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Brand Deep DivesOctober 4, 2022

Breaking Taboos: How Ann Summers Found Success

October 4, 2022
Cory Profile Picture
Cory Schröder
Senior Content Marketing Manager

When Ann Summers was first launched in 1970, it scandalized many a British consumer. After all, sex shops weren’t meant for the high streets, right?

Well, as luck would have it, that view eventually proved outdated, and in the 52 years since its founding, Ann Summers has gone from a string of small sex shops to a multinational lingerie boutique — selling everything from nightwear to swimwear to sexual wellness products.

These days, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a British consumer who hasn’t heard of the Ann Summers brand — or its infamous parties. Exclusively women-only, these parties were launched in 1981 as a creative way to circumvent legal restrictions concerning the display of sex toys — and they’ve proved to be a fabulous marketing tool over the last few decades.

In 2022, Ann Summers has 86 high street stores across the UK, Ireland, and the Channel Islands and a thriving online presence. So, what can other brands learn from this boundary-pushing brand? Let’s take a look and see.

The Ann Summers Story

Source: BDaily

A self-proclaimed “iconic empire”, Ann Summers was established in 1970 when its first shop opened in Marble Arch in London. Originally owned by Michael “Dandy Kim” Caborn-Waterfield, the brand got its name from its founder’s one-time mistress.

Born Annice Goodwin, Caborn-Waterfield persuaded her to change her name to Annice Summers in return for a directorship, and the name was subsequently shortened to “Ann Summers”.

For its first two years, the brand was a standard sex shop, but, in 1972, it went into “voluntary liquidation” and was purchased by brothers Ralph and David Gold for £10,000. Post-purchase, the brother’s goal was to transform Ann Summers from a run-of-the-mill sex shop into a lingerie boutique worthy of the high street.

Over the next few years, the brand expanded and, in 1981, David Gold’s daughter, Jacqueline Gold, officially joined the business. Starting as an intern, Jacqueline quickly proved to be a font of creativity — as it was she who introduced the idea of the Ann Summers party.

Similar to a Tupperware party, Ann Summers parties are hosted in the homes of Party Organizers who invite their friends to take part. They were — and still are — a great way for the brand to show off its products and circumvent regulations around displaying sex toys. As a marketing tactic, the parties proved to be incredibly successful.

In 2022, the Ann Summers parties are still being booked left and right and 13,000 women are now official members of the “Sisterhood” — meaning they host parties and sell the brand’s products to make a commission. From social selling to home events to virtual events — which gained popularity due to Covid-19 — the brand has moved with the times quite seamlessly.

In the 1980s, Ann Summers was known for its cheeky, saucy catalog — which featured the brand’s many products and was often used to drum up interest in Ann Summers parties. In 1984, the brand made its first foray into international waters when the “Party Plan” expanded to Germany, the Netherlands, and Denmark.

It was around this time that the first Party Plan conference took place, with 150 Ann Summers ambassadors in attendance. Since then, the conference has grown from a one-day event to an entire weekend — offering thousands of prizes for sales and taking design suggestions.

In the late 80s, Vanessa Gold officially joined the business and the company launched the Ann Summers fashion show. It was a roadshow featuring “professional dance troupes, Xperience and Xcalibur, dressed in Ann Summers product, touring Britain and spreading the good word.” This fun event epitomized the Ann Summers’ approach to making sex more fun and openly discussed — something it’s still working on today.

The early 90s saw the introduction of the brand’s most popular product: the Rampant Rabbit, a sex toy that’s still selling well today. And around this time, Jacqueline Gold was promoted to Director of Ann Summers and, then, CEO. With Jacqueline at the helm, the brand took a new approach to visual merchandising and store design which centered on “female empowerment”.

The idea was to design more “female friendly” stores — ones that your average woman would feel comfortable walking into and perusing. And the change paid off, as it “resulted in a 50% increase in turnover.”

But Ann Summers wasn’t stopping there. In the late 90s, its first plus-size range was launched — marking its official foray into being a more inclusive brand. And in 1999, the Ann Summers website officially made its debut and allowed the brand to increase its reach and visibility.

