Have Star Branded Toys Gone Cold?

Acme Andersson
It seems there’s nothing that a celebrity endorsement won’t help sell, and sex toys and novelties are no exception. Everything from cock rings to sex dolls to sexual enhancement pills are marketed with sex stars’ faces on the packaging.

This is not a new trend. Doc Johnson was selling John Holmes dongs in the late ’70s, and within a few years many of the genre’s biggest stars were endorsing products. But as the industry expands and competition intensifies, is it as simple as putting a big-name hottie’s picture on a box and expect that alone will move product? If only it were (still) that easy.

Pipedream Products COO Nick Orlandino said things have become much more difficult. When the company first signed Debi Diamond to a novelty contract — the first contract of its kind, according to Orlandino — it was a sensation and at its peak he said there was around 200 Diamond-branded products.

The company has made many such deals since — Seymore Butts, Hannah Harper, Ron Jeremy, Sean Michaels and Kylie Ireland among others — but Orlandino said the company has scaled back star-branded products in the past couple years.

“It’s become somewhat cost-prohibitive, and it doesn’t have the same punch it used to have,” he said. “There’s so many stars out there and they come and go so quickly that it’s hard to really invest in them.”

Chad Braverman, director of product development and licensing at Doc Johnson, agreed that the market has changed in recent years.

“In the beginning they did a lot better, but now due to the competition and the market being flooded with product, it doesn’t seem to matter anymore who’s on the package,” he said. “As long as you have a quality product, then it will sell. You can’t take a regular product and think because you put a Vivid Girl or a Club Jenna girl or even Jenna herself on it that it will do well. You have to start with a product first and then decide who it’s going to go toward in our company.”

Traditionally most products that have been marketed with stars on the packaging have contained generic items. The exact same vibrator or bullet may be marketed with dozens of different faces on the packaging over the years or even at the same time.

The most obvious exceptions are the personalized performer moldings. Over the years countless performers have lent their body parts — pussies and penises, breasts and butts, mouths and lips — for technology that allows amazingly realistic reproductions of their not-so-private parts.

Topco has been prolific in moldings since Tony Hernandez, the company’s director of research and development, did the company’s first with Nina Hartley. Topco has since reproduced parts of Chasey Lain, Jenna Jameson, Lexington Steele, Joanna Angel and now the company is home to the entire Penthouse Pet collection.

Topco’s director of marketing and public relations Desiree Duffie said that getting the right name on retailers’ shelves certainly helps move product.

“For example, Joanna Angel — her name, her brand, Burning Angel, all of that is very recognizable,” she said. “Just like with any brand extension, when somebody goes shopping and they’ve got a wall full of toys to choose from, people generally gravitate to what they know. If they know Joanna Angel, they’re going to gravitate toward her brand of toys.”

The company is doing more than just putting Angel’s face on the packaging; traditional items are marketed with bondage tape and vibrators with a fractured finish, all an effort to capitalize on the loyalty and image Burning Angel has already established with fans.

Similarly, Shane’s World has taken a very hands-on approach in its deal with California Exotic Novelties. Rather than just lend their brand name and images of their stars, the Shane’s World staff is very involved with the products from beginning to end.

“We wanted to focus on beginner toys — small anal beads, lubes flavored like cocktails and mini-vibrators, all presented in non-intimidating colors,” Megan Stokes, Shane’s World vice president of sales, said. “It’s for normal people who are first experiencing doing something different.”

Al Bloom, director of marketing at CalExotics, said it was because Shane’s World had successfully marketed itself to the college audience that caught his attention.

“I first saw Shane’s World in the Abercrombie & Fitch catalog a few years back. I thought it was really interesting that they were targeting the college audience, which is something, as far as the toy business, nobody had done before,” Bloom said. “I liked what they’re doing and I like the fact that they get the college kids involved with this and they’ve raised a whole different level of awareness in the college community with sex toys and I think it’s really great.”

Bloom said Shane’s World has the demographic “pretty well nailed down” and that the line has been “very successful.”

“A lot of people are just taking an item they already have in their line, making it a different color, and slapping a different brand on it,” Bloom said, “whereas with the Shane’s World people, they’ve been involved in picking the products.”

Orlandino said that Pipedream has found success recently with fetish-specific merchandise.

“We’ve really jumped into the fetish genre and it’s been a humongous, humongous success,” he said. “It’s now 20 to 30 percent of my business.”

The company is currently promoting a line called Fetish Fantasy, which Orlandino calls “kind of beginner, light bondage-type stuff. We have about 200 SKUs with that line right now and we’re doing big, big numbers with it.”

Likewise, one of Topco’s biggest successes today is Chi Chi LaRue’s Rascal Toys, which is geared toward the gay market, a surprisingly underrepresented niche with some of the major manufacturers.

Market saturation appears to be demanding novelty companies become more selective in the relationships they have with stars and producers. The quality must continue to rise in order to stand out among the competition, and successful innovations are always a major goal within any industry. Niche products also look to have a bright future in the marketplace.

While most were characteristically coy when it came to discussing upcoming products and deals, Braverman got downright specific. Noting the popularity of interactive movies, he said he’s looking for a way to make them even more interactive — through innovative novelty technology. That, he said, isn’t just a matter of his company coming up with new products, but must include a close working relationship with a studio.

“I’m looking for a better relationship between the video companies and the novelty companies in terms of getting interactive toys with encoded video so I can create a product where — maybe it’s a female masturbator or a female replica that has maybe a vibrator in it or maybe like something that has rolling beads so there’s a sucking action to replicate the effects — and to have it work in conjunction with the movie that the customer is watching,” he said.

“I’m looking to see movies and novelties join some sort of alliance where we can get interactive toys and partner them with interactive movies. Interactive movies are definitely the hot thing right now and I think they could be so much more.”

On the other hand, Bloom wasn’t about to go into specifics of future projects, but he made it clear that there are big changes happening in the novelty industry and doing the same old thing isn’t going to sell.

“A lot of the branded stuff that’s out there just isn’t working, it’s just not good enough to throw a name on something and figure it’s going to sell,” Bloom said. “The toy market has gotten sophisticated enough now where consumers know what they’re looking for and they know what they want, and when they go out there and they see the same old same old and it’s just because it’s got a brand name on it that some porno star’s name on there, it really doesn’t mean anything. But when it’s really a different item that’s got a brand on it that’s recognizable for a certain niche in the market, then it strikes a different cord.”