The Relativity of Selling Adult Products On Distant Shores

Alexander Poe

If you’ve ever traveled abroad, you know how adventurous and exhilarating it can be. You’re experiencing different, unique cultures; great food; beautiful, awe-inspiring, and, in some cases, legendary/historic sites.

But it can also be, well, ‘challenging,’ to say the least. The language differences can be fun but also, if push comes to shove, somewhat of a face-hitting-the-wall situation if you’re in a jam and can’t speak the local jive. (Thankfully for us, many countries do speak English as a second language.) Naturally, certain customs are markedly different, too. For instance, a simple, innocent act like scratching one’s throat might unintentionally insult a local. Also, certain foods that are fine to the natives (including something as simple as water), might actually land you in the hospital. And, in turn, the medical care may be sorely inferior to what you’re used to.

Our marketing is also designed to maintain that German/European look and feel, which is clearly a departure from the traditional American approach. -Dana Divalli

So, yes, there are most certainly ups and downs to traveling abroad.

That stated, can you imagine what it’s like conducting a bona fide BUSINESS abroad? Sure it can be provocative and profitable. But it, again, can have its drawbacks, which is really just a euphemism here for ‘headaches.’

Understand, as well, that it’s a two-way street—that is, business, like most things in life, is purely relative. Just as difficult as it may be to function as an American business overseas, so can it be just as rough being a business outside of the U.S. doing business elsewhere… and that includes setting up shop right here in the US of A.

Thus, keeping the absolute relativity of business in mind, we discussed the pros and cons with pleasure product manufacturers — both domestic (in America) and foreign — in terms of running subsidiaries companies and/or selling their products in countries other than (and in addition to) their own.

Now, just in terms of the products, standards themselves can be extraordinarily different when selling pleasure products abroad—again, be the ‘foreign’ market in Europe, Asia, or North America. As examples, standard electrical voltage differs from nation to nation, meaning that the item’s plug must adapt to the country’s actual electrical outlet. Paper sizes may be different, so you may need to utilize the local printers. And, aside from the language itself possibly being alien, measurement systems (metric, feet) may be dissimilar, causing you to further modify your product for sale on foreign sands.

“Doing business outside of Europe is very exciting for us and much of the time very fruitful,” says Executive Vice President Bianca Kuennecke of Joy Division products, headquartered in Hanover, Germany. “However, international business is not always a bed of roses, and it takes time and preparation to break into new markets. From our perspective being aware of and sensitive to cultural differences is a major factor for success in every market.

“For that reason, in-depth research and understanding of the U.S. market was critical for us before we even launched (abroad): to know the legal framework, economics, the local competition, as well as consumer needs and demands. Having our own subsidiary was also crucial to penetrate the market, because local service and distribution is not just expected, but necessary.”

Naturally, pricing must also be extremely competitive on the international market, especially during these lousy economic times, when most consumers are, understandably, looking for a good deal.

Sunny Rodgers, marketing manager for Doc Johnson—whose headquarters is in North Hollywood, California — tells us that the competition is very stiff and, in some cases, a bit “tricky” when it comes to pricing their vibes, dildoes, and other toys on the international market.

“…Unlike most pleasure product manufacturers who outsource their labor,” says Rodgers, “we can’t ship our products directly to overseas customers from China — which is cheaper due to its location and low shipping costs. So we have to compensate our price structure to make products affordable for European market, while still maintaining the highest quality of American-made products. Still, there will always be a demand for our products overseas because people understand that American products come with high-standards and regulations.”

There can also be a plethora of red tape when doing business internationally, including the potentially convoluted nature of certifications and registration, which is what the folks at Wicked—located in Canoga Park, California—ran into when extending their Wicked Sensual Care Collection of lubricants overseas. But now that they have the CE mark on their products, they’ve overcome a big technical hump. (Note CE stands for “Conformité Européenne,” meaning “European Conformity,” a mandatory marking for certain products sold within the “European Economic Area” which is the manufacturer’s declaration that the product meets the requirements of the applicable EC directive.)

“The Wicked Sensual Care Collection first launched in August 2012 in the United States,” says Cassie Pendleton, marketing director of Wicked Sensual Care. “And with our exciting and steady success in the USA, breaking into international markets truly follows the same strategy of letting people know about our brand, the integrity of the formulas we create, and showing them how we can become a partner in their businesses.