Enter the new millennium and Ann Summers is a force to reckon with. After the successful acquisition of underwear brand Knickerbocker, the company opened its first store in Ireland — which earned some real backlash and lead to CEO Jacqueline Gold receiving a bullet in the mail.

Nevertheless, the brand’s first Irish location was a success and the expansion continued. Unsurprisingly, the adult nature of the brand’s products has led to some serious opposition both socially and legally over the years. In 2003, Ann Summers’ ads for staff in government job centers were banned — but, Jacqueline took the UK government to court and won. The justice agreed that the ban was “unlawful and irrational”, which showcased just how much public sentiment was changing in the early 2000s.

Over the next few years, there were a few complaints filed with the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) over the brand’s advertisements — with the ASA often finding the brand’s ads to be inappropriate for the general public and, more specifically, children.

In 2006, the brand landed itself in some particularly hot water due to its recently released blow-up doll named “Mustafa Shag”. Many Muslim groups complained that the name was offensive, and eventually, the doll was renamed following protests from Muslim activists.

Enter the 2010s and Ann Summers is clearly interested in listening to consumers and using their feedback to improve its products and services via a customer-centric strategy.

In 2013, the brand acted on this feedback and joined forces with ITV to find a new face for their plus size range — wanting a regular woman to rep the new line. The winner, Lucy Moore, became the face of the Ann Summers plus size range shortly thereafter.

Around the same time, Ann Summers teamed up with Relate to conduct a sex census of 20,000 people, with the goal of finding "out what really happens under the sheets” and improving its offerings. The company’s method of relying on consumer insights to inform its brand strategy is one of the most effective ways to grow successfully — even in 2022.

And come 2014, the brand’s products were officially available on eBay and Amazon, increasing its accessibility and reaching more customers than ever before. From 2016 to the present day, Ann Summers’ stockists expanded to include big-name partners such as Simply Be, Debenhams, ASOS, Zalando, Boots, Misguided, ASDA, and more.

Additionally, the brand launched its blog in 2016, which provides readers with phenomenal resources on all things sex. Finally, over the last two years, Ann Summers has really started to focus on making its products more eco-friendly — with a new, eco-conscious “Be Bad, Do Good” line and a green makeover for its best-selling collection, “Sexy Lace Planet”.

Clearly, Ann Summers knows how to keep up with the changing times and has been at the forefront of the movement to make sexuality and sexual wellness a less taboo topic for years.

So, let’s take a look at what other brands can learn from Ann Summers.

3 Lessons Other Brands Can Learn From Ann Summers

Ann Summers’ journey has been one of wins and losses, but it provides a great example to other brands that may be struggling to gain market traction due to the status quo and cultural taboos.

Let’s discuss three lessons we can learn from Ann Summers.

1. Inclusivity Is Everything in 2022

This shouldn’t come as a surprise, but, in 2022, most consumers are sick of seeing the same thing over and over again in advertisements. The world is a more diverse place than it was in the past, and using exclusively thin, white, able-bodied models just isn’t the ticket.

According to a 2019 survey from Adobe, 61% of US consumers stated that diversity in advertising is “important” to them. Furthermore, according to Facebook Advertising, 64% of consumers in the US, UK, and Brazil reported that they’d like to see more diversity in ads.

To Ann Summers’ credit, it’s kept up with changing consumers' desires quite admirably. The models and influencers the brand works with are incredibly diverse — ranging from drag artists to plus-size influencers to non-binary models. And scrolling through Ann Summers’ social media platforms is exciting, as it’s clearly a place for everyone.

Just take a quick glance at the brand’s website or Instagram — both of which showcase models of all sizes, colors, and abilities. From gorgeous women with vitiligo to visibly pregnant models, Ann Summers’ is committed to reflecting what real women look like in their advertising.

But that’s not all — the brand is also working with Stonewall as Diversity Champions, which has allowed it to support and educate its colleagues and to raise “£25,000 in 2022 across all (their) stores” with the #WeSeeYou campaign.

Furthermore, the brand has released a “Be Proud” collection, which is designed with the LGBTQIA+ community in mind. From lingerie to accessories to sex toys, the Be Proud collection was specially created to support and celebrate queer sexuality. And to top it all off, Ann Summers also provides detailed guides — from “Lesbian Sex Toys” to “Bisexual Sex Positions”, the brand is working hard to educate consumers and break taboos along the way.

