Going for the Gold: High-end Products Take Center Stage

Dan Cameron

In an increasingly popular recurring sketch on “Saturday Night Live,” comedians Vanessa Bayer and Cecily Strong play former porn stars desperately trying to sell viewers high-end products in their homemade (and hysterically half-baked) infomercials. Whether championing brands like Moët & Chandon champagne or Hermès handbags, the girls ramble about things like luxury, affluence, opulence and the finer things in life — while mispronouncing and slurring every word along the way (“Avernersary!”). The sketch is a comedic yet cruel clash of two different worlds, and if nothing else proves one thing: Consumers are familiar with top brand names whose reputations are built on quality — and they can easily spot a pretender or poor marketing. In the world of sex-toy manufacturers, that’s a very good thing for industry trendsetters.

“I prefer the term ‘premium’ as it has a bit less baggage than ‘luxury’ or ‘high-end’; ‘luxury’ is overused in marketing language (in all categories, not just ours) and along the way has lost much of its original meaning and credibility,” says Ethan Imboden, founder of Jimmyjane (motto: Pleasure to the People), which offers a full complement of products extending from vibrators to massage and wellbeing lines.

All other product designs such as cars, vacuum cleaners, jewelry, fashion, etc. have highly qualified and skilled designers to design products in their fields; the higher end, the more skilled. This is required for high-end erotic toys, too; and it’s apparent in any high-end erotic range. -Shiri Zinn Sex-toy Designer

“‘High-end’ is generally taken as a reference to price, so it is limiting.”

When he first began work in 2002 on the concept that would later become Jimmyjane, Imboden says the notion of premium sexual products was dismissed (or ridiculed) by many. But today, no one questions whether there is a market for beautifully designed, well-made products to enhance sexuality — even when their development and production may require higher retail prices.

“As in all consumer product markets, successful products and strategies are emulated, expectations ratchet higher and this propels the category forward — usually to the benefit of the end customer,” Imboden says. “I’m very pleased that we’re now at a point where consumers finally have a good selection of reliable products to choose from at a wide variety of prices. There is a much greater emphasis on quality and safety — at all price points — and the industry is expanding well beyond its original ‘novelty’ roots and confusion with the pornography category. Most importantly, the evolution of the sexual well-being market has provided customers with permission to engage in our category, comfort in voicing their opinions and confidence in demanding a higher standard.”

Suki Dunham — founder of OhMiBod (which, among other things, gloriously bridges vibrators with music) and partner of Bedroom Kandi — describes the luxury market as “emerging.” She notes that historically there has been so much stigma associated with adult toys, making it difficult for “regular” customers to feel comfortable buying and using them, especially together as a couple.

“With the creation of brands and a focus on quality, design and product messaging, we see that stigma slowly fading away. A few years ago, it would have been unheard of, personally speaking, to have dinner with my girlfriends and discuss my favorite vibrator brand and why I loved it so much — be it packaging, messaging or just how it made me feel … sort of like my Jimmy Choo shoes or my Prada sunglasses,” says Dunham. “Vibrators and bedroom toys are becoming conversation pieces as personal attitudes towards them become more relevant in their personal lives. It’s something now that is more easily shared and experienced.”

From a brand and manufacturer’s perspective, Dunham says it has changed dramatically and will continue to evolve — in a way that will benefit all hard-working and innovative manufacturers and ultimately the end-consumer. “What’s really interesting is how retail companies are emerging and finally getting their arms around the distribution/selling of products in the ‘luxury/hip’ segment in our space. They are realizing that there is an emerging marketplace here that is poised to explode … no pun intended.”

What’s in a Name?

“As the pleasure product market becomes more mainstream and women find empowerment by embracing their sensuality, the luxury segment continues to blossom,” says Susan Colvin, president and CEO for California Exotic Novelties. “As a pioneer in the industry, I helped bring toys out of the corners of adult video stores and into the hands of women and couples who want to explore sexual wellness in an open and positive way.”

When Colvin and her team first introduced the Jack Rabbit to the market, they made it with a woman’s needs in mind: “The rotating beads, external tickling bunny ears and the multiple speeds all appeal to what women want in a pleasure toy. As the Jack Rabbit evolves and tastes in toys became more sophisticated, so does Jack. Today there are over 30 different Jack Rabbits, and several of them are luxury editions.”

Having spent almost a decade at Apple on the worldwide product marketing team, Dunham says she learned a few things about what makes a brand and product successful — and it boils down to passion.