“Now that Wicked Sensual Care is newly CE certified, we’re excited to now be able to make a push in the European market with our brand of intimate lubricants.”

Companies must also be flexible in terms of their marketing strategies when selling on the international market, especially when taking a country’s cultural standards into consideration.

“The sales and marketing approach in the U.S. is slightly different than in Europe,” notes Joy Division’s Bianca Kuennecke. “Proven methods and strategies in Europe cannot just easily be transferred or syndicated. The current challenge is primarily to build brand awareness. Introducing a well-known and (20 years) established brand from Europe into a new market can be quite challenging, because you cannot just simply expect to have the same perception or demand in a different country.

“Even if those regions are quite comparable,” Kuennecke continues, “you will already find differences there. Advertisement in Europe tends to have a sexual orientation. In Europe, you may see nudity in afternoon commercials already. (But on the flipside) did you know that in Germany we do not really have billboards along our highways?”

Ray Hayes, commercial director of Lovehoney, doesn’t find a large jump in promoting their sex toys in areas outside of their headquarters in Bath, England.

“We don’t have a different marketing technique based on the country of manufacture,” Hayes points out. “For Lovehoney, marketing is all about working with the distributors and supporting their programs. It’s important to listen to your distributors and retailers, and have a good quality product. The launch of the new Fifty Shades of Grey Bondage items have been well received as a result of the quality, range count, pricing, and uniqueness. This is certainly the case with ROCKBOX 2 and ROCKBOX Finger, as well. Again, it’s key to listen to the retailer and be innovative in your product development.”

Sunny Rodgers of Doc Johnson believes that the “Made in America” stamp, per se, is a very strong inducement for foreign markets to purchase their products.

“As far as marketing, we try to educate international consumers on the benefits of American-made products as often as possible,” Rodgers points out. “We have stringent regulations in the U.S. to ensure our products meet the highest-standards available. For example, our Platinum Premium Silicone products —made in North Hollywood, California — are made with medical-grade silicone which is the highest-grade silicone available in the pleasure product market. Because we are subject to such stringent regulations, people can trust that our claims are always true.”

OVO Lifestyle Toys is in a somewhat fascinating position in terms of being a U.S. pleasure products company that bought and is now managing a Berlin-based pleasure products company; thus, OVO Lifestyle Toys has started from the outside (Europe) and, consequently, is now moving to the inside (the U.S. and beyond).

“As our products are German designed and engineered,” says the company’s Global Account Manager Dana DiValli, “OVO Lifestyle Toys stand out as truly unique in the global pleasure products market. Everything from the sculptural, ergonomically designed molds to the precision of the function and power controls are a big draw for consumers worldwide. Our marketing is also designed to maintain that German/European look and feel, which is clearly a departure from the traditional American approach.”

Alexander Giebel, the CEO and founder of the Pjur Group — based in Wasserbillig, Luxembourg, and selling their popular lubricants worldwide — fervently believes that one of the best forms of promotion can, in fact, be none other than the consumer.

“Word-of-mouth marketing is becoming more and more important,” Giebel asserts, “especially online. Customers who like a product spread the word and provide some of the best advertising for a manufacturer.”

But getting down to brass tacks—or rather, cylindrical toys and attractively packaged gels—what actual pleasure products seem to sell the best on the international market? According to the manufacturers themselves, sometimes there is a pattern. But frequently there isn’t.

“Our Bettie Page range is hugely popular in America because Bettie is a recognized and adored icon in the US: People want to own a piece of Bettie,” notes Lovehoney’s Ray Hayes, “while The Fifty Shades of Grey products are huge all over the world, thanks to the massive success of the books making it a household name.

“But we’ve seen that product popularity is more about category than location. For example our Swoon range is made up of good quality, pharmacy-friendly products that are just as popular with pharmacies in Australia as they are in the U.K.”

According to Joy Division’s Bianca Kuennecke, it can be the most superficial part of a vibe or dildo that makes it a popular item.

“Color preferences themselves differ from country to country,” Kuennecke cites. “Examples of our globally successful products are the Joyballs and the lubricants AQUAglide and BIOglide.”

It can also be just a title or name in itself which may successfully move a product.

