It is a brave person who uses the term ‘fake tan' in front of St Tropez CEO Michelle Feeney.
The feisty 46-year-old, a former top beauty comms expert, is determined to revolutionise the way the tanning market is viewed. ‘I'm single-handedly trying to drag us out of "fake" tan,' says Feeney, who prefers the terms ‘self-tan' and ‘skin finishing'.
Since taking over the role of CEO 18 months ago, Birmingham-born Feeney has relished the challenge of turning around a neglected brand: ‘I took a good hard look at the elements of it: very good product, very good name, and excellent reputation. And I thought, god I can build on that, I've built on less.'
The first step was listening to customers: ‘They said the packaging looked dated and they loved the performance but not the smell.' Since the audit, the brand has seen an overhaul in its packaging and product offering and an improvement in its messaging.
All this has contributed to St Tropez experiencing a record-busting June. The brand is up 24 per cent on last year's figures and one week in June saw sales in Boots shoot up 60 per cent.
But Feeney's biggest challenge and bugbear remains how the British media perceive the brand. ‘There is a real struggle with the media, as all they want to write is "fake" and "orange",' she says. ‘In comparison with the American media I find the British press predictable, negative and slightly lazy. I think they think: "It's summer, so let's do this".'
As part of the brand overhaul, Feeney has attempted to move away from associations with certain celebrities known for their orange tans. ‘I like Jordan, and I want her as a customer, but I don't want her as our role model. So we've gone from her to Cate Blanchett, which is literally the whole spectrum.' Feeney herself is a glamorous woman who has more in common with the latter than the former. In an industry that is all about appearance, Feeney clearly takes time to make sure that she looks the part.
She says the media do not take the beauty industry seriously enough. She has been called in by The Prince's Trust to chair a new fundraising division called the Beauty Leadership Group, which is launching in September. As part of her new role, she is intending to ask the media to give the industry more respect. ‘It strikes me that I'm running a business that's £50m at retail, which isn't insignificant. But you'll get The Sunday Times doing a feature on somebody that's done something at a loss.'
She continues: ‘We need to be an industry that stands forward and says we create jobs and opportunities. It's not just about becoming a hairdresser. You can become a scientist too.'
Her experiences at St Tropez appear to have left her a little disenchanted with the print media. She stops short of discounting print altogether by conceding there are certain publications and journalists that are important: ‘But I'm glad to say probably we have a better chance of changing perceptions via social media.'
While Feeney has quite a battle on her hands, she is not someone to shy away from a challenge. As part of her illustrious PR career, she has been responsible for launching some of the biggest beauty brands in the world. While working at Estée Lauder, she managed the launch of premium beauty cream Crème de la Mer in 1994 using only three well-placed editorials.
‘I'd been given this jar and told to do something with it, so I treated it and promoted it like it was a rock star,' remembers Feeney. ‘From three pieces of editorial correctly placed in the right publications - Town & Country, Harper's Bazaar and The New York Times Magazine - suddenly it was a $7m business.'
While some would expect her to be a one-hit wonder, her success with other brands including Mac and Prescriptives earned her the nickname ‘The Alchemist'.
But even she cannot believe the luck she has had with a career most beauty PR professionals could only dream of, sailing through without ever actually applying for a job. Reflecting on one point while she was working at Estée Lauder, she says: ‘I was sitting on the 42nd floor of the General Motors building, looking out on Central Park, calling my friends and saying: "They don't know I'm from Birmingham".'
Feeney believes that her 20-plus years in the PR business have stood her in good stead for the CEO role. She admits taking on the role was daunting at first but she felt up to the challenge: ‘Working in PR prepares you extremely well because you have to multi-task and think about everything.'
Elle magazine editor-in-chief Lorraine Candy, who has worked with Feeney for more than ten years, says: ‘She is always full of ideas and has a good understanding of all the publications with which she works. She has modernised St Tropez and given it a better structure suited to the right client. She never misses an opportunity to PR her brand.'
In Feeney's case, it appears you can take the woman out of PR, but you cannot take PR out of the woman.
2007-present CEO, St Tropez
1998-2006 Vice-president global comms, Mac Cosmetics
1993-1997 Executive director communications for Prescriptives, Tommy Hilfiger Toiletries, Aramis and Crème de la Mer, Estée Lauder Companies
1990-1993 Founder, Michelle Feeney PR
1988-1990 Account director for health and beauty, Lynne Franks PR
1987-1988 PR manager, Trevor Sorbie International
1985-1987 Fashion show producer and PR executive, Lesley Goring, Show Production and PR