“When you are passionate about the products you design and sell, it will show in the overall experience of the end-customer. Whether it’s the materials you use, the details of the design, the usability of the product or even the ‘out of the box’ experience — it comes together to create a special ‘brand’ experience. Having said that, there is a market for both segments, obviously...it’s like the difference between your run-of-the-mill phone and an iPhone or other high quality smartphones. Some people just don’t factor in quality/brand into their buying decisions — but then again, there are people who do … and those are the customers we are targeting.”

So when it comes to premium products, what defines the space? Alain Elmaleh, general manager of Nobu toys/Bodispa Wellness Products Inc., defines the luxury toy space as a smaller space inside the better boutiques — not the typical bookstores that carry a few toys. The spaces are typically marked by differences in the lighting, displays and backgrounds, the products encompassing high-quality vibrating and non-vibrating products for men and women that are visibly different in many ways from regular adult toys.

“What separates it from the regular novelty market is the way they are packaged (no vulgar pics of naked men or women on the packaging), the use of better packing materials for the boxes, the way they are marketed and advertised (ads are as nice as mainstream ads for cosmetics and fashion) and also the price difference can be quite substantial when compared to regular toys,” he says. “It’s hard to talk about a specific price that divides the two categories because it depends on the toys themselves, but as an example it’s not uncommon to see a $150 toy in the high-end toys as opposed to $20–50 for average prices of regular toys.”

He adds that the customer base is usually composed of a bigger ratio of women versus men compared to the market for cheaper “regular” toys, and the clientele tends to be more sophisticated — more professional and career oriented. What used to be a very small segment reserved to a couple of companies (such as Lelo) has seen two dozen or so more companies specializing in strictly high-end products. Elmaleh sees this trend increasing for a few years before stabilizing — and maybe even consolidating when the luxury market reaches maturity.

Designer and businesswoman Shiri Zinn describes herself as a conceptual designer that centers her work on modern-day perceptions of eroticism and empowerment, her work representing a “dynamic fusion of art, jewelry, fashion accessory and product design.” She says the space is not truly defined by price, and the type of client is a natural result — not in fact the definition of a high-end product.

“Why copy? It’s always better to offer something different if you’re a designer worth your salt,” says Zinn, who adds that she was “the first designer worldwide to pioneer the concept of ‘designer sex toys’ and got press as early as 1998 by selling them at 1000 a piece.”

Zinn stresses that it boils down to the caliber of the actual designer — adding that she studied design, art and fashion for 10 years and earned three degrees before designing a single sex toy.

“All other product designs such as cars, vacuum cleaners, jewelry, fashion, etc. have highly qualified and skilled designers to design products in their fields; the higher end, the more skilled. This is required for high-end erotic toys, too; and it’s apparent in any high-end erotic range. Basically, the entire original Lelo founder range was designed by Eric — a proper, serious designer who studied in his field.”

Dunham notes that their new Lovelife line of massagers are priced to hit a sweet spot in the market that they feel is missing — most of the products in this line are well below the $100 price point and come with a one-year warranty, but they’re also expertly designed with the help of Mathieu Pung — their industrial designer who currently lives in France. Pung studied engineering and sculpture at Dartmouth College and earned a master’s in product design at the prestigious Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. His career has fused art and design, from creating sculptures with acclaimed artists Claes Oldenburg and Jeff Koons to designing consumer electronics at Ashcraft Design in Los Angeles. He was also an instructor at the Art Center College before moving to Amsterdam to design for the renowned Marcel Wanders studio (how’s that for credentials?).

Going the Extra Mile

Charley Cook of distributor of The W.P. Store, LLC notes that luxury customers know what they want — and they’ll also ask questions to be sure it’s exactly what they’re looking for. “This requires a knowledgeable and friendly floor staff, willing to go the extra mile when working with a customer.”

At We-Vibe (a world leader in designing and manufacturing high-quality, body-safe and eco-friendly intimate products), Marketing Communications Manager Denny Alexander says that they see the high-end space as being about quality, innovation, research and testing — and also about sexual health and wellness.

“When We-Vibe inventor Bruce Murison first got the idea for a couple’s vibrator and started looking at what was out there, he was surprised to find an industry full of products that were poorly designed and cheaply made of potentially toxic materials. He was determined to create a safe, high-quality, eco-friendly product that would enhance sex and intimacy for couples.”