The Takeaway? Diversity and inclusion aren’t trends — they’re here to stay. And brands that refuse to embrace them will find themselves relegated to the past. Of course, D&I will look different for each brand. What works for Ann Summers might not make sense for a brand that, for example, sells children’s toys.

However, the base strategy remains the same: ensure that your brand marketing materials, visuals, and communication reflect the reality of your consumer base. When people feel left out or overlooked, they’re often less likely to connect with a brand.

2. Fighting Cultural Norms Can Be Tiring — But Worth It

As a brand that sells lingerie, sex toys, and more, Ann Summers has been fighting the status quo for decades. From the court of public opinion to the actual High Court of England, the brand has been successfully working to break taboos for years.

Take, for example, the Pleasure Positivity Project. Launched in 2019, its goal is to “break down all the taboos surrounding female sexuality”. The project partners with different Guest Editors who are invited to “break down some of the taboos surrounding female sexuality” and to “share their expertise, knowledge, and advice as well as their toy edit.”

The current Guest Editor is influencer Anna Lawlor, who lent her expertise on “the honest realities of parenting solo, and navigating the dating world as a single parent”. The project also features guides on sexual well-being and pleasure positivity.

In the brand’s own words: “Female sexual empowerment has been in our DNA for decades, and this project uses our voice and our expertise to close the orgasm gap.” This project, along with other taboo-breaking initiatives, have helped the Ann Summers brand evolve and shift its brand identity.

What once was seen as simply a sex toy and lingerie brand has become so much more — now providing educational resources for sexual wellness, support for the LGBTQIA+ community, and — as of 2022 — more eco-friendly products.

The Takeaway? Don’t be afraid to break some taboos and push boundaries — especially if doing so allows your brand to make the world a better place for your consumers.

For Ann Summers, this means breaking taboos surrounding sexuality and sexual wellness. But for your brand, perhaps it could be something completely different. The moral of the story is that taking risks and standing up for your brand values can really pay off.

3. Sometimes, You Just Have To Get Creative

When Ann Summers was still a young, fledgling brand, it faced a pretty big challenge — how to market its products and spread the word when there were so many regulations and restrictions on the sex toy industry.

Marketing in traditional advertising spaces was risky, and it often resulted in complaints to the ASA and potential legal action. To get the word out, Jacqueline Gold came up with a creative strategy: Ann Summers Parties.

As we discussed earlier, these parties were a great way to circumvent the restrictions and morals of the time to increase brand awareness with the company’s main target audience: adult women.

Because the brand wasn’t able to advertise its products openly, it had to find inventive ways to connect with potential customers. These parties not only helped increase brand awareness but also generated many sales — a win-win for Ann Summers.

Or, consider the brand’s extensive Halloween costume range — or “fancy dress” as it’s known in the UK. While regular nurses and maids may not dress quite as scandalously, selling Halloween costumes was another creative way for Ann Summers to get its products out there.

By branching out into the fancy dress scene, the brand was able to increase awareness and make a good deal of money in the process.

The Takeaway? Not every brand will have the easiest time marketing its products and services to the general public — and this is still true for sexual wellness brands in 2022.

Thus, brands that face such challenges should take a page out of Ann Summers’ book and get creative. If you can find ways to reach your target audience through non-conventional channels, you’ll increase your chances of success a great deal.

Final Thoughts

Ann Summers is a household name in the UK in 2022 — but it wasn’t always this way. For decades, the brand struggled to increase awareness and connect with consumers, constantly fighting cultural taboos.

But thanks to creativity, tenacity, and evolving morals, this sexual wellness brand was able to make it big and now boasts an international presence. Carving out a space for your brand in an industry that faces judgment will always be tough, but the best thing a brand can do is listen to what its target audience wants and give it to them in spades.

And if you’re not 100% what your target audience wants, then we recommend trying out brand monitoring software. With access to accurate, reliable consumer insights and data on your competitors, you’ll be able to make more informed decisions and beat out your rivals.

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