Designing the future of sex toys
Explaining my job to newly met people has never been simple, but since I was propelled in the sex bloggers Olympus it has become even harder. One frequent remark is for example: «So you’re one of those dildo reviewers!», which I find rather unnerving as the sex toys I post about here are mostly of the unspeakably clueless variety, just to have a laugh at them. Fact is, beside not having the right anatomy to test most of them, I just couldn’t find anything much interesting to write about most vibrators apart from the basic ‘It whirrs, it buzzes, the only way to know whether you’ll like it is really to try it in person’.
A few days ago however I was interviewed for Volonté, the online magazine by Swedish sex toys giant Lelo, and I was reminded of their seriously innovative products and their offbeat marketing campaigns. «That is something actually worth investigating» I thought, so I got in touch with the people behind the toys.
My host was chief marketing officer Steve Thomson, who ended up answering questions on a lot of arcane aspects of the adult industry.
Using technology to overcome prejudice (and advertising restrictions)
Ayzad – Hi Steve! First things first, could you share the basic figures about Lelo?
ST – The company was founded in Stockholm, Sweden in 2003. The city was a hub of creativity at the time, and three engineers and designers – Filip Sedic, Eric Kalen and Carl Magnusson – met to discuss an idea: a luxury pleasure product for the woman who has it all. Since then, Lelo has grown into an international design brand with 9 offices, 3 distribution centers and 500 employees across the world and millions of very satisfied customers.
We are now the market leader with 10 million products sold in 50+ countries as of January 2015. Our catalog currently includes 55 pleasure products and accessories, and that number continues to grow every year. Lelo has earned 33 major awards international awards, and countless more local ones.
A – What are your best selling products?
ST – The bestsellers so far in 2016 are Ina Wave, Soraya and Gigi 2. The newly released prostate massager Hugo has become one of the bestsellers too. Each of them has a devoted following on social media: word of mouth contributes to make them so consistently popular.
A – I noticed that sex toys are influenced by trends too. What’s the latest buzz (heh…) from your point of view?
ST – Yes, just like clothing or technology when it comes to sex toys there are identifiable trends and fashions. After 50 Shades was released, for two years love beads were the biggest sellers because they feature in the books. Wireless vibes became very popular very quickly, and now there’s a thirst for wand-style massagers too.
Pleasure product development is often lead by the availability of technology, and as such, there’s a trend towards smarter products with better connectivity – wireless remotes, smartphone apps, and so on. But the fastest growing segment of the adult industry right now is male pleasure products, which over the last few years have seen a massive increase in demand, in acceptance, and in quality. Last year our range of prostate massagers rivaled our women’s products in sales. The flagship Hugo was in fact the overall best seller during the Christmas period.
That confirmed that the market was ready and willing to receive high quality male sex toys, and that attitudes surrounding male pleasure have changed drastically and kept pace in the wake of the mainstreaming of women’s sex toys.
A – I am often impressed by your more original initiatives, such as the Beyond the wave campaign, which leverage technology as a hook to raise the interest of those who normally would never look at adult products. Can you tell me more about this strategy?
ST – This industry is advancing every day closer to mainstream acceptance: Lelo is leading the way through products designed to be unthreatening, beautiful, elegant. But it hasn’t been an easy journey because advertising in the adult industry is generally very restricted in most markets, so we have to constantly come up with clever and surprising ways to bring our message to mainstream audiences. In a sense it’s a welcome challenge to make people aware of us; it forces us to be creative and it’s a huge amount of fun.
That’s why we spend a lot of time working on unusual campaign ideas like the one you mentioned, where we produced a whole movie with famous actors that could only be fully experienced if the partners watched it together on their two smartphones. We are constantly trying to generate truly creative avenues to engage audiences who might be interested in our products but don’t have the opportunity to know us due to the advertising regulations in their market.
Dreaming the ideal sex toy
A – One especially interesting campaign called UnDesign Awards invited people to design their ideal sex toy. Shall we remember how it worked in detail?
ST – The contest was launched in 2013 with two categories: Fashion & Accessories, and Products & Space; the 2014 edition added Graphic, Illustration & Painting. While we specifically and deliberately didn’t want the Awards to be focused on sex toys, we left that door open to the entrants and we received some interesting pleasure product ideas as a result. But more importantly, we wanted to encourage creative-minded people to look for ways to bring people together in non-sexual ways too.
