Coping with the C-word

In his monthly column, Brian Gray from Glasgow-based erotic marketing agency Lascivious Marketing offers his thoughts on all things marketing. This month he’s pondering, well, what else?

On the day that would go down in infamy, a UK government special adviser suggested to her boss on September 11th 2001, that it would be a good day to bury bad news. And while there was a rational – if utterly cold and heartless – logic to it, arguably the bigger misdemeanour was to have been the one to suggest such a thing. That sort of thing just isn’t cricket, as the British would say.

When the Coronavirus (Covid19) outbreak started spreading across Europe, I quickly reckoned that with more people staying indoors this would be seen as an opportunity for sex toy retailers at least in the short term. But to suggest profiting, even if indirectly, from such a terrible thing and its effects on entire societies? I couldn’t really say this publicly….could I ?

Thankfully somebody else stuck their head above the parapet to say what many of us in the industry already felt. While appearing on UK television show ‘This Morning’ in the first week of March, radio and television broadcaster Vanessa Feltz opined that if self-isolation was required then fruitier pastimes could be enjoyed than sitting watching television or writing down lists. Yep, she gave the big thumbs up to more sex and suggested buying sex toys to help cope with things.

While the perpetually offended gasped, I’ve no doubt many of us agreed with her take on things and gave her the thumbs up for having the chutzpah to say as much before midday on national TV.

So when all said and done, to what extent is Covid19 affecting our industry? What practical steps can be taken to safeguard your business as well as continue to sell? Big questions.

Firstly, the obvious disclaimer. I’m not an epidemiologist, virologist, medical professional or statistical modeller. I’m a marketer with common sense. I don’t have a crystal ball either. Governments are taking action on a near daily basis with new advice and legislation so it’s a very dynamic situation.

Let’s start with the most important aspects: your health. The ETO Show and Eroticon in the UK; the Altitude show in Las Vegas; and the Intimi Expo in Brazil – all have been cancelled. And for good reason. You need to be taking care of yourself first and foremost.

If your government hasn’t already ordered you to close your doors, I’d seriously consider doing so anyway. If what I’ve read is correct, the virus can remain active on surfaces – your stock, fixtures and fittings – for hours and possibly days. It’s all very well offering hand gel (if you can find any) to customers, but how are you going to enforce where or how they cough in your store? You’re only as strong as your weakest link. In this age of snowflakey victimhood where people get triggered for being called out for their mistakes or lack of common courtesy, it may well be more trouble than it’s worth chastising someone for their lack of hygiene and ignorance. But make no mistake: this is a potential matter of life and death.

If you own a physical store and face temporary closure, manage staffing issues with sensitivity and respect: otherwise you’ll have a potential PR nightmare on your hands. But hopefully this is a temporary measure. Your valued employees aren’t blind to what’s going on: they’ll be upset but will understand the reason. If they’ve truly bought into your brand’s mission and been loyal lieutenants over the years, they may well wish to continue working in the background in some way. While the premises may be closed, they can still be communicating with your customers and prospects on social media. Orders taken over the phone or online can be sent out. In short, your premises may be closed but your business doesn’t have to be. 

So that’s the physical aspects taken care of. Be safe and don’t take unnecessary risks.

As for how this pans out, I reiterate that nobody has a clue, let alone a crystal ball. It’s entirely possible that in the short term sex toy and accessory sales rise. Maybe you’ve already experienced this. There’s a lot of people now homebound who could be spending money in your store with all the money they’d normally be spending on socialising, dating, eating and drinking out.

It’s easy to imagine erotic lingerie, sexy adult board games and wifi remote control sex toys being particularly popular as a means of injecting some much needed fun and frolics during these times. Adult gift boxes may well be high on people’s lists as they hunker down and ensure they have a variety of toys and accessories to keep them safe, sexy and sane throughout the months ahead. Don’t forget cross-selling opportunities for lube and condoms.

