Heroes of Kink: Lovehoney Plays Instrumental Role in Mainstreaming BDSM
From reality TV to on-screen credit in a mainstream blockbuster movie, Lovehoney has grown rapidly and captured mainstream audiences worldwide within the last year alone. The company was launched in 2002 as an online store, which operated from co-founder Richard Longhurst’s bedroom. Landing the exclusive world rights to design, manufacture and sell adult pleasure products based on the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy by E. L. James set in 2012 set Lovehoney on a trajectory path. In 2015, Lovehoney anticipates that the “Fifty Shades of Grey” Official Pleasure Collection will garner even more fanfare — even after “Fifty Shades of Grey” leaves the theater.
In this exclusive interview with Lovehoney co-founders Neal Slateford and Richard Longhurst, and Commercial Director Ray Hayes, the men share their views on the burgeoning soft bondage market, the future of the “Fifty Shades” franchise and respond to criticism of the erotic story’s depiction of the BDSM lifestyle.
XBIZ: How has Fifty Shades impacted the Lovehoney brand?
Lovehoney co-founder Neal Slateford: “Fifty Shades of Grey” has had a huge impact on the Lovehoney brand. Put simply, it has made BDSM much more accessible to a mainstream audience. We always sold a lot of BSDM products but FSOG made us world leaders in that format. Trade buyers associate Lovehoney with well-made BSDM products which are attractively priced.
XBIZ: Discuss the soft bondage category. How has “Fifty Shades” redefined BDSM? How has Lovehoney redefined BDSM?
Slateford: FSOG was so significant because it introduced so many people to activities that were previously seen as kinky or niche. Three summers ago, there wasn’t a beach or a train where you could not see perfectly ordinary women enjoying pretty hardcore erotic literature without a trace of embarrassment. Clearly a lot of those women and their partners wanted to do more than just enjoy the books — they wanted to experiment sexually in the same way that Anastasia Steele does in particular in the books. That is essentially how FSOG redefined BDSM. To be the brand which brought those products to life was an enormous privilege. Lovehoney’s role in the redefinition was clearly by bringing those products to life. That was a big responsibility because they were so brilliantly described by Erika (E.L. James) in the books. We knew she would expect the highest standards but we were aware that they needed to be priced in a way that would appeal to a mass audience. Combining those two features was the challenge, and I think we managed it.
XBIZ: Tell me about the success of the Fifty Shades Official Pleasure Collection. Will the line continue to expand?
Lovehoney Commercial Director Ray Hayes: “Fifty Shades of Grey” is easily the biggest sex brand in the world and the Official Pleasure Collection is its sex products. It has been a fantastic success for Lovehoney and it has been wonderful to see the products selling out following the fantastic response to the movie. We are sold in every developed country in the world and have built up a huge network of distributors thanks to the global reach of the brand. Who would have thought that a major mainstream chain like Target in America would be selling an S&M-focused range alongside products like toothbrushes? That is a perfect illustration of the cultural shift that has happened in people’s sexual habits and the way BDSM is viewed by ordinary shoppers. It would have been unthinkable prior to FSOG.
Yes, the line will continue to expand. We are coming up with a Playroom Collection which is a series of restraint kits so couples can strap each other to the bed or the door. They come with a handy door handle signs like the ones you get at hotels saying: “Do Not Disturb — Grey At Play!”
I will continue to travel the world finding new distributors. My nickname at Lovehoney this year has been, “Where’s Ray?” because I am never there. My record was 12 flights in 11 days — mostly across the states: Phoenix, New Jersey, Denver, you name it. It was exhausting but enormous fun.
XBIZ: What was it like to see Lovehoney credited in a blockbuster movie? (And to attend the premiere, rub elbows with the stars, etc.)
Slateford: It was enormously gratifying to see Lovehoney and our sister company Coco de Mer’s names up in lights and to see our efforts recognized on screen.
The premier was great fun. We have worked very closely with Erika creating the products and it was great to catch up with her along with her husband Niall and two sons. It was fun to meet some of the brilliant people behind the film such as producer Dana Brunetti.
