The joy of sex marketing

From producers of condoms to retailers of sensual accessories, sex-related brands still walk a fine line when marketing their goods to the public, writes Loulla-Mae Eleftheriou-Smith.

Ann Summers: readies Valentine's Day push
Ann Summers: readies Valentine's Day push

For many people it would be a dream job. For others, it might be considered lightweight, or even a bit embarrassing, on the CV.

Yet the marketing of sex-related products presents a rare array of challenges, treading an incredibly fine line between practical advice and acting responsibly, while also conveying aspirational desires.

Brands in sectors from chocolates to restaurants to travel are gearing up for Valentine's Day, a key marketing event in the calendar. However, for those whose business is squarely focused on sex, it is the pinnacle – dare we say, climax – of their year. 

Durex has launched its first TV campaign in 12 months to promote its Performax Intense condom, while Mates owner Ansell Healthcare launches condom brand Skyn (see box). Ann Summers and Coco de Mer, purveyors of all things sex-related, are also preparing for peak season.

While no longer as taboo in this country as it once was, sex remains a sensitive, often awkward, subject for the UK market. Getting the balance right is the biggest challenge for these brands' marketers.

Sensitive to responsibilities

"This is a rich, emotional subject we are certainly not selling something bland", says Becki Rowe, general manager of marketing at Ann Summers.

"Taboos are not something we worry about on a day-to-day basis. This is a rich playground for marketing. Relationships are at the heart of what we do and a little humour goes a long way in this category."

Rowe admits sensitivity is required when it comes to TV, but draws attention to other categories, such as fragrance brands, which often use overtly sexual messages in their ads. Part of being a responsible brand, she says, is ensuring Ann Summers' campaigns are highly targeted at the right people. 

Ansell's decision to launch Skyn globally has brought the sensitivities surrounding targeting sharply into focus. While countries' attitudes toward sex differ greatly, the company's research found there were still significant common denominators.

This means it has been able to create a global launch platform for Skyn, which it can "tone up or down depending on the market", according to Barry McCool, head of global marketing in Ansell's sexual wellness division.

"Brazil has a much more provocative approach to the category, whereas India is much more toned-down in terms of the visuals we will use", he explains. "In India, there is very little advertising or awareness – condoms are still a taboo purchase. We had a campaign pulled last year, not for the creative, but simply because we were advertising the category." 

Refik Oner, category manager of health and personal care at Durex-owner Reckitt Benckiser, believes that with the right insights guiding a brand, marketers can avoid misjudging the tone of a campaign.

"There is definitely a risk of (patronising) consumers, which is why we do our homework - qualitative as well as quantitative research", he says. "We make sure we're not crass, that we're balanced and responsible. But that's not any different from what we do with our Finish brand."

Playful platform

For the Performax Intense campaign, Durex has taken a light-hearted approach, using two turntables playing Marvin Gaye's Let's Get it On at the same time, initially out of sync, to represent how the product can help couples during sex (see box).

Durex's strategy is the first of its kind in the category, according to Sam Jordan, managing director of branding agency Calling Brands, who has previously worked on activity for personal lubricant KY Jelly and campaigns in partnership with Brook, the sexual health advice service for young people.

"Most of the campaigns in this sector have been kept under the radar and have been quite apologetic", he says. "You can go down the functional route that leads to a more negative place about protection and hygiene, or you can look for an emotional benefit to consumers and be braver. This leads to the concept of play - a fantastic platform for a conversation with people about a serious subject in a positive, non-threatening way."

While Durex is attempting to blend the sex-education message with a playful tone - even going as far as offering online advice about performing oral sex for the first time - brands must beware, warns Jordan. "It is easier to make an impact and get noticed by doing something stand-out, but there is a health warning that comes with that."

Any company operating within the public arena that connects to health and wellbeing, whether sex, alcohol or drugs, must never be frivolous, he adds.

"This is a space where people are taking on your brand's messages in their personal lives. Behaving responsibly is essential, particularly when talking to young people. Durex balances serious with playful content, but get that wrong and brands are in danger of becoming 'that bad sex joke'."

Case study: Skyn, a new player on the scene

Ansell Healthcare, which owns the Mates condom range, is preparing for the global launch of a premium brand, Skyn, on 13 February.

Unlike Mates or rival Durex, Skyn is positioned to hold greater appeal to women, yet tries to avoid alienating men.

"It's a category that used to be sold primarily in pharmacies, but is increasingly mass-market, meaning more female shoppers", explains Barry McCool, head of global marketing in Ansell's sexual wellness division.

"A few years ago it was an 80:20 (in favour of men) purchase; today it is about 60:40", he adds. "For this reason, the campaign will be led from a female angle, with women delivering testimonials – Skyn can significantly change your sex life for the better."

The product's central claim is that it uses a new material, which is softer than the usual non-rubber latex used in the category, creating a 'skin-on-skin sensation'.

"Consumers will experience something completely different with Skyn", says McCool. "If you do our equivalent of the 'blind taste test', the product is significantly softer, and this supports our claim that it is 'the closest thing to wearing nothing'."

Q&A: Durex, Refik Oner, category manager, health and personal care, RB UK Q&A: Durex, Refik Oner, category manager, health and personal care, RB UK 


What is Reckitt Benckiser's approach to marketing sex-related products?

We look at this category no differently from how we look at Finish, Nurofen or Vanish.

It starts with the consumer – we try to understand his and her needs, spoken and unspoken, the specific barriers and key insights.

Once we get hold of those, we design our products and communication to meet those needs.

This category has been unsupported for a long time, but we are changing the way that Durex is marketed. We're putting a lot more support behind it, focusing on the basics to begin with to make sure we get them right.

When it comes to the use of social media, part of our marketing approach is to let consumers have a bit of fun with it for themselves. It is not always our job to push the marketing message, it is also about facilitating conversations.

How hard is to find the right tone in your marketing?

It's a fine line, clearly, but we try to make sure we walk that line in a responsible fashion.

We check our activity with a broad range of consumers, making sure they get the message and that we are not offending anyone. We have to be true to our brand – we want to make sure that the face of the brand, the tone of voice, the look and feel is consistent and does not change from the packaging through to the campaign. 

How is marketing within this category changing?

Things change faster than they used to: people access information quicker and grow (up) sooner – psychologically, at least.

I listened to a BBC ad from the 50s or 60s where British women were encouraged to lie back and do the right thing for their country. It was half a century ago, but at the time, it was the right tone of voice. Today, it's great that things have moved on; people realise it's not just about procreation, but also pleasure.

Our research shows that sexual health and wellbeing is fundamental to the overall health of people.

It is an integral part of a couple enjoying each other generally, not just sexually. We are on a bit of a mission to change the perception of the sector so that people can see it as the natural thing it really is.

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