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From Sainsbury’s to sex toys: Lovehoney CEO on taking the bedroom brand into the boardroom

Lovehoney has seen a significant rise in sales since nationwide lockdowns went into effect.

Nine months ago, Sainsbury’s former marketing boss Sarah Warby joined Lovehoney as its first ever chief executive. Though still navigating the change from supermarket shelves to sex toys, Warby has found herself at the coalface of one sector experiencing a boom on the back of Covid-19.

Since people around the world have been asked to stay at home, the sex toy industry has seen a steady increase in sales. The Guardian reports, for example, that Adult Toy Megastore’s sales of sex toys in New Zealand have tripled during the first four weeks of the country’s lockdown. In Denmark, Colombia, Italy and Canada the story is much the same, while in the States one retailer, Tracy’s Dog, claims that as many as 57% of people it surveyed planned to make a sex toy purchase during the pandemic. In the UK, sales in the category have risen 13% according to Womaniser.

This is not a phenomenon that Warby could have anticipated when she joined Lovehoney in August 2019. A marketer by trade, she spent most of her career in the more predictable worlds of Heineken and Sainsbury’s, leaving the latter in 2018 to launch fintech brand Hyperjar in an effort to get back to what she enjoyed most – working for fast-pace, high-growth startups.

“I was more of a general manager by the time I left Sainsbury’s,” she says, speaking to The Drum prior to the lockdown. “So I got to that point of having spent most of my career saying, ‘I don’t really have that burning desire to be a CEO’. But actually, when I was approached about one, it was like, ‘yes, I do’. It felt like a very natural progression.”

Lovehoney has offered the former ad boss a brand with the ability to innovate, coupled with massive potential for international expansion. She currently manages a team of 300, predominantly operating out of the UK but with offices in Australia and the United States.

‘Fun fulfilment’

The company was founded nearly 20 year ago by DJ Neil Slateford and journalist Richard Longhurst. Amid the e-commerce boom, it quickly carved a unique place for (mainly) women to go in their search of “sexual fulfilment” at a time when the adult industry conjured images of men in macs in the dodgy bits of London’s Soho.

Though Slateford and Longhurst never intended to become champions of the female sexual experience, the site ultimately evolved to become exactly that. It sells a variety of sex toys but also houses a forum to encourage open conversation about sex and a host of detailed buyer’s guides and how-to videos aimed at giving people the confidence to experiment.

“It’s that positioning of being helpful and being about happiness,” says Warby on the “phenomenal” success it has achieved in the past few years. Sales in 2018 rose 13% and it now has over 250,000 independent customer product reviews and a forum with hundreds of thousands of contributors. In the UK alone, it serves 2 million customers and has sold over 6m products.

Since Covid-19 hit, it has remained open for business and sales continue to be “strong”, increasing year-on-year – though the retailer declines to put an exact figure on the uptick.

However, it does say that demand for products such as couple's toys is on the up – not surprising given that 80% of Lovehoney’s customers are in relationships. Sales of “quiet toys” and sex toy kits are also up.

But marketing during this time remains tricky. PR and word of mouth powered the company’s early growth. Since then it has dabbled in events, pop-up shops and even podcasting, but the bulk of its ad spend goes towards performance marketing – “more than I’d like,” says Warby – and a bit of TV, mostly post-watershed entertainment shows.

With consumption of social media on the rise since Covid-19 gripped the world, an obvious place for many retailers to invest their tightening budgets has been on platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and TikTok. But that’s not an option for Lovehoney.

“We are not blessed with the full canvas open to us,” she continues, politely describing the social platforms’ position on the advertisement of adult products on their real-estate as “interesting”. It’s evident she believes it anything but.

“I’ve got no choice other than to respect that and try to work within and around the restrictions. To me, it’s confusing that you can show certain images and not others. It feels very unfair and rather illogically skewed that it’s perfectly okay to advertise… well, I probably shouldn't point to things you can advertise. But some of the categorizations of what is and is not acceptable seem very, very odd. I would love to work with those platforms to say, ‘well, why couldn’t you show these images?’