I was surprised that all the stars who attend a movie premier actually sit down and watch the movie. I thought they all just swanned off to the afterparty. And it was gratifying to see major screen stars queuing up to buy their ice creams just like ordinary cinemagoers.
XBIZ: When you inked the licensing deal for “Fifty Shades,” did you anticipate such an overwhelming response?
Slateford: In a word, yes. I know that sounds a little boastful but we agreed the first deal for the Official Pleasure Collection in the autumn of 2012. More than 60 million people had bought the books by then and it was already the biggest sex brand the world had seen. A lot of people thought the brand would fizzle out after the books but we were always confident that the movie would be just as big, if not bigger than the books. It has been gratifying to be proved right on that point. We subsequently acquired full worldwide rights to all the FSOG sex and pharmacy products and it has been great to see our sales team do such a great job making sure they have been distributed as widely as possible.
We have now sold more than 2 million units and we anticipate another surge in sales when the DVD comes out at the beginning of May. The producers at Universal have so far only filmed the first of the three books and there is the option of making two further movies from “Fifty Shades Darker” and “Fifty Shades Freed.” We hope to work closely with the brand for many years to come.
XBIZ: What are the challenges to licensing products for a brand such as Fifty Shades?
Lovehoney co-founder Richard Longhurst: Obviously the main challenge was to do justice to Erika’s fantastic characters. We had to make products which fans of the book and the film could imagine Christian Grey and Anastasia using. Erika was very closely involved from the beginning and would not have put her name to anything she wasn’t 100 percent happy with it. The challenge was meeting her expectations.
It has been wonderful working with her these last three years — she is a remarkable woman. She has been really helpful in promoting the products and attended the launch of the Red Room Collection, the high-end bondage range we developed for Coco de Mer. She also visited Lovehoney’s HQ and even signed books for buyers who got a very welcome surprise when they received their order.
XBIZ: What do you think are some of the misconceptions about Fifty Shades?
Slateford: I think the main misconception is really anyone working in BDSM who cannot see how positive FSOG has been.
You do get a few BDSM aficionados in the industry that are a bit stuffy about FSOG, but if it is getting people into the category then what is not to like. These new customers want to explore more and they want to buy not just from Lovehoney but also from everyone in the industry. I cannot understand how anyone in the industry cannot see it as a wholly good thing. It is great that so many new people are being introduced to this amazing world.
XBIZ: Has the Fifty Shades collection overshadowed Lovehoney’s other products / collections? What are Lovehoney’s bestsellers?
Hayes: It was inevitable that FSOG would overshadow some of Lovehoney’s other products and collections — but we are not complaining. What sex brand wouldn’t want to get swamped by FSOG after the hype surrounding the books and the movie. We hope it is has introduced lots of people to Lovehoney’s unique qualities such as our 365-day returns policy — that shows real confidence in our customer service.
In terms of best-sellers, clearly some of the more mainstream items in the collection have been best-sellers simply because they are more readily available — products like the massage candle, lubricants and bath oils have all done well. The best-selling sex toy is the vibrating love ring. Lots of other items have been phenomenally successful: the “silver balls” so popularized by Anastasia in the books as well as soft bondage favorites like the handcuffs and the blindfold. We’ve been blown away but the success of the nipple clamps — we thought they would be fairly niche but not at all.
Lovehoney’s other products continue to sell well and turnover will be up by around 40 percent in 2014-15. Magic wand massagers continue their growth in popularity and may overtake rabbits as the vibrator of choice. Anal is becoming increasingly popular and we are selling more lingerie than ever before after launching Lovehoney’s own range.
XBIZ: What’s next for Lovehoney?
Longhurst: The aim is to continue on this incredible journey, which started long before FSOG but has continued since then in the last three years at an incredible pace. We want to carry on introducing fantastic new products that will surprise people.
We have a few exciting surprises up our sleeve at the ANME show in Burbank in July — so watch this space.