Alexander says a variety of factors have enabled the company to create a name consumers can trust: All We-Vibe products are body-safe, made with medical-grade silicone; they’re also rechargeable, so they’re eco-friendly and convenient. They use powerful yet whisper-quiet motors, are waterproof, easy to clean and comfortable. They’re also durable and backed with a warranty. That quality is the result of extensive product research and testing with consumers, retailers, sexologists, relationship counselors, OB/GYNs and sexuality researchers. “That’s a significant difference that separates us from manufacturers of lower-quality products. Over the years, we’ve also collected feedback from thousands of women and men, so we can continue to stay on the leading edge of providing high-quality sexual health and wellness products.”

Imboden says that premium products are distinguished by the enhanced experience they offer — one often stemming from an emphasis on quality, performance and meaningful innovation. In many cases, he says, these attributes come with a higher price point as achieving them demands greater research and development; investment in materials and workmanship; and overall attention to detail. But the price isn’t what makes a product “premium” or “luxury.”

As he noted at XBIZ 360 in January, Imboden sees that as the consumer continues to become better educated, more experienced and more outspoken about sexuality, there will be an ever-increasing pressure on the industry to deliver progressively higher quality products into the market. Accompanying this, he says the industry will see more meaningful innovation (“Innovations that deliver a better experience will steamroll those that don’t; some of these innovations will come from within the industry, but an increasing number will come from the outside”); the entrance of more major mainstream corporations like Reckitt Benckiser and Church & Dwight; increased competition and litigation; and increased accountability. “It will take time, but eventually the ‘for novelty use only’ segment will all but disappear as companies are held to a higher standard by customers, consumer advocacy groups and, inevitably, government regulators.”

Mature Products, Mature Customers

Rimba (a European manufacturer of leather and rubber lingerie along with BDSM and electro sex products) and Sylvie Monthulé (a line of non-piercing erotic body jewelry based in Paris) have been in the luxury adult product market for over 40 and 15 years, respectively. As the North American distributor for both companies, Cook has found that their retail customers aren’t just looking to spend more money — they want quality and service. He says the typical retail customer for their products is in their late 40s to late 50s — financially stable, and happy to pay for what they want.

“As they know what they want, they are also more confident and are open to admit it or discuss it with a salesperson. This is where we see the separation from a younger, ‘not so sure what I want, but let’s try it if it’s not too expensive’ market. As a result, the typical Rimba leather and gear customer or Sylvie Monthulé erotic jewelry customer is looking to keep their leather or jewelry item for years and wants quality or luxury that will last. As a result, they are happy to pay $200 or more for an item. We see that price point as a separating line.”

Cook notes that their market stretches down to those in their mid to late 30s. “The evolution we see is the slow but sure societal acceptance of sex in North America. Since we distribute European adult products in North America, we often have a chance to discuss this with our European partners. They are always amazed at how shy Americans remain when it comes to dealing with nudity and their sexuality. Slowly, the North American market is becoming more open.”

And it’s becoming more open together. Alexander says that We-Vibe has helped develop the sexual health and wellness industry by offering a non-intimidating product that enhances sex and intimacy for couples. Since We-Vibe was first launched, Alexander notes they have seen more and more manufacturers entering the high-end/luxury segment of the market.

“We’re finding that more sex therapists and relationship counselors are encouraging their patients to use a vibrator with their partner to help revitalize their sex life and their relationship. Couples vibrators can help them get more from intercourse, build intimacy and open lines of communication that lead to new sensual discoveries. That’s why influential experts are recommending We-Vibe products, and why major mainstream media outlets regularly feature We-Vibe products. This brings new customers — women and couples — into adult stores.”

Alexander stresses that their marketing campaigns emphasize education and information to improve the user’s sex life. Their world-class engineers and industrial designers work closely with sexual wellness experts, the medical community and consumers to design and develop intimate products that enhance people’s lives. “We want to tell that to women and couples, and to normalize the use of vibrators in a relationship. This keeps new customers coming in the door.”

As part of their mission to emphasize education, the company released “The We-Book of Delights,” a free, 56-page guide to discovering new kinds of pleasure by exploring products, positions and games (“It’s a high-end merchandising piece for a high-end product.”). With the launch of We-Vibe 4, the booklet is being released in seven more languages (Czech, French, Dutch, German, Polish, Russian and Spanish).

