The adult market is subject to constant change. Some of these developments occur over time, for instance the mainstreamisation of adult products or the erosion of the traditional supply chain, others pop up rather suddenly, such as modern technologies, products, or buzzwords. EAN and Stuart Nugent, Brand Communications Manager at LELO, take a closer look at the inner workings of the adult market.
Are products like the Womanizer spearheading a new generation of vibrators?
Stuart Nugent: It’s great to see these kinds of developments, and we at LELO welcome all newcomers to innovation in the pleasure industry. Any newness is exciting in the pleasure industry. That said, it’s a bit of a stretch to suggest these products represent a new generation. The nature of the product is quite specific – it’s hard to imagine exactly what follow-ups would be generated beyond refinements and improvements of the same design.
So I don’t see them as spearheading a new generation, rather I see them as expanding the boundaries of what’s possible, which is equally positive. What I’m trying to say, I guess, is that not every development is a revolution, however positive a step forward it represents.
Do innovative products such as the Womanizer pull the carpet out from underneath product developers because they represent a paradigm shift, or do they energise everybody, adding momentum to new developments in the industry?
They certainly energise me. These kinds of developments add new colour to the whole spectrum of the industry I love. That’s fantastic. To be honest there isn’t much carpet-pulling going on by sex toy developers: it’s not really possible, since all sex toy designs are limited to, restricted by, and intended for the human body. As such, there’s a very narrow set of rules that govern design, and little room for huge, sudden advances or surprises. Everything that comes out of the industry is fundamentally designed to stimulate nerve endings, so everything is a variation on that theme. Some do it better than others though.
“Everything that comes out of the industry is fundamentally designed to stimulate nerve endings, so everything is a variation on that theme.”
Is there enough emphasis on research and development in the sex toy market, or is the predominant sentiment ‘as long as it vibrates, everything’s fine?’
I can really only talk from LELO’s perspective on R&D. It’s where most of our budget goes: we invest very heavily in R&D, almost certainly more so than our competitors, and we have facilities and teams devoted to that and that alone. For LELO, research and development has been the cornerstone of our product design, and it’s our commitment to R&D that has traditionally set us apart. It’s very rewarding to see competitors finally following suit and starting to take it seriously too – it’s good for everyone, most of all the customer.
Given the nature of adult products, you don’t get quite as much feedback from the consumers. Is that a problem that hampers the development of the industry?
Actually, the exact opposite is true. Believe me, we get plenty of feedback. If anything, it’s hard actually impossible to accommodate everyone’s wants and wishes, as pleasure is so subjective. Social media is very, unstoppably vocal, and their real-world feedback is invaluable as we develop new products. It’s the same with comments on the product pages at lelo.com: it’s amazing how willing people are to share their experiences with our products. People care about their personal pleasure, and they’re very passionate about it. In that sense, our industry likely gets more feedback than, say, the dishwasher industry, which sees very little interaction.
“It’s amazing how willing people are to share their experiences with our products. People care about their personal pleasure, and they’re very passionate about it.”
Sex tech, teledildonics, virtual reality, sex with robots … There is a discussion about all of these things right now. Bu will modern technologies really change the face of the sex toy market in a significant way?
Yes. Well, kind of. It’s a positive feedback loop: technology drives sex toy innovation, innovation drives customer demand, demand then drives technology, and so on, hopefully forever. What I’m saying is that technology shapes the market, but the market shapes the technology. They’re intertwined, and they advance in tandem.
Do LELO have any plans of developing sex tech products of your own?
Yes. Rest assured, we’ll tell you more about it nearer the time.
At the same time, there seems to be a resurgence of classic designs such as flesh-coloured, penis-shaped dildos or rabbits and wand vibrators. How do these two developments go together?
Those kinds of items tend to populate the budget-end of the market, so it’s likely that resurgence is not so much a real resurgence, but an increase in newcomers to the industry. Newcomers tend to shop cheap before progressing onto more luxurious products, and we’re seeing huge growth across the industry right now. So it may be a false conclusion to assume that because there are more products, there must be a reversion to classic designs by existing customers. It’s more likely that the more products are a result of the demands of more new customers. The original customers continue to strive for more luxurious products just as they always have.
There can be no doubt that demand for male-oriented toys has gone up. Have LELO also noticed increased interest in your male toys?
Our male pleasure products have for some time been amongst our bestsellers. The BRUNO™, LOKI™ and flagship HUGO™ prostate massagers took the market by storm and continue to be hugely popular.
What is your assessment of the product range in the male toy segment?
It’s great to see the male segment go from strength to strength. It shows that the taboos surrounding male sexual pleasure are being eroded away at last, and we’re proud to have been a part of that.
First, everybody was crazy about products for women, then it was couples, now it is men’s turn. So … what’s next?
The pleasure industry has never been that linear – it’s more like all the segments grow together, but occasionally one gathers more momentum than the rest for a while. So it’s hard to predict what the new most popular segment will be. If I had to speculate, I’d say that contactless sex toys might be a worthy contender for next big innovation. More immediately, I think there will likely be an expansion of male masturbators and clever cock rings, following on from the recent popularity in prostate massagers.
