaden existing anti-pyramid scheme legislation to include MLMs, or to enact specific anti-MLM legislation to make all MLMs illegal in parallel to pyramid schemes, as has already been done in some jurisdictions.
The legal distinction between MLMs and traditional pyramid schemes has been characterized by many authorities as a legal fiction. Jurisdictions that retain a legal distinction between MLM pyramid businesses versus illegal pyramid schemes retain said distinction on two key distinguishing features: 1) that MLMs always encompass the sale of actual products/services, while traditional illegal pyramid schemes ordinarily do not (though sometimes they do), and 2) that climbing an MLM pyramid is overwhelmingly statistically improbable (especially to its highest participant levels) but not theoretically impossible, whereas climbing a traditional illegal pyramid scheme is both statistically and theoretically impossible.
This section does not cite any sources. Please help improve this section by adding citations to reliable sources. Unsourced material may be challenged and removed. (October 2018) (Learn how and when to remove this template message)
MLM salespeople are not employees of the MLM company. Participants do not derive a salary/wage, nor do participants receive remuneration from the MLM company for their invested labor and expenses in their MLM “independent business”. The income of participants, if any income is made at all, is derived only from commissions on their personal sales or their share of the commissions on the personal sales of their downlines (the MLM compensation structure).
As non-employees, participants are not protected by legal rights of employment law provisions. Instead, salespeople are typically presented by the MLM company as “independent contractors” or “independent business owners”. However, participants do not possess a business in the traditional legal sense, as the participants do not hold any tangible business assets or intangible business goodwill able to be sold or purchased in a sale or acquisition of a business. These are the property of the MLM company.
Companies that use the MLM business model have been a frequent subject of criticism and lawsuits. Legal claims against MLMs have included, among other things:
- their similarity to traditional illegal pyramid schemes
- price fixing of products or services,
- collusion and racketeering in backroom deals where secret compensation packages are created between the MLM company and a few individual participants, to the detriment of others
- high initial entry costs (for marketing kit and first products),
- emphasis on recruitment of others over actual sales (especially sales to non-participants)
- encouraging if not requiring members to purchase and use the company’s products,
- exploitation of personal relationships as both sales and recruiting targets,
- complex and exaggerated compensation schemes,
- false product claims
- the company or leading distributors making major money off participant-attended conventions, training events and materials, advertising materials, and
- cult-like techniques which some groups use to enhance their members’ enthusiasm and devotion.
Direct selling versus network marketing
“Network marketing” and “multi-level marketing” (MLM) have been described by author Dominique Xardel as being synonymous, with it being a type of direct selling. Some sources emphasize that multi-level marketing is merely one form of direct selling, rather than being direct selling. Other terms that are sometimes used to describe multi-level marketing include “word-of-mouth marketing”, “interactive distribution”, and “relationship marketing”. Critics have argued that the use of these and other different terms and “buzzwords” is an effort to distinguish multi-level marketing from illegal Ponzi schemes, chain letters, and consumer fraud scams.
The Direct Selling Association (DSA), a lobbying group for the MLM industry, reported that in 1990 only 25% of DSA members used the MLM business model. By 1999, this had grown to 77.3%. By 2009, 94.2% of DSA members were using MLM, accounting for 99.6% of sellers, and 97.1% of sales. Companies such as Avon, Electrolux, Tupperware, and Kirby were all originally single-level marketing companies, using that traditional and uncontroversial direct selling business model (distinct from MLM) to sell their goods. However, they later introduced multi-level compensation plans, becoming MLMs. The DSA has approximately 200 members while it is estimated there are over 1,000 firms using multi-level marketing in the United States alone.