Posing in the overblown luxury of the drawing room in the Covent Garden Hotel, Jacqueline Gold looks like a china doll. Tiny, immaculately groomed, elegant and sophisticated, she smiles unblinkingly at the camera even as her eyes fill with tears.
‘It’s not you making me cry,’ she assures PRWeek as a stylist rushes forward with a cotton bud. ‘I’m really sensitive to any kind of dust and I get terrible hay fever.’
One would not usually associate such delicacy with a businesswoman of Gold’s calibre. Head of the hugely successful Ann Summers chain, she is responsible for turning a once seedy sex shop populated with what she calls ‘the raincoat brigade’, into an almost all-female institution with stores a familiar sight on Britain’s high streets, along with ‘girls’ night in’ staple, the ‘Ann Summers Party Plan’.
Using her Midas touch, Gold is continuing to expand her business despite the gloom of the current financial climate. New stores have opened in Barnstable, Bolton, Wigan and Stockport, and an Eastbourne branch opens this month. Gold has also just signed up actress Lois Winstone (daughter of legendary British actor Ray) as the new ‘face’ of the Ann Summers brand.
‘This is the beginning of a new era for the brand,’ she says. ‘The credit crunch is having an impact on everybody, but it’s actually had the reverse effect on our Ann Summers Party Plan. In difficult times our Party Plans sell extremely well, even in the shops. Our products are a relatively small cost and it’s a great way of cheering yourself up when times are bad.’
There has been more than one nudge-nudge newspaper article on the gloom of the credit crunch driving couples to the bedroom to ‘cheer themselves up’ and Gold admits her in-house PR office will make the most of this type of campaign. ‘Everything we do is very tongue-in cheek.’
This opportunistic way of viewing a negative situation hints at the secret of Gold’s success. She joined Ann Summers, owned by her father David Gold, on work experience when she was barely in her twenties and the chain numbered four shops. Today it has 150 stores and is a household name.
In the beginning, she says Ann Summers almost avoided PR ‘because we started off being controversial and you don’t know how things will be taken’, but the company has now learned to capitalise on its unique selling point, and embrace its controversy.
‘When we opened up a store in Dublin there was a furore, but we thought it could work to our advantage,’ she says. The store became the second most successful in Gold’s chain. ‘Then there was the iGasm’.
The latter is a clever example of Ann Summers-style humour. The iGasm is a small vibrator that plugs into an iPod and can then be, ahem, strategically placed while it buzzes to the beat of the music.
Given the sexy but not sexual nature of Apple’s own products, it got CEO Steve Jobs’ knickers in a proverbial twist. Apple bosses were not impressed by Ann Summers’ advertising, which was a clear spoof of the campaign, and did not warm to Gold’s offer of sending them an iGasm to ‘put a smile back on their faces’.
But as Gold says: ‘We had Apple trying to sue us and I thought, how silly. This was a great opportunity to get together with us and see what we could do in partnership.’
Perhaps the greatest battle Gold has fought in her professional life came in 2003 when she took the Government to court over a ban on advertising staff vacancies through job centres.
The Department for Work and Pensions had said some people might feel uncomfortable about Ann Summers and that job centres were right not to advertise jobs connected with ‘the sex or personal services industry’.
‘We invited the top people at the department down to head office to see what we were about, and how people progressed their careers with us, starting at job centres,’ says Gold.
‘I was quite shocked at their agenda – despite what I was showing them. They gave me no choice but to take it further because it was totally unfair.’
She argued Ann Summers stores were ‘not sex shops’ and pointed out you could now buy vibrators in Selfridges. A High Court judge quashed the ban, saying it was ‘irrational and unlawful’.
But even as a champion of her own business, Gold claims she never poses with any Ann Summers products. When asked why, she looks bemused. ‘I have done photo shoots in store but to stand there with them – well it depends on what context, but I don’t want to do something that will trivialise my achievements.’
So is image important to Gold? One look at her – flawless make-up, glossy chestnut hair expertly styled, the tell-tale red sole on her stilettos that gives away the Louboutin label – suggests it is and she does not deny it.
‘It’s very important to me to be feminine,’ she says. ‘ When I first started I wanted to be taken seriously, so I went through a phase of wearing shoulder pads, business suits, hair up and glasses, then one day somebody said to me you remind me of a politician and that’s the last thing I wanted. I thought, this isn’t about trying to emulate men. I’m a girly girl and I like being glamorous. That’s what I want to be, and my success will speak for itself.’
Brains behind the brand
It is fair to say Gold’s personal image has been as much a reason for Ann Summers’ success as any corporate PR strategy. Tim Danaher, editor of Retail Week, for whom Gold writes a regular column, says: ‘Her own image has helped to develop the brand. She writes well, and there’s always a little bit of innuendo in there, but there’s also a serious retail brain behind it. That has helped develop her as a leading player in the industry.’
Gold has also moved from being simply a businesswoman to a brand in her own right. She has written two books, one detailing her own childhood and the sexual abuse she experienced at the hands of her stepfather, and has made numerous TV appearances including a celebrity version of The Apprentice where she came face to face with her polar opposite, the rough, tough Sir Alan Sugar.
‘I admire Sir Alan and I didn’t think he was as tough as he comes across, although he’s lacking in interpersonal skills. He was quite rude to us a few times but I didn’t take it seriously because he’s playing a role,’ she says.
‘I find programmes such as The Apprentice and Dragon’s Den great viewing – they are compelling – but my worry is the message they can send out. I worry it puts a lot of women off because they think they can only be successful by being aggressive.’
Despite the fact that her own approachable, friendly and somewhat girly nature is a far cry from the stereotype of an aggressive businesswoman, when it comes to the subject of inspiring women, Gold is all steel: ‘There’s scope for women to push themselves more, and women in general are quite hard on themselves and lack confidence in many situations. Sometimes men are more intimidated by women than we are by them. We forget as women how powerful we are – we need to be reminded of that occasionally.’
…Going public about the sexual abuse in her past
‘I was doing lots of speeches and women were telling me about the challenges they faced and I thought, if only you knew. These challenges were what drove me forward. I had a choice of being a victim, or I could turn it around to change my life. I thought my story was something other women could benefit from.’
‘I think some men are intimidated by my work and it’s such a shame. When people get to know me they realise I’m quite normal. In the past there have been dates that haven’t gone anywhere because a man has been intimidated, but then that’s not the right person for me, so I don’t let it bother me. I’m in a relationship right now and I’m very happy.’
…Setting herself targets
‘I’m an opportunist more than anything. You never know what’s round the corner. If opportunities come my way that are outside my comfort zone, I must take them. I always like to push myself.’
…Saying no to appearing on Celebrity Big Brother
‘I would find something like that incredibly boring – why would you put yourself through that? What would it achieve?
For me there would be no point. I will only do things I will either enjoy, or learn something from. I get bored very easily and I have to be active all the time, so I just can’t see what I would gain from it.’
2008 Raises more than £750,000 for Sport Relief on Sport Relief does The Apprentice
2007 Appears as panellist on ITV1’s Fortune: Million Pound Giveaway
2005 Opens first European store in Valencia, Spain
2004 Wins Business Communicator of the Year
2003 Lobbies Government and overturns legislation banning Ann Summers from advertising in job centres
2000 Buys the Knickerbox Brand
1999 Ann Summers sells one million vibrators in the UK
1995 Publishes Good Vibrations autobiography
1993 Becomes chief executive of Ann Summers
1981 Launches Ann Summers Party Plan in the UK