“I would never want to sound overly politicised about this. I'm a great believer that common sense will prevail. The more of us voicing our opinion that there's something healthy and wholesome to be talked about and that female fulfilment, sexual happiness and joy is not something to be hidden away or branded a taboo, the better. The more common sense conversations we can have, the sooner we will accelerate towards a tipping point with decision makers wising up. I doubt we’re the only industry that thinks that they are a little hard done by some of the editorial choices that the platforms make. The platform users ultimately vote with their feet, and if they feel that things are being denied them or censored in a way that they don’t like, ultimately, they’ll go and find a platform that does do the job that they want it to do. It’s market forces and they will respond to that. They’re just being very slow so we need to keep pushing.”

Meanwhile, any thoughts of bolstering its marketing in the States to take advantage of the coronavirus-induced interest in sex toys comes with its own set of problems – problems that Warby, in her short tenure at the company, has learned to walk away from.

“Some [media] will run a copy, some won’t. And sometimes they’ll say, ‘we’ll run your copy if you take out all references to sex toys’. Well, we’d rather not run a copy. We’re very proud of what we do and I'm not going to pretend I'm not proud of it just to be allowed to air an advert.”

Plans post-Covid?

While the company’s media plan before, during and after coronavirus is of keen interest to Warby given her past experience, she’s quick to praise its marketing chief Helen Balmer and asserts that she has to remind herself that ”marketing is no longer in her job title” and to take a hands-off approach unless otherwise asked.

Instead, she says that as chief executive “all the clichés are true” and her time is mainly spent hoping she’s prioritising the right thing. “It sounds really simple, doesn’t it? But actually, it’s hard to do. There’s always so many things where you'd like to add a bit of value but there's something else that probably needs more focus.”

Warby describes life now as a “constant triaging of everything that comes into my brain“. It’s unlikely that the past six weeks have done much to alter that state of being. Pre-lockdown, she was already accustomed to back-to-back daily briefings for office-based employees, the same for warehouse-based colleagues, and then repeating those same updates for those in its US and Australian outposts.

“The guys have got very used to me doing a briefing, but the webcam is quite high up so they can't actually see that in my pyjamas,” she jokes – a familiar situation most executives have will have found themselves in recently.

Back in March, her priorities for the year ahead comprised a steady expansion of its services into new markets and taking a greater share of those in which it already operates. It remains to be seen if the pandemic will accelerate or decelerate those plans.

“In the more mature markets, we’re having conversations about opening up new routes to market," she said at the time. “I don’t necessarily mean our own stores, but finding other ways that people can access the brand, like selling through partners. We’re looking for much more collaboration. We recently started stocking in Boots, for example, and that’s working really well.”

Having come from traditional retail, she knows that supermarkets and other mainstream outlets will need convincing to stock sex toys. But the numbers stack up and the appeal, for them, is in the incremental revenue Lovehoney can deliver at a time when every sale though tills will help high street retailers get back on track. “Buying a vibrator doesn’t mean I won’t buy broccoli today. It’s not substitution or mental accounting. There’s a mental money pot that people will spend on our products that was never going to go to another retailer.”

The big sell into these companies is that Lovehoney is, increasingly, an “everyone brand”. From the younger cohort with no sexual inhibitions to couples and older consumers (“I got a letter from a 70 year old woman saying ‘I bought by first vibrator and you’ve changed my life’”) there is no section of society that the sex toy retailer doesn’t want to cater for.

For Warby in 2020, coronavirus or not, the mission is to show that it is leading in the pursuit of sexual happiness.

“We’re all loosening up a bit, relaxing our attitudes and welcoming the idea that a happy, healthy sex life has enormous benefits elsewhere in life. People who use sex toys have happier sex lives and people with happier sex lives have happier lives. These conclusions are not difficult for people to draw. So it’s becoming a more mainstream thing,” she says.

“There is a liberal wave in society that's great for us and Lovehoney is riding that wave because of the immense quality of the products that we make and sell.”

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