Currently, there are voices criticising a lack of balance between price and quality. They argue people buying their first toy are often disappointed, thus being lost to the industry as recurring customers. Do you share this opinion?
Yes. There seems to be a gulf between the entry-level, first-time sex toys people initially encounter and the luxury segment that LELO created. There’s some slack between the two extremes. There’s no identifiable middle class, and we might all benefit from one.
Are terms such as ‘quality’, ‘luxury’ too elastic, too easily distorted? Does the market need fixed standards?
You’d have a tough job on your hands trying to fix any standards in this industry, because the companies those standards would be aimed at are exactly the ones who would disregard them anyway. I do think that there should be more independent regulation of the sex toy industry though. Holding brands accountable, and having independent quality assurance tests that can’t be circumvented by listing products as ‘novelties’ would be valuable for everybody.
As far as the distribution of sex toys is concerned, the traditional supply chain of producer-wholesaler-retailer continues to fall apart. Is this development a problem for LELO? Do you think you might have to change your distribution strategy at some point?
Old business models or new, we’re proud of our network and the mutually supportive relationships we have with any and all partners. Whatever the future happens, we’ll meet it.
Brands need to be cultivated for them to take root in people’s minds. However, members of the adult industry only have limited access to tools such as traditional advertising, and communicating topics like sex in the social media can also be tricky. Do these things hamper brand-building in the adult market? Or is the bigger problem that most companies in this industry can’t afford large-scale marketing campaigns to create awareness?
This is not a problem that’s intrinsic to the adult industry; it’s a fundamental issue every business owner, market graduate and brand manager has contended with at some point in their careers. The only difference in our industry is the restrictions on public advertising. However, that’s not the only way to make a name for your business. Excellent customer care, inventive pricing strategies, aggressive communications are all examples of other spaces in which brands in our business can thrive and develop a name for themselves. Social media too.
Where you stand on this argument tends to depend on your place on the Brand Recognition ladder. Start-up businesses resent an established brand’s ability to apportion a higher budget to their marketing, whereas big brands are sometimes jealous of smaller companies’ ability to be reactive and more human.
I’m of the opinion that any stand out brand in an industry is generally good for its competitors too. If one brand is drawing attention to the industry as a whole, there’s a lot of run-off attention available for smaller businesses too.
Brand building in the adult industry is hard. But it’s possible. And it while the step up to global marketing is a big one that takes time, it’s a lot of fun experimenting. If you have a solid product offering and a strong voice, there’s no reason you can’t succeed.
“Brand building in the adult industry is hard. But it’s possible.”
There are many products hitting the market every day – some from producers, some presented by distributors, wholesalers, or retailers as private labels – that are very similar to one another but are presented as brands. Isn’t that becoming confusing for the consumers?
Generally no, only the most experienced and knowledgeable customers differentiate between brands. The average customer differentiates by sensation, or experience, or design. There is an amount of brand loyalty in our industry for sure, but only amongst the most prolific customers. More worrying is the dilution of brand identity by less reputable companies trading off the heritage of more established ones. When products are designed to look premium but are made of substandard components, that’s bad for all of us.
Brands come and brands go, which is the same in most markets, however, many adult brands seem to be rather short-lived. Why is that?
It’s a competitive and frenzied industry. There are millions of reasons so it’s hard to single out one. But I think one of the biggest reasons is that sometimes brands are in this business for the wrong reasons. They often underestimate the customer. A lot of people assume this industry would be an easy one to walk into and dominate. They see sex and pleasure as easily commercial, a quick buck for little work. They set up shop, go through the early motions, and then discover that the customer knows the products and the industry better than they do. These fly-by-nights are often chased off by a market that’s smarter than they are without making a profit to show for their trouble.
People think sex is easy pickings. It isn’t. This industry is not easy. To survive more than three years or so is an achievement. To survive five is something to be proud of. At ten years, you’re a brand.
If someone can answer this question, it’s LELO: What is necessary to really be perceived as a brand in the sex toy segment?
In a word: consistency. The founders and senior people at LELO all came from design and engineering backgrounds. As such, LELO is founded on consistent design principles, unchanging through time and recognisable as having some kind of style even if you’re not familiar with the brand. LELO’s visual language has been consistent from the very first product, LILY, to those being released this very year. They’re instantly recognisable as part of the same design family.
The same is true of the packaging, the artwork, the PoS, everything is designed to a closely guarded set of style guidelines, that make sure that everything LELO does is truly LELO-worthy. That’s what establishes any business as a brand: consistency.
One last question on that topic: Why are brands so important? One might argue that the adult market seems to have done just fine without brands for a long time …
That’s like saying that for a long time we did just fine without penicillin.
How will the market for sex toys develop in the upcoming months and years? And will LELO follow this trend?
The market is expanding all of the time. There are more people than ever gravitating towards sex toys and they are continually becoming less taboo. As such, it’s reasonable to assume the sex toy market and the mainstream market will become one and the same. That’s an exciting proposition, and right now it doesn’t feel unrealistic to say that’s going to happen within 20 years or so. It’s already started in many ways. LELO won’t follow that trend. LELO will lead it, through continuous innovation, playful designs, smart and controversial marketing and a flexibility that refuses no opportunity.