The initiative was part of the brand’s “10 Years of Pleasure” anniversary celebrations and appealed to designers and artists worldwide to present product and design concepts that revealed new possibilities for pleasure across a variety of fields. Entry-wise, we received 150 entries from 38 countries in 2013 and the stats rocketed to 500 entries from 55 countries in 2014.
A – Which trends appeared from surveying the proposals?
ST –The overall feeling was that sexual attitudes are shifting all over the world, making personal pleasure a subject more widely discussed and accepted in all progressive countries. That suggested that the pleasure industry can only get bigger and better.
The future will likely involve the same technologies as many other industries. Digital, wifi and mobile technologies will drive pleasure technology forward, offering greater connectivity for couples and exciting new ways to express their sexualities. Personal massagers can be as beautiful as the latest smartphone, and as innovative too.
A – Any especially weird/genius/clueless entries you can share?
ST – Every idea has merit, yet some are of course better than others. It’s unfair to criticize an idea because in subjects as personal as sex, everything is subjective.
Sex toy design 101
A – Talking about idea, can you walk me through the process of creating a new sex toy, from conception to market?
ST – The foundation of our design workflow actually derives from our experience in the smartphone industry, which proved invaluable at Lelo. That experience is about the intersection between the person and the technology: you have to develop an in-depth knowledge of how people relate to products, how they use them, and how they interact. It’s almost intuition now: we’ve acquired a sense of how a particular pleasure product should be shaped that goes beyond measurements and statistic.
We have a large team of in-house product designers who work with CAD, 3D modeling, clay, wood, you name it. Designing a sex toy is a process of experimentation and instinct. Every toy comes from an idea, a need identified and an opportunity to address it. It can come from anywhere and we have them all the time. We talk and sketch and we start a filtering process to see which ideas have potential. This filtering process continues until we come to a research and development phase, in which we assess the design implications and the production techniques involved.
Quite early in the process we will often already have 3D renders prepared: in many cases, thanks to having access to manufacturing facilities dedicated solely to serving Lelo, we will often have the shape sculpted and in our hands within a few days of refining the concept. It happens very fast, and sometimes we will have multiple products in development at the same time. In the two months at the end of 2014 we released 7 entirely unique products, an unprecedented rate for a luxury brand of our type. But they were all good ideas, so they all made it to market.
The starting point for a new design can change, and it can often be very surprising. Sometimes it comes from personal experience, sometimes it comes from customer feedback, and sometimes it’s simply inexplicable, like a lightning bolt of inspiration. The idea for a new pleasure product can strike anywhere and at any time. Then it’s simply a process of sharing the idea amongst the wider team and refining it.
A – Given your previous answers, I take it that technology has a big influence on the design process.
ST – Yes, technology is definitely the biggest driver of our innovation. Our latest products are really very high-tech beneath their silicone covering, including things like sound activation, digital technology and pressure sensitivity. Our SenseTouch technology for example knows how you’re using it and responds accordingly, like in the bestselling Luna Smart Bead.
A – And what about the sexology aspect of your toys? Are medical professionals involved in the design of your products?
ST – We use external consultants in the research & development and testing phases of design. Then of course all products are submitted to the various relevant health certification agencies like the FDA for external analysis.
A – How are the toys tested and refined? Any curious story from this phase?
ST – This is a closely guarded secret, but I can tell you that every pleasure product we release goes through months of testing from a large group of selected and knowledgeable testers. It’s these pioneering volunteers who help us make the final tweaks that turn a good toy into an amazing one.
A – There must be duds however. How many unproduced designs are there for each final product, and why are they scrapped? Do you ever happen to salvage and repurpose these projects?
ST – Every Lelo pleasure product is subject to countless drafts and revisions, so in that sense for every design released there could be as many as fifty variations of it rejected. And that’s just the variations that get made. Every day we will have an idea or someone will suggest something that’s so unfeasible that it will never even make it to sketch phase. And occasionally, these ideas will develop into a finished product at a time when the technology exists to make it feasible.
A – After this conversation I guess my readers and I will look at adult products from a rather different perspective. Before calling it off I really have to ask you one last question though: what will the sex toy of the future be like?
ST – We’re keen to see ourselves edging onto the mainstream and introducing ourselves to customers who might never have had the opportunity to experience our products. We’re leading the march in that respect, and will be exploring some very large-scale marketing ideas to break that ceiling. Of course, it’s likely that smartphone apps will be increasingly popular, and wifi technology too.