We’ve already seen massive disruption to the airline, travel and hospitality industries with huge job losses. Newly unemployed people, as well as those who are homebound employed with slightly more time on their hands may well reckon that with so many people now indoors and socially isolated, the sex toy market is waiting to be tapped. Long story short, there could be many new online retailers entering the industry. How prepared are you to maintain your position in the face of swathes of new kids on the block? This is one of those times when having a strong and trusted brand helps enormously.

Trying to assess the longer term outlook is problematic and more akin to an exercise in conjecture. How long will it take to manage Covid19 to acceptable levels that normal life can resume and physical stores reopen? To what extent has consumer confidence been affected and how long will it take to bounce back? How can we ensure fear doesn’t usurp fornication?

For those of you selling goods manufactured in China, to what extent have supply chains been affected? Will there be a negative ‘country of origin’ effect? It’s perhaps time to check out alternatives closer to home. There are fantastic independent artisan brands producing a wide range of quality products. Explore joint marketing initiatives together to keep your local customer bases informed, upbeat and thinking of naughtiness that you can assist with.

When reading the opinions of assorted financial analysts, economists and bankers, I’d be lying if I said they were optimistic about things. When I was originally writing this column I had expanded on this and included a quote or two. I then realised that again, nobody has a crystal ball. Secondly, the last thing needed is more doom and gloom: our newspapers and television are doing a ‘commendable’ job themselves in this department.

We have to consider individual psychology too: some people will see increased time at home and sex as an escape from the troubles of the outside world. Others will be affected by external events such as Covid19 or unemployment to the extent that sex and relationships drops in significance. I mentioned fear before: don’t underestimate its effects on individuals and societies as a whole.

While just now we could be seeing a whole host of new companies entering the market eager to sell to the ‘horny and homebound’ further down the line I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see an equally quick thinning out of brands and retailers.

Obviously I hope we bounce back as quickly as possible from this. But we also have to be pragmatic. For me at least, that means two things: knowing what one’s potentially up against, and planning for the worst while hoping for the best.

So, leaving conjecture and hypothesising aside, what practical steps can be taken in the here and now? Aside from the obvious health aspects mentioned earlier, if I was a retailer and this was my primary income, here’s what I’d be doing.

Firstly, I’d be checking to see what state aid is available and if so, reading the small print accordingly. I’d also not be afraid of contacting my Member of Parliament or Business Gateway service to address any concerns I had.

Secondly, and this is crucial: maintain your marketing. Don’t be pulling down your shutters when it comes to communicating with your target audiences. I’d be active on social media, engaging with them and keeping them informed of what’s going on. If my bricks and mortar store was closed and was missing the face to face interaction with my customers, I’d be doing my level best to replicate this online, reinforcing my brand values, running a competition or limited time offer, as well as just being open to a chinwag to keep everyone’s spirits up.

I’d also be forging relations with other local brand owners in the wider business of love and lust. Not only for keeping spirits up, but to see how we could potentially work together (remotely of course!) to maintain awareness of, and engagement with, the category as a whole among my community. I’d be brainstorming with them to create joint social media campaigns. Striking up alliances with rivals might be anathema, but trust me, it makes sense in these times. Think about major fast food chains. They don’t panic when a rival opens a branch two doors along from them. They know it keeps the overall category alive and awareness high. Without category awareness to begin with there’s no chance of a subsequent sale among individual brands.

Why not also get in touch with relationship coaches and counsellors? While some pundits are predicting a baby boom from homebound couples, there are also reportedly skyrocketing divorce rates in China among quarantined couples spending too much time together. Is this to be replicated across Europe? The coaches and counsellors will be touting for business too. Why not forge relations with them and see if they can refer any potential customers your way? Nothing ventured nothing gained.   

Going further, I’d also be contacting my peers from the same sector, especially if the same size and sharing similar values and customer focus. They might be five miles, five hundred or even five thousand miles away. I’d be seeing whether they’re willing to form alliances, perhaps strategic partnerships or more, in which marketing responsibilities, such as social media, can be shared.

