“Brand-building in the adult industry is hard. But it’s possible.”

Even though there aren’t concrete numbers to go by, there are certainly many indicators pointing to a continued growth of the global sex toy market. In order to get an opinion from an industry expert, EAN spoke with Toni Grčić, LELO’s Commercial Manager for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa (EMEA). Apart from discussing the current status and the future potential of the sex toy industry, we also talked about the trends that shape this market today, and those that may shape it tomorrow.

Let’s start with the big one: Has the market for sex toys grown this year? And how can one tell?
Toni Grčić: The sex toy industry is pretty guarded over its stats because it’s such a competitive market. But we can say that when LELO launched its first product, at the turn of the millennium, the global market was worth about 2 billion dollars. In 2020, it’s projected to be worth about 24 billion. That’s an explosive rate of growth. Things have really taken off in the last twenty years, driven largely by brands like LELO, raising the quality and the profile of pleasure products in the mainstream by designing sex toys that are as beautiful to look at as they are to use.

How has 2019 been for LELO thus far? Were you able to consolidate your position in the market?
During the 1st half year, we have seen balanced contribution to growth from our major markets (America and Europe) and emerging ones (L. America, Africa, and Asia). This trend continued throughout the summer months and now, we are delivering double digit growth rates. In Q4, we are introducing the next generation of our top-selling market-leader products like Sona, Sona Cruise, Soraya, and Ora that will fuel this growth further and contribute to this year’s success.

LELO has been one of the big names in the luxury sex toy segment for years, but as more people buy sex toys, more people want to sell sex toys, making for greater competition. Is this development a blessing and a curse at the same time?
Competition is always good, it is pushing us forward and makes us explore different options. Even though innovation was the core of our brand when we were the only big brand 16 years ago, with more and more competitors, our innovative DNA is what helps us stand out among the numerous brands and products. It is also important to educate the consumers, to show them what is a quality product, to inform them about possible harmful substances that can be found in cheaper products. I will admit that other bigger brands are also doing their part of the job of showing people that they should invest in safe, quality products.

For a long time, experts have been saying that sex toys hold a huge potential that just hasn’t been unlocked yet. Is that still the case today, and if so, what is keeping the market from fully realising its potential?
It is extremely hard to realise the full potential of the sex toy market, since human sexuality still is a taboo even though things have changed drastically in the last couple of years. The change has been brought about by customer’s increasing openness to new sensations and their willingness to discuss their intimacy and pleasure with each other. There’s a thriving community of sex toy reviewers, bloggers, and journalists on social media who compare notes openly. As the biggest name in the industry, LELO’s sex toys often get reviewed online. The conversation about sex and sex toys is no longer such a great taboo, and LELO has headed that change.

“It is extremely hard to realise the full potential of the sex toy market, since human sexuality still is a taboo even though things have changed drastically in the last couple of years.”

The erosion of the traditional supply chain, excess supply, price wars, product piracy, insufficient access to mainstream channels, and obviously Amazon and the problem of having a handful of giant companies dominating the e-commerce segment – are those still the main challenges facing the market right now or has anything changed?
Today we are seeing only a handful industries that are delivering such a strong year on year growth, making the sexual wellness industry very attractive for new investors, manufacturers, distributors, e-tailers, and retailers. Context within the industry is changing as we speak, and it is becoming more and more competitive. Steering the sexual wellbeing segment into mainstream self-care together with our trade partners, creating value, and improving the user experience are always our priorities.

The internet has a reputation for being disruptive when it comes to traditional distribution models, including those of the erotic market. How hard was/is it to keep up with this rapid and far-reaching change as a brand/producer?
LELO as a market leader has the responsibility to innovate continuously and make the consumer experience as pleasurable as possible. New technologies have helped us understand our users better and enabled us to expose them to the LELO brand in right and unique ways at multiple distribution points.

Investing in emerging markets is a tried and true way of growing as a company. Which are the developing markets that hold the greatest potential for a company like LELO right now?
LELO is distributed in +200 countries around the world. Spreading a consistent brand message, being socially and locally relevant and ensuring proper user satisfaction is crucial for success. This would not be possible without our strategic partners, both distributors and retailers who are helping us grow brand awareness and convert users to the LELO brand. We see strong developments in Latin America, Africa, and the Asian markets.

There’s also the question whether the sex toy market is a market like any other or whether it is unique. Are the rules the same as anywhere else, and it’s just the products that are different? Or is there something special about the fabric of the market? Also, do you believe that the sex toy market is crisis-proof?
As I have mentioned, sexuality is always a delicate subject, however it is changing and the market is expanding over time. There are more people than ever gravitating towards sex toys and these products are continually becoming less taboo. Therefore, 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 it’s going to happen within 20 years or so. It’s already started in many ways. However, it will take time since taboos are hard to be broken.

“It’s reasonable to assume the sex toy market and the mainstream market will become one and the same.”

Will 2019 go down in the annals of the erotic market as the big breakthrough year for sex tech?
Sex tech as a category is definitely developing, with many apps seeing the light of day. This is taking a chunk of the industry, but we believe that the majority of people still prefer products that are not burdened with too many options, apps, and buttons. So even though 2019 was marked by the sex tech revolution, there is still a variety of many different products since our tastes and our definition of pleasure differs from person to person.