“We see the market for sexual health and sexual wellness products becoming less taboo, with more high-profile endorsements driving a wider base of customers who are seeking out products to enhance their sexual experiences,” Alexander said. “We also see specialty adult and high-end lingerie boutiques growing stronger and more successful as consumers feel comfortable about finding out about how high-quality products like the We-Vibe family of products can enhance their sex lives.”

Suki Dunham also notes that she has strived to make their products more accessible and relatable at OhMiBod and Bedroom Kandi, injecting her own personal story into the products — thus helping to support what defines a “luxury” brand.

“Brian and I have been together for 26 years...and have shared a lot of things together,” Dunham said. “The collection of the Lovelife line expresses not only the kinds of toys we enjoy using together, but also reflects the things that we believe make relationships successful. This was communicated through the naming convention we took for this line. For example, the product names are Adventure, Share, Smile, Cuddle, Dream, Discover and so on. These are all things that we ‘do’ together as a couple, and things that we feel have helped us maintain a healthy long-term relationship together.”

Colvin adds that her goal for California Exotic Novelties from day one was to market sex toys and novelties differently. To appeal to women and couples, she says, it’s important that the packaging and supporting advertising is geared to them.

“Art that sells is our objective,” Colvin says. “We recently brought in an in-house creative expert, Joe Tuzzolino, to help as we create graphics, signage and advertisements that are similar to those found in high-fashion magazines.

“Take a look at the cheeky Posh campaign, or the carnal sexiness of Body & Soul, for example. These collections zero-in on what the consumer craves deep down inside. They are not only appealing, they are surprising. Entice, Scandal, Jack Rabbits, Kisses and more are all collections with planned marketing strategies and brand identities that are an obvious departure from how toys were marketed even just a few years ago.”

Over at sister company JOPEN, Robin Stewart says the marketing approach includes an attitude about maintaining the brand’s integrity above all else. “One of the core functions of my job as brand manager is to ensure that the manufacturer’s suggested retail price is honored by official JOPEN retailers. To sully a brand by offering its products as loss leaders and undercut others to maintain an unhealthy competitive edge degrades the brand.”

Just under three years old, JOPEN has grown, evolved and responded to the market in many ways. “Our keen research and development people stay in-tune with market trends and the needs of consumers. Doing so helps us respond to changes such as demands for the best functions, most opulent designs and newest innovations. Keeping up with consumer preferences and desires is how we — and the luxury market as a whole — evolves and expands.”

The Shape of Things to Come

When it comes to high-end adult toys, Colvin brings up the importance of the “S” word: “Silicone, which is the Rolls Royce of sex-toy materials, is synonymous with luxury pleasure products,” Colvin said. “Over 90 percent of all high-end toys on the market are made with silicone. Understanding how vital it is to deliver only the best, CalExotics uses the highest quality, body-safe, 100-percent pure silicone. Over recent years, I have personally worked closely with our silicone factories to not only ensure the quality of CalExotics’ Silicone, but to find the most cost-effective manufacturing methods, thereby making it more affordable so we can bring luxury pleasure toys to a wider audience.”

She notes that their new Embrace Collection is a good example of how the company is making luxury obtainable. “The silky-soft silicone is so lavish, you can’t help but want to hold it against your skin. Each product is innovative in design, function and its features, making the collection as opulent as pricier lines, but more affordable so more people can experience fine pleasure products.”

Also trending is their new sophisticated fetish products in the Scandal label; the new light BDSM collection is selling well and garnering strong reviews. At JOPEN, Stewart notes that people love USB chargers — so that’s what they’re giving them in a variety of their vibrators’ charging cords. “This makes the product more environmentally friendly as it doesn’t require batteries, plus it’s easy to charge since many people can plug it into a computer or USB hub. It also makes it fast — all of our total charge times are less than four hours.”

As for the future? That might not be as simple to solve. Colvin says that as the leader in innovation, CalExotics is constantly looking ahead to not only predict what will be popular in the future, but to be the catalyst for what will be popular. “As we lead the way we are consistently developing better motors, stronger batteries, more user-friendly controls, unique features, and more,” she says. “Some interesting things we’re keeping our eyes on range from developments in 3D printing technology to integrated celebrity partnerships, and from the latest advances in silicone manufacturing to cutting-edge online marketing and PR approaches.”

Stewart says that JOPEN keeps an eye on the world of fashion and technology for possible trends: “It is the intersection of these two fields that hold the most promise for us, and the entire luxury market, in the future. Everything from the most popular colors of the season, to the latest in tech gadgetry, is influencing the sex toys of tomorrow.”