I’d be thinking about going even further though. I’d seriously consider collaborating with some like-minded owners to create a new umbrella brand featuring a stable of appropriate brands alongside my own that can make an impact and thrust the category into the eyes and minds of the horny and homebound. Think of the airline alliances whereby members will have a few of their planes painted in the alliance livery with their own identity taking less prominence.  

It was Cindy Gallop who once opined that “sex is recession proof.” Granted, she wasn’t saying this in the context of a global pandemic. But does this hold up? If I was tasked with identifying the more likely happy humpers from those stressed out it would be those people who – even with economic uncertainty all around – have no money worries. This means the AB1s, the upper class, the VVIPS and High Net Worth-ers who, besides perhaps suffering a wee dent in their investment portfolios of late, have no worries concerning their daily standard of living. If you’re already focused on this segment and offering high quality goods and an equally high standard of service, keep on doing what you’re doing.

Regardless of market segment being targeted, I’d be ensuring my communications resonated with them and addressed their fears and pain points, but even more so their pleasure points. I’d be mindful of what’s going on but I wouldn’t be overly dwelling on it either. Perception drives behaviour afterall, so staying upbeat is key. I saw an Instagram post recently from an artisan leather harness maker who effectively told her followers to not think of buying anything from her store if lacking in essentials, food, petrol, and so on. But if they did have all that, then she was running a quick promo sale for customers to take advantage of. The balance was spot on.

I’d also be increasing my content marketing efforts and as I’ve mentioned in other columns, making my website the centre of everything. More blog posts to help with SEO; enticing newsletters with genuinely interesting content that will have prospects and customers rushing to give you their email address. Read ‘Content Inc.’ by Joe Pulizzi to find out your sweet spot and content tilt (and yes, I included these terms deliberately so you have to find out for yourself what they mean) and other sage advice to get you started.

There’s a few other things I’d have up my sleeve, but I’ll round things off with a specific warning of what not to do.

You may feel pressured to lower your prices: don’t do it. Rolls Royce don’t cut prices of their cars when there’s a downturn: they instead reduce supply and production. If you reduce your prices just now (even if for the noblest of reasons) then when things get back to some semblance of normality – and they will – how easy will it be to justify the jump back to your pre-crisis pricing? Yes, cash flow may be of critical importance, but it’s a wider business issue rather than a marketing issue per se.

Make whatever changes elsewhere you need to in order to ensure there’s money coming in, but resist the strong temptation to lower your prices. Limited time promotions and flash sales events are fine, but that’s it: anything else is verboten.

Let’s not kid ourselves. This pandemic has, in cricketing parlance, hit us for six. Fear and uncertainty surround us. But, we can get through this. Why? Because for many people homebound or otherwise there’s a need arguably bigger now than at any time. A spokesperson for the UK High Street fashion retailer Next recently commented: “People do not buy a new outfit to stay at home.” In our case, whether it’s erotic lingerie, fetish wear or the whole gamut of pleasure products, they most certainly do. Remember this, and remember it well. We’re in the business of providing wicked smiles and other sensations to our customers and we’re damn well not going to stop now.

Stay safe, stay sane, and keep your sense of humour. Find something to keep you amused, whether it’s comedy box sets or funny social media clips. I’ve seen people (pretend?) humping in yellow hazmat suits to a pair of amorous Ryanair flight attendants being thwarted by spray, gel and oxygen masks. In a time like this, quite honestly, I’ll take all the humour I can find. And that’s something I WILL stockpile for good measure.

Until next month, take care of yourselves and your loved ones, and don’t be shy in saying hello on Instagram, Twitter or email for a chat during these somewhat surreal times.

Brian can be contacted at, found on Instagram @lasciviousmarketing or phoned on +44 (0)141 255 0769 while obeying the government’s lockdown orders.