Global Grip: Shaping The Pleasure Products Biz Abroad

Ariana Rodriguez

Worldwide, social acceptance of sex and the market for related products has always varied from location to location. The “Fifty Shades” phenomenon has started leveling the playing field; however several factors continue to impact international market penetration of pleasure products.

“Though the U.S. has made great strides towards inclusion of sexual health products into the mainstream marketplace, I believe that we are still far behind what is considered the ‘norm’ for our international neighbors,” says Tiffany York, founder of FixSation, manufacturer of the eponymously named couples’ vibe.

Despite an international recession, especially in Europe, the adult industry seems to be holding its own as high-quality products gain market share with qualified buyers. —Kirt Zimmer, Tantus

France, Germany, Brazil, Japan and China are common examples of countries that are experiencing growth in the pleasure products market.

“The U.S. adult novelty industry has experienced an average growth rate of 20 percent per year over the last decade, however compared to an average growth rate of 50 percent per year for our international neighbors, it’s reasonable to conclude that even though the average U.S. consumer is warming up to the idea of having sex toys in the mainstream marketplace, we’re not quite ready to advertise this paradigm shift,” York said.

Industry pundits say education and openness about sexuality via the Internet is encouraging worldwide acceptance.

“The biggest change in the last five years is social media networks that allow people to share their experiences widely in an instant,” said Lorraine Byerley, vice president of marketing for Standard Innovation Corporation. “So when a cultural phenomenon like ‘50 Shades of Grey’ comes along giving readers permission to talk about a taboo subject, social media amplifies the message.”

With economic slowdown worldwide, another trend that the international market has seen is consumers’ preference for long-lasting products that exemplify quality over quantity.

“Despite an international recession, especially in Europe, the adult industry seems to be holding its own as high-quality products gain market share with qualified buyers,” said Kirt Zimmer, director of marcom, for Tantus. “There is a growing middle and upper class in places like China and India that doesn’t mind paying more for quality products like the ones we manufacture.”

According to Michael Bassett, CEO, CalVista Australia, the market for adult novelties is booming and sales in Australia are increasing year over year.

“Our market is characterized by reasonably high disposable income and low unemployment,” Bassett said. “We haven’t had the recession that the U.S. and Europe have suffered and consumers are generally well educated and not adverse to adult toys.”

Product, Packaging Design That Goes the Distance

There are many ways to appeal to consumer sensibilities through sex toys. When the goal is to reach an extended demographic, simplicity is key.

“We’ve always tried to appeal to a large audience on a global scale,” Pipedream CEO Nick Orlandino said. “Pipedream has always prided itself on being in the middle of the novelty manufacturing genre. There are a lot of people fighting to be the Mercedes of toys; I’d rather be Ford because they’re a lot bigger.”

Products that promote socially acceptable like health or romance are often easier to digest for newbies.

“Luckily, within a known range, human anatomy is the same no matter your nationality, so we focus on science-based design and consumer needs to develop products that are appealing for couples’ use and solo use,” Byerley said. “What is different around the world is culture and attitudes towards sex. From day one, Standard Innovation Corporation positioned itself as the premier provider of sexual health and wellness products that increase the satisfaction of sexual relationships and wellbeing. Research shows that people who have active sex lives are healthier overall — from improved immune systems and fertility, lower stress levels, better heart and pelvic health, stronger bodies and more. Sexual health is key to wellness and we give women products to enjoy it. More than 2 million customers around the world have purchased We-Vibe products, which is proof that our products have worldwide appeal.”

Universal appeal also is influenced by offering multiple options or full sets.

“Every year we see new trends and a new kind of openness develop in the sex toys industry,” said Sam Godfrey, general manager for U.K. distributor Planet Earth. “Take enemas and douching for instance — this has not been a huge market in the U.K. up until recently, but following the launch of comprehensive douching brands like StreemMaster and CleanStream the market has taken off. Couples toys are a hot topic following the success of the We-Vibe and the publicity that has been generated around this product and we believe FixSation will take a huge piece of this market. Then there is the male sex toy market, which is constantly growing, especially anal toys that more straight men are trying.”

Pjur founder and CEO Alexander Giebel says his brand of lube has achieved worldwide recognition by becoming familiar with territories independently.

“In every new market, we do research in the actual territory, learning about the potential and the particularities of the given country, establishing contacts, and talking to potential regional partners,” Giebel said. “Over the course of the years, we have accumulated a wealth of valuable experiences from numerous successful business relationships, and we know the individual import and registration situation in all of these markets. That puts us in a position where we can expand our global network and reach out to new markets, one at a time.”

Packaging that appeals to a worldwide audience typically relies on a less is more approach, however in order to convey a message, translation — often in multiple languages — is essential.

“We have translations on all of our Sportsheets packages in eight different languages,” Sportsheets founder and CEO Tom Stewart said. “Sex & Mischief was developed, in part, to offer the international market a lower-priced, high-impact packaged line of introductory restraints. The response had been very successful.”

