While Fifty Shades of Grey may have popularized sex toys among broader audiences, the adult novelty industry – which hit $15 billion last year – was far from struggling before the franchise came out.
And the business keeps growing, with expectations of reaching $52 billion by 2020, projects business site TheStreet. But despite its success, the industry has its fair share of marketing and communications challenges.
"It’s the nature of the beast, essentially," says Adam Lewis, Hot Octopuss cofounder and designer of Pulse, a male vibrator, or "guybrator."
"In the end, we’re talking about a sexual aid product, and some publications won’t go anywhere near it," he explains.
On the traditional and digital advertising side, sex toys also have many restrictions, one reason social media is a vital outreach element. Even though companies such as Hot Octopuss are not allowed to promote any content on Facebook and have to be careful with Google AdWords, Lewis says digital campaigns have been really successful for the brand.
Last summer, Hot Octopuss launched its most successful campaign, which allowed consumers to apply for the spoof job of male sex toy tester. Within 24 hours, the microsite received more than 2,000 applicants from all over the world.
Twitter has proved to be a more effective means of getting traction with fans than Facebook, says Lewis. The brand’s Pulse product has nearly 2,400 followers
on Twitter, compared to just less than 400 on Facebook.
Since "people aren’t very comfortable following a vibrator company" on Facebook because of their friends and family members on the social network, sex toy brand We-Vibe relies 100% on earned and organic outreach, says Denny Alexander, marketing communications manager at We-Vibe parent Standard Innovation.
In the last year, We-Vibe has been working "to engage people in a way that they can feel more comfortable with," he adds, which is why the brand has been pushing out original content on its Tumblr page, The Nightstand.
We-Vibe, which debuted in 2008, uses a voice of authority in its content, emphasizing sexual health, wellness, and passion. Alexander says the brand, with the help of PR agency M Booth, centers its messaging on lifestyle, figuring out how to fit into consumers’ lives through avenues such as travel, music, art, and fitness.
Getting mainstream media attention for an adult novelty company is no easy feat, he notes, but with its turn toward lifestyle, We-Vibe has noticed an uptick in coverage. The brand was for the first time mentioned in a Vogue article last October and broke into art and design publications, including DesignTAXI, PSFK, and Cool Hunting along with tech outlets Gizmodo, Techly, and Engadget.
While the more serious route has its perks, Alexander says some consumers want a more "fun and playful" tone. One of the ways the brand tried to meet this need was by partnering with the Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB) on a comedy show during SXSW last March. We-Vibe also sponsored shows in New York and Los Angeles. The comedy group tweeted about We-Vibe to its 35,000 followers and posted to its Facebook followers during SXSW.
A hangout partnership with UCB Los Angeles called "Ask a We-Vibe Sexpert All Your Burning Sex Questions" garnered 509,000 impressions.
Hot Octopuss, on the other hand, puts humor at the heart of all its fan engagement efforts.
"This is something we learned from our mistakes," notes Lewis. "We found that the humorous or lighthearted content tend to be spread a lot quicker and a lot more successfully."
When the brand launched its Pulse II collection in February, it revealed a campaign called Sex Not Stigma, highlighting the benefits of the couples’ Pulse II Duo toy for people across all walks of life, including the elderly and disabled. Most publications passed over the initiative, which took a more serious approach to sex and its health benefits.
Even though the company spent more money than it usually does on the production of the #SexNotStigma video, it wound up being less popular among consumers and media than its funnier pieces of content. #SexNotStigma received roughly 5,000 views on YouTube, compared to more than 50,000 views for the Evolution of Masturbation video that introduced the "guybrator" as a revolutionary product by comparing it to tools used in the past, such as socks and vacuum cleaners.
In addition to humor, pop culture is often a key element in promoting sex toys, says Lisa Lawless, founder of Sex Toy Consulting and Holistic Wisdom, a company that offers sexual health education and products.
Lawless, who also established the National Association for the Advancement of Science & Art in Sexuality, says traffic to and purchases from Holistic Wisdom got much heavier after Fifty Shades of Grey came out. The site, which is generally more education- and health-oriented, began receiving requests for bondage, discipline, and sadomasochism products on the site.
The movie, which "is on the darker side of sexuality," even opened new advertising doors for Holistic Wisdom, she explains.
"When we did some Fifty Shades banners and promotions, all of the companies and blogs who had rejected us before were now allowing us to advertise, which was interesting because we were so much tamer before that," Lawless notes.
She also has what she refers to as the "weirdest homework assignments" – going to the movies, especially sexually relevant ones like Magic Mike to look out for interesting trends.
"Content is so important, and you never know when something is going to take
off," she explains.
This summer, Hot Octopuss, with help from PR agency Manifest, decided to insert itself into pop culture using the launch of the film Terminator Genisys. The brand created a movie poster for its rendition – Sperminator – and mailed the film’s star, Arnold Schwarzenegger, his own Pulse II.
In addition to pop culture, Lawless says she’s noticed sex toy companies putting more emphasis on healthier, higher-quality products.
"[The products] all used to be cheap," she notes, "but women and couples want quality."
Many sex toys have shifted from plastic to glass, continues Lawless, and technological advancements have led to items that can mimic thrusting and others that charge through a USB rather than batteries.
At We-Vibe, the brand often tries to reach men through its messaging around technology, says Alexander. Among men, one very popular feature of the app-compatible We-Vibe 4 Plus vibrator, he explains, is that it allows couples to control their partners’ vibration from anywhere in the world via their smartphones.
For generations, sex toys have been mainly perceived as women’s products, so it may seem like a challenge to target men with their own items, but Lewis says "absolutely not."
"It’s easier to market these products to males because we’re offering something unique," he explains.
Shades of Play Online
Mainstream retailers offer the lion’s share of adult novelties online
Fifty Shades of Grey Yours and Mine Adult Vibrating Love Ring, $10.19
Vibratex Rabbit Habit Original Deluxe Personal Massager, $79.99
Minna Life Smart Couples Limon Massager, $119.00 (looks just like a lemon)
California Exotic Novelties Jessica Drake’s "My Wicked" Bunny Teaser, $25.99
Hott Products Tongue Dinger Vibrating Tongue Ring, $4.99
The Screaming O Big O Vibrating Ring, $12.99
O Yes Mighty Bullet Mini-Massager, $5.64
Quest Vibrator Personal Massager – Doris, $69.99 (other names include Shelly and Tina)
Trojan Vibrations Hot Spot Vibrating Ring
Doc Johnson So PUMPed Penis Pump with Pleasure Nodule Sleeve, $14.99
Wonderland the Kinky Kat Pink, $21.99
Big Teaze Toys Man Eaters from Outer Space, $29.99