Sex toy-maker Lelo's CMO talks taboos of consumer marketing

Steve Thomson, global marketing director, Lelo, tells Lindsay Stein how the company is focusing on engagement to overcome the taboo around sex toys

How do marketing and communications departments work together at Lelo?
All of the team is under one roof. We do a lot of the marketing in-house. Basically, everything is integrated; it has to be at this stage. We try to divide the team into four core groups – strategists, creatives, communicators, and analysts.

It’s not just marketing preparing a campaign and then passing it over to communications and telling them to execute it – it’s very important to have all of these groups involved from the start of the process.

Social media falls under the communications team, but everything is developed with the end goal in mind, so they’re also involved in the creative [process] to make sure we produce material that is going to sync into the channels it’s being put out on.

Has anything significant changed on the marcomms front?
The biggest change in the last couple of years is that the thinking has been much more focused on the production of content around values of the brand. This is something present in other industries, but in the adult industry sector, Lelo is unique in that it’s trying to produce campaigns that are beyond the product focus.

Can you give some examples?
We’ve run mainstream design awards called the UnDesign Awards that weren’t directly related to the production of sex toys, but more about enhancing and making people’s lifestyles better generally. In 2014, the awards were speaking to the point that technology has gone so far as to recognize the importance of real one-to-one relationships. We challenged designers to come up with and design ways to bring couples closer together, which is part of our brand’s overarching mission.

Last year, we produced a mainstream movie called Beyond the Wave, which didn’t include any sex toys, but spoke more to the value of relationships. The film was about a post-apocalyptic dystopia pondering the importance of communications, which is another example of us trying to push beyond the normal parameters of what people would expect from a company in the adult sector.

We also won a Cannes Lion in 2014 for product design, which is something we were thrilled about. It’s a testament to how far the industry has come that we can be recognized and even go up against large agencies and companies.

Other than content, how do you use PR and marketing to engage consumers?
There is still a large taboo around sex toys, so we need to find more creative ways to engage in a variety of channels, and that points to the UnDesign Awards, but also placing Lelo in different content that allows us to connect on more topics than purely sexual satisfaction, so there’s design and speaking more broadly on relationships.

How about social media?
Social media is an interesting one. We’re trying to foster a community that builds relevance and adds value to our audience’s lives. Our overall goal is to add value to healthy, vibrant relationships.

Our blog, Volonté, is a big part of that strategy. It’s the engine room for our content production and the home to all we produce.

By definition, social media spaces aren’t necessarily the areas where people feel comfortable about liking a sex toy brand. Social media also puts up barriers, such as Facebook limiting our ability to advertise or sponsor any posts, so everything we achieve has to be earned. That requires us to raise the bar in the quality of the messaging we present because we’re not going to get anything for nothing.

What other challenges do you face?
The sex toy industry has tremendous variety. All brands are clumped together in one sector and treated the same way as a result. There’s still a lot of education and development that the industry needs to push out to people to show that not all brands have the same messaging. In addition to that, there are obviously limitations in where we can place advertisements. In the brick-and-mortar context, there are limitations in what we can show in store windows.

Also, there’s the taboo that surrounds sex toys generally. A large number of consumers object to the placement of our products in CVS and Walgreens. There’s very little difference between a well-put-together product such as Lelo and the presentation of condoms and lubricant. However, there is still a very strong to-do around this product category that needs to be dispatched.

How are you overcoming that?
Lelo is one of the leaders in the sector in terms of impacting mainstream stores. We are sold across the US in Brookstone. We’re sold in Selfridges in London, which is the world’s biggest department store, and in Dolce & Gabbana in Milan.

We are also sold in CVS and Walgreens online, so there are definitely signs of Lelo’s appeal transcending the category. We want to build on that. It’s great that these forward-thinking retailers stock Lelo. It helps us get the message out.

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