Good vibrations

By The Drum, Administrator

May 19, 2005 | 8 min read

One of the products on offer at Superdrug

I’m half an hour into the interview with John Zaheer-Flaherty, head of UK marketing at SSL International, the parent company of Durex, and already the terms ‘clitoral stimulation’, ‘vaginal dryness’, ‘G-spot stimulation’ and ‘delayed ejaculation’ have been bandied about. This is no ordinary product launch.

This week, Durex will make its most controversial bid for market share as it launches Durex Play, a range of sex enhancement products from lubricants to vibrators. The controversial element is that the products – which include a range of vibrators – are going to be test-launched in 26 of Superdrug’s Scottish high street stores.

Zaheer-Flaherty is remarkably candid when talking about his product and the reasons for launching it on the high street. “If we go right back to the beginning, the consumer insight was a lot of people feel uncomfortable having to shop for these type of products where they’re currently stocked,” he said. “You’ve got the shift in the mainstream which is that these products become acceptable, but you’ve not got the resulting shift in the mainstream where people can shop for these types of product. So we, from the beginning, wanted to get mainstream distribution as we feel the next step in this marketplace is to take them into places where women are currently shopping for their personal care products, hair products, cosmetics, perfumes, whatever, and really make it as normalised as possible.”

Before Daily Mail readers among you get your knickers twisted, restrictions on sale have already been put in place. The products themselves will be discreetly placed on in-store promotional displays, and Superdrug staff have been trained to deal with queries, concerns and, more importantly some might think, the store will not sell any of the battery-operated products to anyone under the age of 18.

“Where the marketplace is at the moment you’ve got lots of phallic symbols and you’ve got packaging where you see the product straight away, or carries images that people would find offensive,” he said. “If you take these products as you see them now, you can see if a child was to pick these up, they wouldn’t know what they were. We wanted to go completely for discretion, which is what we first felt was more appropriate, given our consumer feedback.”

The three vibrators – only one of which is intended for internal use – will retail from £45.99 to £49.99, placing them mid-range among rival brands sold in Ann Summers. Zaheer-Flaherty feels the price reflects the brand quality that is forming a big part of the launch. “The difference is, with those products [that are sold in Ann Summers], you don’t get a one-year guarantee, they’re not rechargeable, and also, from a design point of view, we developed these from a woman’s point of view all the way along,” he said. “Even down to the colour.”

The idea to launch into the competitive sex-toys market came from qualitative research in 2000, and also from the results of Durex’s annual global sex survey which showed one in three women in the UK owns a vibrator and one in two women in Scotland owns one. “We asked consumers what else they thought Durex could do,” said Zaheer-Flaherty. “We used very small sample groups. We used opinion-formers so we talked to sexologists, agony aunts, prostitutes, gay men, gay women, couples, singles, people who worked in the sex industry and we talked about what’s going on out there, what sort of attitudes are there and behaviours. We realised the market was developing at a rate of knots and people were trying new things and new products. As a result people were looking for what they always look for when looking for new things: signposts. So you’ve got people who are looking for product propositions that meet their needs. You’ve got a lot of women saying they want to use a vibrator but don’t like going into the shops that sell them, or they don’t like that they’re ten inches long and look like a penis. We started to understand there were niches in this market; there were more than niches, there were gaps. There was a real potential and opportunity for a brand to meet those needs in a way that gave them all the reassurance they got from a reputable brand.”

And the brand recognition is an integral part of the launch according to Zaheer-Flaherty. “The core of the Durex brand is trust, quality and reliability. If you draw concentric circles around that you have the more frivolous values on the outside; your pornographic imagery, things like that. Durex is in the centre and can move outwards, but other brands will find it very hard if they’ve established themselves as sex brands to become mainstream, trustworthy brands. They don’t have a reputation for quality, reliability and they haven’t ever provided you with a product that you’ve used year in, year out, as a method of contraception as we have. What we’re trying to do is ensure those qualities that Durex represents are retained and by entering this marketplace, showing people you can still have quality and reliability. It doesn’t mean they still can’t be sexy or sensual products. We decided that, as Durex, it’s incredibly important that we bring our own expertise to this area, and we do what Durex does best, which is test things, research things and ensure we find the best solution to consumer need.”

The product packaging has been designed by Seymour Powell, and involving the female consumer point of view was also important. “Right at the start of the project we said we wanted to create a product that was beautifully designed, and is designed by women for women,” he said. “The ergonomics of our products, and some of our products don’t look like vibrators, the reason for that is that we created them based on the female anatomy and feedback from consumers. We haven’t gone out to copy something already in the marketplace.”

The project started in March 2003, with Zaheer-Flaherty working on it from day one. Although the initial launch of three battery-operated products, lubricants and gift packs currently make up the entire range, other products are in development and it is expected that more will be launched in the next year. The launch was originally planned for last year, but the retailer Durex had originally partnered got cold feet and pulled out, a recurring problem that could hamper a marketing push. Already media owners are getting prudish, with one red top at the lower end of the market insisting – despite carrying a plethora of topless girls – that “they’re a family newspaper”.

“The dynamic with consumers is girls are happy to sit and talk with their friends about this sort of thing, and guys will, if women introduce the notion that they maybe would be interested in these sorts of things, then it’s not a problem,” Zaheer-Flaherty said. “It’s a big thing if you want to introduce it to a relationship yourself and you’ve got that icebreaker of ‘I’ve bought us this’, but the minute couples get together and say ‘we’ll try something’, usually they’re straight down to Ann Summers and they’re shopping around like they would do for anything else. You’ve got that shopper dynamic and the media like talking about it when it’s on editorial terms, but people don’t like it coming above ground. They don’t like the fact that a brand like Durex wants to advertise it, that’s why it’s a really difficult marketing task; you’ve got to fuel the word of mouth to get the fact out that there are better quality products available now, without necessarily being able to advertise. It’s going to be a real case of plotting this very fine campaign.”

A little known fact that Zaheer-Flaherty shares before he leaves is that vibrators are no new toy that have come about because of Sex & The City. “They’re registered as medical devices,” he said. “Women with hysteria were prescribed them by doctors in the 30s, and they would have been advertised as a relief for stress and tension in magazines like Good Housekeeping. It’s great that they’ve come full-circle. Without sounding too charitable, as far as we’re concerned we want to take better sex to the population, to the mainstream. We’re not saying to people ‘do this’ or ‘do that’ or ‘you’re crap in bed if you don’t use this’, we’re saying ‘try it’.”

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