Fashion is also on the mind at German-based OVO, which prides itself on infusing the Berlin essence into its line of products (each backed with a 15-year warranty), combining advanced technology and engineering with fashion, design and attention to detail. Dana DiValli, account executive for OVO North America, says that the company draws in a consumer base with an appreciation for elegant messaging; sophisticated, simple packaging; and a superior quality product.

“More and more women are opening up about sex and self-pleasure, and today’s consumer values design in a way they had not before. Discreet sizes, sleek shapes, elegant colors and powerful, various power settings are gaining popularity in the lifestyle products market,” DiValli says. “I definitely see trends of sculptural, artistic pleasure products continuing to be a big draw in the future. Also, the use of sustainable, eco-friendly materials like glass and metals will remain on the mind of the socially conscious consumer.”

Alain Elmaleh says that trends he has noticed include ultra-modern shapes of vibrators with different vibrating programs and intensities — more and more rechargeable and less battery operated — in sophisticated silicones and other ultra-soft synthetic materials. He also sees a big trend in men’s toys — not just for gay men, but “regular” guys who want to explore prostate toys and similar items that were once popular only in the gay market. Also trending is soft bondage and fetish items for the mainstream clientele — not just for the hardcore bondage and sado maso lovers (thank you, “Fifty Shades of Grey”!).

Elmaleh foresees a quality and creativity increase in all the various categories of this high-end industry; as it becomes more competitive, it will force the serious companies to come up with better quality, better functions, better materials and high-tech features that consumers haven’t seen before in toys. The company’s brand new high-tech, high-end Nobu line — with temperature sensors, sound activation or touch activation, combined with outstanding design and quality, all rechargeable with lithium ion batteries — are doing well.

For their demographics at Rimba, Cook sees a continued move away from mass-appeal products towards specialty, “fetish specific” products. “If someone truly loves the labia, we have a wide variety of jewelry to adorn and accommodate them; the same for the clitoris, nipples, scrotum or penis shaft. Trends that haven’t changed much for thousands of years! It’s just a question of how acceptable the adorning is to society, and that seems to be slowly more acceptable in North America.”

Also popular is the Sylvie Monthulé nipple jewelry, with more than 100 different pieces that adorn the nipples, breasts, waist and neck. “It’s absolutely beautiful jewelry. She even offers matching bracelets, ankle chains, waist chains and G-strings for a complete themed look.”

At Jimmyjane, Ethan Imboden says that each product in their collection plays a distinct role for the consumer and the brand — and together they create a continuum for connection and pleasure. “Our Afterglow Natural Massage Oil Candles and Contour Ceramic Massage Stones have always been a mainstay in this continuum — they engage all the senses, and bridge from mood-setting to foreplay, and then beyond.”

Alexander says the We-Vibe 4 is generating a real buzz (pun intended) as a great panty vibe. “Our solo line of products also sells well, partly thanks to the We-Vibe brand promise. Tango by We-Vibe and Touch by We-Vibe are both incredibly powerful, yet quiet, vibrators.”

Dunham doesn’t see specific trends emerging in terms of product design, but she does see a significant interest in connectivity. “We launched an app to control our toys a couple of years ago, and that’s been really fun and interesting to hear end-customer feedback. Couples really enjoy the interactivity, whether it’s being connected via their own playlist when using our music vibes or handing the remote to their partner to control our Club Vibe 2.OH. Connectivity seems to strike a chord among couples who enjoy toys together.”

Michael Topolovac, CEO of San Francisco based Crave — which designs and sells vibrators and jewelry — is an entrepreneur and renowned underwater photographer with a degree in product design from Stanford. He says that we are at the beginning of an amazing market transformation.

“As the category goes from ‘novelty’ to ‘modern’ and from ‘stigma’ to ‘mainstream,’ the entire landscape will be remade,” Topolovac says. “There will be many new players, some of the old players will evolve, and I suspect many more won’t. One of the areas that will be interesting to watch is how the global supply chain plays into the future.

“I think so much of why the majority of toys have had a similar novelty aesthetic is because they are made in the same — or virtually the same — factories in China. So you get a lot of variations on them — very similar toys, with slight changes in packaging; silicone over plastic shells, etc. As this category goes more modern, I think you will see both where and how these products get made change. This is actually one of the key reasons we have kept all design, development and final production in the United States. It enables us to bring products to market that we don’t think would be possible with most of the supply chain in China currently making toys.”