Sharen Tureney of Victoria’s Secret speaks at Wharton, embodying the energetic brand that she has turned around.
We all know Victoria’s Secret. Women love it or hate it, and men are generally afraid to step inside the brand’s stores. This makes sense—with bright pink interiors and a youthful, fun shopping vibe, the shops are decidedly female-oriented.
Last week, Victoria’s Secret CEO Sharen Turney spoke as part of Wharton’s Leadership Lecture series and hosted several smaller meet-and-greets with students. In these conversations, she didn’t hesitate to say her brand targets women almost exclusively and aims to give customers the confidence to feel sexy in any style. As Turney described, the Victoria’s Secret product line is designed to take women on an emotional journey: showering with Victoria’s Secret body wash, putting on Victoria’s Secret lingerie under everyday clothes, and spraying on Victoria’s Secret fragrance before leaving the house. The brand is focused on staying “forever young” and attracting each new generation of consumers, which means Turney doesn’t expect to see branding that appeals to women her age—and that’s exactly how she wants it. With this vision, she has led the brand’s growth into the undisputed leader in intimate apparel and has become America’s 4th highest paid woman executive.
Turney is a retail veteran. Originally from Oklahoma, she started her career in department stores and rose through the ranks of Neiman Marcus building her experience in brick-and-mortar and digital commerce. When she took the CEO role at Victoria’s Secret Direct (online and catalogue) in 2000, she was charged with overhauling a decelerating brand. Under her leadership its image shifted from overly provocative to classier and fashion-focused, with sales surpassing the $1 billion mark. She was promoted to President and CEO of the whole company in 2006, and in this role she has not hesitated to make difficult decisions to sharpen the brand and increase sales. Most recently, she cut Victoria’s Secret apparel to channel the company’s energies exclusively into lingerie, loungewear and beauty. When questioned about this, Turney acknowledged she will lose customers but is confident she will win many more by improving the brand’s core lingerie offering.
Today, Turney is looking overseas for new opportunities and aims to double Victoria’s Secret $7 billion revenue through international growth. The brand’s flagship stores in London and the Middle East are among its most profitable locations, and its beauty products are increasingly present in lucrative duty free retailers. Although the brand’s image is uniquely American, Turney is unwavering in her belief that it will connect with global consumers. Aside from slight modifications to advertising images (such as not showing models’ bodies in more conservative countries), she has resisted pressures to “adapt” the brand to local markets. Her instincts have proven correct and the brand’s most popular products internationally parallel US sales and trends.
In person, Turney is warm, confident, and vivacious—the embodiment of the brand she leads. In our small group discussion, she asked each student to tell her a bit about themselves and ask a few questions. She showed a genuine interest in what we had to say and her confidence in her brand shone in her responses. She is especially proud of the role women play as the majority of company staff and of upper management, and in her words Victoria’s Secret is a brand built for women by women. Under her leadership, the company has expanded beyond the boundaries of retail and become a media giant: its annual fashion show is one of the most watched television events and the brand’s models are among the most recognized faces in fashion around the world. Victoria’s Secret presents an aspiration, sexy image through a model line-up that is incredibly diverse, and to me this is an especially inspiring (and business savvy) aspect of the brand’s capacity to connect so strongly with women globally. Seeing Turney’s energy and determination, it is clear that confident women leaders are as integral to the company’s success as they are to its brand image.