Welcome to the pleasure zone: Q&A with Ann Summers marketing director

Ann Summers marketing director Fiona Davis talks to Tanzeel Akhtar about the brand’s 30-year journey during the sexual revolution of women , its latest X Factor-style campaign and keeping on the right side of risqué.

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Marketing Week (MW): How would you describe the brand?

Fiona Davis (FD): Ann Summers is a business doing pleasure. Our purpose is about fearlessly unleashing sexual confidence. We aim to be daring in everything we do and experts at what we do.

At the beginning of 2010, we began questioning the brand. We felt perhaps we’d lost a little bit of our mojo, our edge. Everybody is doing sexy these days, so [we had to work out] what is sexy for Ann Summers. We held a session with a cross-section of people, including chief executive Jacqueline Gold and her sister, deputy chief executive Vanessa Gold going over lots of images from our history. That started us looking at how we express the brand as fearlessly unleashing sexual confidence.

We work with agencies including 20/20 on design and strategy, but equally we work with the people in our business, from all levels. We got an amazing response to the new strategy from our colleagues; so, for example, our retail manager said “This is what we’ve been waiting for,” and felt that everything else had been too “vanilla” until then.

MW: What’s the thinking behind the new TV ad – where people can choose which girl they want to represent Ann Summers?

FD: This is an X Factor-style contest where the public get to choose [a girl to represent the brand]. We wanted to showcase our products and do it in a way that is different but engaging with this real woman.

We have been building a roster of agency partners, each with their own expertise. And now they have the clarity of the brief and all of the component parts for them to do a good job.

MW: How do you position yourself against lingerie competitors such as La Senza, Agent Provocateur or Victoria’s Secret?

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FD:

I would actually say Ann Summers doesn’t have much competition because of the totality of what we offer. If we talk about lingerie, of course we look at what La Senza and M&S are doing, but, ultimately, we come back to what is [different about] Ann Summers. We are naughty, sexy and fun. The reason people might buy something from La Senza will be completely different to why they buy something from us.

We are working to shift perceptions so people see us more positively and consider our underwear ranges for everyday wear as well as for the bedroom.

MW: How do you use different channels?

FD: Like everybody else, we are starting to talk about multi-channel. So if someone wants a discreet opportunity to research in their own time, then the web is fantastic; if someone wants to engage, we have our store staff.

MW: Tell us more about the Ann Summers at-home party concept.

FD: Our parties are great girls’ nights in and they are cross-generational. Our party plan business has stayed much the same for a long time and we are looking at how to take them forward. But we don’t want to modernise for the sake of it, so we’re doing customer research to understand what people want. Before the party concept was introduced, buying lingerie and sex toys was less about the women making a choice or saying: “I want to look and feel sexy”, and more about men’s preferences. So while 30 years might sound like a long time, it has been a very short time for women to become empowered, to take control of their own choices about how, when, where and in what sense they want to look and feel sexy.

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MW: Have you worked on the shop floor yourself?

FD: Yes, during my induction, I spent several days at our Oxford Street store in London. A woman came in and I sold her a whole pile of lingerie. As she was walking out of the door, she turned and said: “Actually, I was wondering if I could talk to you about the sex toys.” She had spent 45 minutes buying lingerie when what she really wanted was to talk about the fact that she hadn’t been able to get an orgasm with her boyfriend, who she loved passionately.

I was new to the business, rather than being an expert on sex toys. But I thought, here is somebody who has shared something very intimate with me, and we worked through it together. She was looking for advice, not technical expertise. I sold her a Rampant Rabbit and she left happy. I don’t think she would have gone to a party for that experience.

MW: How are you maintaining sales of your most popular product, the Rampant Rabbit vibrator?

FD: The Rampant Rabbit has the nickname of Ralphie [within the business]. We aim to communicate our sex toys in our window displays and have come up with innovative ways of doing so. In some stores, we have a six-foot bunny, for example, a way to get that message across in a cheeky but subtle way.

MW: Ann Summers has faced opposition, both legally and socially. How do you manage to rein the naughty side in?

FD: We are an edgy brand. However, we don’t set out to be provocative for the sake of it but we do want to be different and we do want to stand out from the crowd.

I would say that we have managed the transformation of the brand and product and are using beautiful photography. Our approach is more about showcasing our products differently, confidently engaging with customers in a way that makes people smile.

MW: How are you integrating Ann Summers with underwear brand Knickerbox?

FD: We acquired Knickerbox ten years ago and it was rebranded in 2008. It is now very feminine, soft and girly. Initially, we planned for the brands to run beside each other, but it was challenging and wasn’t fully integrated. Now it is.

Knickerbox engages a slightly younger customer, a customer who is at a different point in her self-expression and less overt in terms of her sexuality.

Ann Summers – the real story

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Lingerie and sex toy retailer Ann Summers was founded in 1970 by David and Ralph Gold and now sells more than 2 million Rampant Rabbit vibrators, its top-selling product, every year. The chain had an annual turnover of £118.5m in 2009-2010.

Ann Summers is owned by Gold Group International. It has more than 130 stores in the UK and Ireland and 8,000 home party organisers, who arrange about 200,000 gatherings per year.

The company is now run by David Gold’s daughter, Jacqueline Gold.

Marketing director Fiona Davis joined in 2009, after stints at Bhs, Wallis and the Early Learning Centre and recently launched Ann Summers’ first TV ad, during X Factor. While the business is doing well, her challenge will be to help move the brand away from any tacky or downmarket associations of previous years.

Ann Summers – real-time responses

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@heart_and_head: Did the Undercover Boss experience help in reshaping the Ann Summers strategy? (Deputy chief executive Vanessa Gold went ‘undercover’ in stores for the Channel 4 series)

Fiona Davis (FD): As a result of her time in-store we found out the things we do well and those we don’t do so well. We found out that being different and having a clear and motivating expression of the brand is fantastic but we needed to do something more to keep that alive for [shop staff]. We also found out that communication is key. Some of our people have been with us a long time and others are newer. Feeling part of a team where they are known as individuals [is important]. A lot of our teams have a really passionate feeling about the brand.

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