Many alternative stimulation technologies have seen the light of day in recent times, and in the face of suction, air pressure, etc., some people felt that the traditional vibration technology was becoming obsolete. Did they write off the good old vibrator too soon?
The nature of innovation in the sex toy industry is the same as it is in every tech industry: The trends are dictated by the consumer. Right now, there is a trend towards much more inclusive, sexually progressive sex toys. One of the trends is products dedicated to clitoral stimulation via suction and/or air pressure, and they have taken a huge chunk of the market, but we cannot say that only these kinds of products are sought after. Rabbit vibrators have been a hit since their launch, and there is also demand for G spot vibrators.

With sex tech on one side and more ‘traditional’ products on the other, what kind of balance is LELO looking to strike within its product range, now and in the future?
At LELO, we are customer-centric and trying to offer a variety of products that our customers might want. What is very interesting for our brand is that there is no ‘typical’ LELO customer; we have customers from all ages, genders, sexualities, and backgrounds. From 18 to 80, all are welcome. There really isn’t a pattern, except that our customers tend to be quite savvy sexually. LELO customers are curious about new sensations and innovations – they’ve generally already owned a cheap sex toy or two and they’re looking to step their personal pleasure up to the next level. So, we are governed by diversity and inclusivity which can be seen in our products.

Another development that we have seen in the erotic market – and most prominently in the US – is that a lot of sex toys are not marketed to a specific sex anymore. Are the days of male toys, female toys, etc. over?
At LELO, we try to keep our products gender neutral, especially with the exciting transformation of the landscape of gender itself. Our products are pleasure products and while we do make products for certain gender-specific parts of the anatomy, we try not to be dogmatic about who’s using them, or how. I believe that the entire market is moving in that direction.

There have been many changes when it comes to the marketing of sex toys. Today, you see a lot of targeted marketing emphasising sexual wellness and sexual health. Has the industry become more professional in terms of marketing and advertising, or is it more a result of the current zeitgeist?
Sex toys are becoming a part of the mainstream, that is to say a part of a certain lifestyle. So, the same way you take pride in owning a certain fashion product, this applies to sex toys as well. Particularly if you take into account that brands like LELO place great emphasis on the design of their products. We even won the Cannes Lion for design for our ORA2. When sex toys look like an object d’art, elegant and beautiful, then it is not strange that they are placed shoulder to shoulder with designer clothing.

When people debate whether there are real brands in the erotic market, LELO is usually one of the names that is mentioned to prove that, yes, there are real sex toy brands. How important is it to have that brand factor in a market flooded with generic products?
Brand-building in the adult industry is hard. But it’s possible. And 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 why you shouldn’t succeed.

Why are there so few strong brands in the erotic market? Are companies focusing too much on the products themselves and not enough on branding?
We at LELO are offering an entire journey, a true brand experience, so as you’ve said, we are not focusing solely on products. We are always putting our customers and their needs at the centre, we listen to what they want and need and try to provide them with that. Of course, we are focusing on the quality of our products, but we are also providing our customers with many different aspects of pleasure, such as our ‘Pleasure Project’ known as ‘Volonte’. Over the years, it has become the sex toy industry’s premier location for sexy tips, real advice, and behind-the-scenes LELO goodness.

How has LELO’s branding changed over the course of the past 16 years? Have you ever tweaked your core values?
What marks LELO as a company is 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, all the way 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, making sure that everything LELO does is truly LELO-worthy. That’s what establishes any business as a brand: consistency.

Of course, no interview about the erotic market would be complete without a question about the public acceptance of sex toys. So: How accepting is modern society really when it comes to adult products?
Human pleasure is still something that society frowns upon. And at LELO, we have decided to fight this attitude. Things seem like they will get worse before they get better, but it’s progress of a kind. Sexual equality, pleasure, and reproductive rights are discussed openly like never before, even if that discussion is occasionally tainted with bias and misunderstanding – or outright hostility. As long as the fight continues, LELO will be right there, on the front line.

“Human pleasure is still something that society frowns upon. And at LELO, we have decided to fight this attitude.”

What role does social media play in this ‘sex toy revolution?’ And what is LELO’s social media strategy?
It is amazing to see how social media has become a perfect platform for celebrating pleasure and bravely accepting your own body and sexual desires. Just like many people follow beauty brands on social media, it is now completely normal to follow and engage on sex toy brands’ pages on instagram. It definitely breaks the taboo about sex toys and sexual pleasure in general. Our strategy on social media is to use these platforms to stand out as a body positive brand, show love for diversity and encourage people to accept who they are.

Let’s take a look at the road ahead: In your opinion, how will the market for sex toys develop in the upcoming years?
Pleasure product development is often led by the availability of technology, and as such, there’s a trend towards smarter products with better connectivity – wireless remotes, smartphone apps, and so on. There are identifiable trends and fashions when it comes to sex toys, just like clothing or technology. After 50 Shades was released, for two years, love beads were our biggest sellers because they feature in the books. Wireless vibes, like our SenseMotion couple’s products, became very popular very quickly, and now there’s a thirst for wand-style massagers, too.

What is extremely interesting when you are talking about trends is that the products are no longer simply judged on how pleasurable they are, but on the positive attitude of the brand that made them. This is hopefully a trend we will see continue and grow: positive brands like LELO lead the charge in smashing taboos, and that’s an important and endless battle.