CalExotics President and CEO Susan Colvin says. “We understand the importance of speaking directly to the consumer, and with so many different languages around the world, it is important for California Exotic Novelties to provide people with packaging they understand.

“Our solution is the recent implementation of multi-lingual packaging. Languages include: English, French, German, Russian and Spanish. The translations make it easier for our products to be understood across Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, North and South America. These are emerging markets. As countries like Russian Germany, France, and many others grow, California Exotic Novelties is poised to respond to their needs.”

Following the international success of the FixSation couples’ vibe, York says its packaging and certain product functionalities had to be redesigned.

“For the second generation of FixSation we selected a feminine and sexy color pallet that universally appeals to women and pops off the shelf to gain consumer attention,” she said. “Considering the obstacle of possible language barriers we relied heavily on elegant graphics to tastefully explain the product, while incorporating a peek-a-boo window revealing the package contents so that the consumer gets a preview of the actual product. We have also opted for multiple language translations to include English, French, Spanish, Italian and German. Additionally, we wanted to ensure universal charging adaptability without worrying about plug specifications, so we upgraded to a USB charging cord.”

Quality seals and guarantees also make an impression.

“The most important seals of quality have to be presented in a clearly visible way,” Giebel said. “Apart from that, a uniform, corporate design is the single-most important attribute of a global brand, for instance the yellow dot on all of our products that helps people to quickly spot pjur products in the store. And the ‘Made in Germany’ label is also on all of our products, as a guarantee for tested quality.”

Branding and Marketing to the World

With differences in culture and language barriers, creating brand loyalty worldwide can be a challenge that can be overcome if one is willing to wait.

“The last two years was spent promoting to the entire industry to let them know what we’ve accomplished and the response has been amazing,” says BMS Factory President Steve Bannister of the Swan line of premium silicone vibes. “Now, we have lots of people around the world who follow the Swan brand. These people are constantly checking the website and reaching out to us. They’re mesmerized by the products we’re coming out with and can’t wait for more. I believe we’ve gotten to this point by having marketing campaigns that focus on a single product at a time. It really helps everyone realize the brand and doesn’t bombard them with too many products at once. With such a quiet, great feeling product and consistently clean ads, the rest takes care of itself.”

Establishing alliances with local retailers and distributors also can offer the endorsement a brand needs to succeed.

“The Screaming O has been an internationally known brand for many years now and it’s picking up even more steam with the award-winning Studio Collection,” The Screaming O partner Keith Caggiano said. “We work with partners and supporters around the world to help promote our brand while providing our fans with quality product marketing using free-spirited, fun messaging.

“Most recently we teamed with U.K. retail giant Ann Summers to embark on a country-wide road trip giving away free samples on the official Ann Summers ‘I Scream!’ truck,” Caggiano said. “We also partnered with Paris boutique Passage du Desir to host a red carpet premiere of the award winning Studio Collection of chic and discreet mini vibes and sexcessories.”

Bassett adds, “Local market knowledge and proximity to the local sales channel(s) is the key ingredient that overseas brands ‘purchase’ when they cooperate with an international distributor. There may often be a language barrier, a different currency and even a different level of pricing or products required. The local distribution partner needs to supply the promotional aspect combined with the sales outlet in a transparent and honest manner. Great partnerships exist for many years and these will only be viable if both parties prosper and share information both ways.”

According to Zimmer, Tantus has taken a hands-on approach to spreading its message worldwide.

“It begins with our founder and president, Metis Black, who is known around the world as an innovator in sexual health issues,” he said. “As an individual, she has more Twitter followers than many large corporations. We have staff that spreads the word about Tantus via social media and our relationships with affiliates and reviewers. Tantus has a reputation for quality and there’s no more powerful force in marketing than word-of-mouth referrals. Tantus advertises in Europe, Australia and Asia to increase visibility. We also have a web site, TantusWholesale.com, which allows real time access to product photography and information sheets, so there’s no lag time in asking a staff person to send that content to you. Our product packaging includes multiple languages, so it works well in most parts of the world.”

Facing Roadblocks

“There are not really that many brands that are successful and have a strong, well-structured presence on all continents,” Giebel says.

“Planning, coordinating, and controlling all of the activities that have to do with the pjur brand, both domestically and internationally, that is a big task. Special market requirements in the various countries, the rules and costs of registrations, multi-lingual communication, and coping with cultural differences represent new challenges on a daily basis. But we tackle all of these challenges, and because we do, we can offer our international clients great performance and a strong brand.”

Planet Earth, which is an award-winning distributor in the U.K., is currently concentrating its efforts on its U.S. branch.

“Logistically, being international has never been an issue to our business, partly because we do our utmost to secure local experts within the company to help us deliver our targets,” Godfrey said. “With the bulk of the business controlled from our U.K. hub, we have offices across the world situated within our key markets and because of that we are able to serve their local communities, using the brand ethos and values of Planet Earth which are internationally recognized and appreciated by people all over the world.