“Bisous we’ve found to be a most popular product in France,” says Chloe Pearce, sales and operations manager of London-based Nexus, “and I think we can safely say that this is down to the French name and stylish packaging. REVO is by far our best-selling toy and is extremely popular worldwide. With regards to the U.S., the G Play range and O sell very well at present, but I think that will change in 2016 when the entire range is available.”

And what exact countries are showing the fastest market expansion in terms of pleasure-product sales this year? The answer from the mouths of many pleasure product manufacturers seems to point directly to the East. More specifically, Asia is absolutely displaying the most intense consumer growth.


“The rapid growth of the Asian market in all branches of industry has boosted the percentage share of the consuming middle class,” Pjur Group’s Alexander Giebel insists. “Rising standards of living and prosperity lead to an increasing desire for individualization, self-realization, and a high quality of life. This applies in particular to sexuality and partnership, a process that is promoted through the sustained opening and liberalization of society. And this is one of the reasons why our products are doing so well in Asia.

“We particularly expect that our new Serums this year will be successful because we see that premature ejaculation and erectile dysfunction are hot topics in Asia, and many customers are specifically looking for products that are more natural rather than pharmaceuticals.” Nexus’s Chloe Pearce is in full agreement with Giebel.

“Asia is by far our biggest growth area,” she asserts. “I also think they’ve always been very open to prostate massage from a health angle, as well as a sexual angle. And in recent years, they’ve begun to really crave quality brands outside of Asia. Therefore, Nexus ticks all the boxes.”

Joy Division’s Bianca Kuennecke concurs with Giebel and Pearce—but to a lesser extent; instead, pointing more towards the West. “Yes, we’re experiencing a lot of growth in Asia, primarily in India. However, the U.S. is, nonetheless, the largest and most stable market in the world, which is why we focus a lot of our energy into it at the moment. You’ll always have extremely fast-growing markets, but not as many consistent ones such as the U.S.”

Wicked Sensual Care’s Cassie Pendleton sees an expansion of the market in the West, but just as equally to the furthest side of the globe (from their location in sunny Southern California, that is).

“We’re seeing exciting growth in Canada and (as far as) Australia; growth attributed to the work we’ve been able to do there with our distributors and retailers through product knowledge and brand support. These elements make all of the difference.”

And what of the overall miserable state of the world economy? Are people from all points of the globe able to burn money on such, relatively non-essential, recreational products as sex toys and novelties? More frankly, what’s more important, filling your mouth with food or your pussy with a vibrator?

“The pleasure industry is significantly outperforming the rather sickly state of the global economy,” Lovehoney’s Ray Hayes is quick to point out, “and this is a reflection of a social trend. There’s a wider acceptance of the category, largely thanks to the ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ effect. The market was given a massive boost when the books were launched, and everyone gained from it. The forthcoming film will result in another boost, on an even bigger scale. Wider acceptance of the category leads to more interest in the products and a bigger market.”

Bianca Kuennecke agrees with Hayes whole-heartedly.

“As consumers see more sex paraphernalia featured on TV and in stores like Walmart,” she says, “such items shift from taboo toward more of a social norm. Also, the industry performs statistically well when disposable income dips occur during recessions because consumers are less likely to spend on substitute entertainment, like eating out or going to the movies, but rather spend more time at home. According to (market research organization) IBISWorld, the easy and anonymous availability of adult toys through the Internet has also helped popularize the industry.”

Alexander Giebel, while in agreement, does not hesitate to note the inescapable global relativity of pleasure products.

“All in all, the number of taboo topics is fading, not only in the USA. And today, all lifestyle magazines talk about sex or eroticism and present erotic products… In the big cities, erotic shops can be found in great locations, and they have big display windows to let the world in.

“Still, some cultures are a bit more restrained than others when it comes to sexuality… That’s why it’s important what tone you choose when taking on this topic, which is one reason why we convey product information via emotional energy that reaches our customers all over the world, no matter which country they live in or what preferences they have.”

There is, however, one aspect of doing business on the international market that is NOT relative but solidly consistent from continent to continent, from country to country, from city to city.

And that’s quality.

Says Cassie Pendleton of Wicked Sensual Care: “We can only speak to our own experience, and based on the success we are having, it appears quality sells everywhere. Consumers are becoming more and more discerning about the pleasure products they purchase. Distributors and retailers are also offering a much more carefully curated assortment of products.

“At the end of the day, the product has to perform.”