“The only challenge we really face is developing recognition within new territories. We recently opened offices in the U.S., which we feel is a key market for the future development of Planet Earth. While many stores may not be aware of us just yet, we have to quickly convey our success in Europe where we have been established for years and secured a huge network of shops that serve a catchment area of more than 700 million people. With time, word of mouth will carry across the U.S. and we will gain a strong reputation for great products and fantastic service, but ideally we would like to put the message out there that we have the experience and customers can rely on us to deliver; that is probably what people are most skeptical about when it comes to a ‘new’ company entering the market — reliability. But we aren’t new. We have been around a long time and everyone in our organization knows how to deliver our ambitions and meet our customers’ needs.”

In addition to culture and language barriers, Byerley says counterfeiters are a major problem for the international market.

“Having moved into the international stage, we’ve realized how counterfeiters negatively affect our industry,” she said. “All of us are victims — manufacturers, channel partners, consumers — and we all feel the negative effects. We’ve patented our intellectual property to protect ourselves, our channel partners, and our valued customers. Standard Innovation aggressively pursues counterfeiters. We ask potential customers to visit our website to locate authorized resellers of authentic We-Vibe intimate massagers.”

We have developed a staff of sales people, purchasing agents and expeditors that have streamlined procedures to help Tantus become a trusted supply chain provider. The company recently relocated to the Reno-Sparks area in Nevada, which is a distribution hub for huge companies like Amazon, Barnes & Noble and FedEx for a very good reason: it is geographically positioned to move product quickly to all parts of the world. The international language of business is delivering quality product on time, and this is an area where Tantus is committed to constant improvement.

Distributors’ Role and International Representation

Manufacturers that invest in a relationship with an international distributor have to find a way to stay on top of their global operations.

“The answer is continuous communication on all channels,” Giebel said. “We have internal newsletters that we use to bring our partners up to date on a regular basis so they can become part of our marketing activities. We use direct mailing and international trade shows to stay in touch with our distributors. The area managers of the given markets and I [the founder of pjur group] travel to international trade events to support the local pjur teams or to have personal conversations with the clients, no matter whether these trade fairs take place in Australia, Asia, or the U.S. Of course, we also use the social media as an international channel of communication and for maintaining our contacts. Admittedly, all of this is very demanding in terms of time and manpower, but it is the tried and trusted strategy of pjur, and it has proven very successful.”

According to Byerley, Standard Innovations’ selective distribution model comes with a built-in trust and loyalty that promotes its success.

“We brought the best-of-the-best distributors and retailers from around the world into our fold,” Byerley said. “They know their customers. We rely on them and we trust them to guide us so that our product messaging, packaging and distribution strategy appeals to their customers. We have created merchandising tools and advertising tools that they use to help spread the message. Having an army of retailer representatives on the street has been a key strategy here and abroad. And, since many of our retailers have tried our products, they are all that much morepassionate about promoting the We-Vibe brand. We further support our channel partners with our global brand awareness and media relations program.”

One of Calvista’s tag lines is that ‘we build overseas brands in Australia,’ Bassett says.

“To this end, as a sales-based organization, we employ four graphic designers and four-person marketing team to support the sales effort. We are tireless in creating a wave of consistent promotion and awareness, across all platforms, both above and below the line for the brands we represent. This includes our Adultex annual tradeshow, smaller regional based roadshows, store incentives, products of the month, TV and print advertising, direct mail, email, ecommerce and social media.”

To gain a first-hand understanding of its clientele, CalExotics tapped industry vet Angela Mustone earlier this year.

“As our name grows around the globe, we become more and more aware of how politics, cultural mores, economic conditions, and a variety of other factors come into play,” Colvin said. “To be responsive to these challenges, Angela Mustone, a recent addition to the California Exotic Novelties team, is on the case. Angela is our international business development executive and she is charged with our New Market Penetration Initiative. Her expertise is helping us develop partnerships and relationships with new customers internationally.

“We understand what our customers need and we cater to them. Angela speaks one on one with distributors, asking the right questions and absorbing feedback. Communication is paramount. Acting as the California Exotic Novelties liaison, she helps develop effective forms of advertising, marketing plans, and product education.”

Lavi Yedid, director of operations for NS Novelties, says that this month the manufacturer will announce the opening of a Luxembourg-based warehouse through a partnership with distribution experts Lucom.

“The sales force at NS Lucom will act as our local representatives,” Yedid said. “This will allow for more immediate delivery of orders to our European customers. Distance and language barriers are two of the biggest obstacles faced when dealing with international companies. Our new warehouse in Luxembourg and the partnership we’ve forged with Lucom helps to alleviate both of these issues. To have a representative that has the connections throughout the European community will be of major benefit to both NS Novelties and its distributors and retailers.”

Similarly, Pipedream Products is going all out to encompass the globe.

“We’ve opened an office in Europe (Holland),” Orlandino said. “We are looking to open an office in Hong Kong and eventually in Australia as well as in Latin America. Our team travels hundreds of thousands of miles every year to spread the word that is Pipedream.”